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Hayes’ Day Out - Talking Xbox 360 at the London Design Museum

October 11, 2005
 

Jonathan Hayes is a jovial, precise and unguarded speaker, not necessarily what conspiracy theorists might expect from someone hailing from within an institution such as Microsoft. He bounds to the front of the hall at London 's Design Museum to deliver his lecture with a disarming “Nice to meet you!” as a greeting to the audience. Jonathan is openly excited, and with good reason. The product he has been design director on has just gone into mass production, and is expected to reach millions of homes around the globe. Jonathan is design director for look of the Xbox 360, and he's here in London to share some of the process and lessons from creating the new machine.


Jonathan Hayes

With an art school background, and from a sculptural training, Hayes moved into industrial design and joined the hardware division of Microsoft in 1997. The opening of his presentation was concerned with giving some background as to how he found himself directing the design of Xbox 360, and it was a fascinating journey. Beginning from a practice based in representational painting, moving to sculptural form through photography – his wide appreciation of working across many different disciplines informs his philosophy about product design; “The most interesting work happens between disciplines. Technology needs poetry… We need to bring art to design.” Especially useful was Hayes' training in photography; “It's all about learning how light affects objects. I strongly recommend that mid-design process you do a pro-photo shoot to see how your design looks… The photography studio is a great place to get some quiet time with the thing that you're making and see how light changes it… Importantly, for a product like Xbox, it also allows you to see how it will look when it's on a billboard.”

The motto of the Microsoft hardware design team is ‘Pixels to Plastic' - it's a role that encompasses all elements of a products design, from the physical form to the user interface. Hayes has impassioned insights into the role of hardware itself and its relationship to the rest of Microsoft: “Hardware is a life support system for software… that life force, that series of ones and zeroes… hardware is there to protect that, and make sure people can get to it as easily and gracefully as possible.”

After working on force feedback joysticks and mice, Hayes was excited when the opportunity to head up the 360 team presented itself. As he remembers, “I felt I could really bring something to the project. The first Xbox said ‘We're here! We're powerful!' I wanted to build more nuance into that.” As soon as he was appointed into the job, a colleague set down one of the most important abiding criteria for the project, “Jonathan, make sure you design a console that my wife will let me bring into the house.” This turned out to be a useful benchmark.

When Hayes began on the project, five teams had already been hired. Much of this work was still based around keeping the ‘X' in the design, effectively continuing brand as product. He showed a number of these concept artworks from what he described as the ‘X marks the box' school of thought. One of the biggest early problems was how to negotiate making a decision about the design direction with the five vice-presidents of Microsoft.

The challenge, as Hayes explained, was (of course) to create a design that they would all be happy with – but also to give them a framework for being able to discuss the possibilities in terms other than “I like that one.” To that end, Hayes created a matrix of design sensibility with two axes, mild to wild on the vertical, and organic to architectural on the horizontal. This was an immense help in getting the executives to be able to articulate where they felt the new Xbox should sit aesthetically and in creating an essential shared understanding.

Hayes took seven front-runner prototypes on the road across the world, for a series of user-testing focus groups. The groups were asked general questions about color and texture, what kinds of shapes they preferred – essentially everything except: “Which one of these should be the next Xbox?” There were some consistent results that came back. Firstly, people preferred the more organic shapes, clearly signalling a move away from the original design. Secondly, people wanted a more subtle branding; this was reassuring as it shored up the executives' feeling that they could be more confident in the brand from here on.

These were great results which corroborated where the executives felt Xbox should be positioned on the ‘organic to architectural' axis, but Hayes was keen to allow for both the aforementioned ‘mild' and ‘wild' in the visual aesthetic. The obvious answer to this – customizable face plates. Xbox 360 will launch with a series of these later this year, interestingly – the face plate graphics can also be downloaded as a skin for the U.I. dashboard, completing the customization.


A selection of the early Xbox 360 designs.

Hayes went on to discuss the shift in tone from the original Xbox to 360, highlighting the quantum differences in approach the team were now taking. “The first Xbox was convex - it was full of energy that could barely be contained.” This maps back to the original brand identity, “...a slash in the ground, with mysterious dark energy coming out at you…” Hayes illustrated this with a slide of the Hulk bursting through a plate glass window toward the camera. Laughter from the audience – “That's pretty much how I felt about the original.”

Keeping with filmic references, Hayes explained that 360 wasn't about sheer muscle mass; but focused power (cue a slide of Bruce Lee). Again, he mapped this to the brand identity. “The new Xbox 360 logo is more refined, it's still a cut, but it's a cut into a world that you can see and access. It's not coming to get you, it's inviting you in.”

One of the first decisions Hayes made upon starting the project was to hire industrial design firm Astro, in San Francisco, “They were new, they were nearby, creatively in tune with us – and they were near to Flextronics, the manufacturing partner.” Hayes presents each of his collaborators individually from photographs, including one designer whose first day at work ended up also being the first day working on the new Xbox- easing him gently into his professional life. It was he who penned the pencil sketch that pretty much ended up as the final design – although the color palette he drew needed taking away from the old-style black and radioactive green. As Hayes teased him, “I love the direction – but we need a little less Shrek.”

A major issue for any hardware designer is always heat. Particularly in a console environment, running two separate chips can cause huge thermal problems. With the original Xbox, an effort was made to attempt to hide the vents. With 360, they decided to highlight them, even play in them as a feature. The concept of air being sucked in became a core facet of the design. (Most memorable image of the night probably belongs to the advertisement that Astro, the San Francisco design company placed following completion of the design. Picturing a 360 console speeding through space amidst a wisp of smoke, it amusingly refers to both a former presidents ‘confession' to marijuana use – and the design shorthand for the Xbox 360. - inhale.)

A process of iteration and development was explained in some detail by Hayes, as a detailed series of slides and prototypes were shown to the audience. The iterations were all underpinned, however, by a specific series of values that were agreed for the project:

Openness (anything can be plugged in via USB)

Clear – no complication

Consistency – across the entire design

Athletic – economy of motion – back to Bruce Lee

Mirai – “future” in Japanese

…which – helpfully spelt “Occam”, after the revered design principle.

The rest of Hayes' lecture was concerned with a design travelogue – which delighted the audience with the chance to get ‘hands-on' with rejected prototype designs. He spoke lovingly of the focus groups which were comprised of gamers themselves, which were always “the most fun”, he explained. “Gamers care passionately about the product. They feel an instinctive personal investment in moving things forward – almost like they're all manning a jack and ratcheting it up.”

With the physical form agreed upon after a series of round-the-world trips, taking in designers from San Francisco to Osaka, a final ‘style summit' was held, with color specialists to finalize the specific hue for the box. The audacious results of this are what can be seen in the finished design – ‘chill' being the color that was selected. The two-year process of development was over, and Xbox 360 went into mass production on September 7th.


Jeff Minter's Xbox 360 'Neon' visualizer.

Hayes finished his presentation with the dramatic unveiling of a working 360 console, giving a demo of the dashboard functionality (and unannounced, the Jeff Minter ‘Neon' visualizer) and inviting the audience to come and try it out. As they rush forwards, it's exciting to watch Hayes being excited by watching people play with his ‘project' for the first time, although, one suspects, his mind is already consumed by thoughts of new peripherals.

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