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The New Game in Design:
Collaboration and the creation of the Xbox 360

By David Kemp

The successful launch of Microsoft's Xbox 360 game console and home-entertainment hub has a backstory that reveals an effective partnership of industrial design and branding. While influential reviewers in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other major media understood that Xbox 360 is not just a powerful new gaming machine--but also a new model for social activity and global communication centered around digital entertainment--this message is communicated literally by design: advertising, packaging, visual merchandising, and trade-show display. Of course, the product itself avoids the dark, aggressive esthetic that has long characterized gaming culture; Function, form, and an upbeat, optimistic visual vocabulary recontextualize gaming as a social activity rather than a solitary obsession of "dysfunctional teenage boys holed up in their rooms." But collaboration between all the stakeholders played a huge role in determining the success of the project.

The consultants were expected to work not only with Microsoft but with each other. This posed some challenges, as consultants sometimes weren't clear whether they were working on another firm's turf.

Michael Jager, Creative Director of Jager Di Paola Kemp Design and lead branding partner, demonstrated this difference dramatically in his first presentation to Microsoft executives when he slashed a large "X" in a piece of posterboard and pushed his head through it to demonstrate the need to invite people into the brand rather than exclude them . (The transformation of Xbox from an aggro-gamer esthetic to entertainment hub aimed at a broad audience was further represented, internally, by the transformation of the muscle-bound Hulk to the sleek fighter Bruce Lee.)

Old console design

 

Take the holistic approach
From the beginning, Microsoft understood that ID must be carried out in the context of the entire brand experience. According to Don Coyner, General Manager, Design and Planning at Microsoft, "It is critical that you really have a team of people on brand and industrial design who understand the holistic customer experience and that it isn't thought of as piecemeal. This experience might start from the retail display and continue through purchasing a product, handling the packaging, opening the box and exposing the product, removing and then turning on the product for the first time, etc. This entire experience must reflect the message the brand statement is trying to make.

To accomplish this, the Xbox team needed to develop a design culture that was physically and mentally separated from the Microsoft mainstream. Support from management all the way to Chairman Bill Gates was critical. A cross-functional team of consultants was assembled, including two lead industrial design (I.D.) firms from different parts of the globe, with the requirement that all members collaborate creatively. The goal was to create not just the "killer app," but an experience that has cultural relevance within the twenty-first-century Zeitgeist of limitless on-demand entertainment and real-time global connectivity.

Microsoft's first design challenge was restructuring the organization to create a culture with real creative vitality. In October 2003, Microsoft started organizing the effort by combining several functions into a hardware/software user-experience group, led by Coyner. This structural change would elevate the importance of design and give it a bigger role in the process. It would also help ensure much tighter integration between hardware and software. The theory was that combining the functions would result in a more holistic Xbox 360 customer experience. Despite concern voiced by some, management stood behind the change.

Elevate the meaning of your work from a project to a cause. When it's a cause, people tend to psychologically dig deeper together--as opposed to a project, where you have others who can be less driven.

 

Drop the drop ceiling
Alterations in corporate processes and procedures helped to encourage this new collaborative structure. Corporate-issue dropped ceilings and nondescript carpet were ripped out of a bland conference room to create a meeting area (nearly leading to injury when a top international executive fell backwards as his chair slid out from under him on the slick concrete floor). A dedicated workspace included shelves filled with hardware prototypes, a massive whiteboard with UI flow diagrams, and a tack surface for drawings of industrial designs, sketches of UI options, and brand elements. Now the members of the group could get to know each other by solving problems together without ever worrying about packing up.

Presentations involved cross functional teams as well as upper-level management to gain broad consensus.

To orient executives who aren't designers and help drive more productive discussions, the Xbox team arrayed seven initial console designs on a perceptual map with architectural/organic vs. mild/wild axes, using the existing Xbox design as reference. This tool ensured that the conversation was about design language and not about design preference. Because the creative process is inherently nonlinear, the team needed to provide non-designers with a way of thinking about and comparing the seven designs.

Mild to Wild matrix

 

To help create a consistent user experience from pixels to plastics, all design disciplines were coordinated as illustrated by the chart showing the console, controller, and UI converging. As the brand team ramped up, they were included as well. In hindsight, the consensus is that this should have happened at the same time as the other functions, but given the longer leadtime for industrial design, that would have been hard to achieve. All the tributaries, one by one, joined the flow: console, UI, controller, brand, packaging, trade shows, retail, and advertising.

 

Selecting the designers
I.D. firms were evaluated worldwide. The Xbox team visited firms in Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, the USA, and Japan. Ultimately they selected five teams to do exploratory first-round work: Marc Newson in Paris, Propeller in Sweden, Pioneer Design in Tokyo, Hers Experimental Design Laboratory in Osaka, and Herbst LaZar Bell in Chicago. Alan Han, from Microsoft's Hardware Design Group, also generated a contending console concept. Astro Studios of San Francisco was added to the group later (a design they developed in conjunction with Hers Experimental Design Laboratory was ultimately chosen). These firms were given preliminary engineering specs and a detailed design brief and asked to design a console that would be compelling to their region--while remaining appealing to other parts of the world. After receiving multiple concept sketches from each partner, the Xbox team chose seven very different ideas to model. Each direction, or "gesture," was built with materials and colors appropriate to the concept. For example, Sweden's Propeller focused on the idea of ice, and their console was a glowing, glossy block illuminated by a light source at the center. Hers had two interesting ideas: a very mechanistic metal box with a prominent X, and a much more subtle glossy white treatment with a billowing top that we called "pillow." The final design was one which had its genesis in Astro's iconic thin-waisted "inhale" gesture, which seemed to perfectly convey the big idea behind the brand.

Between user experience and the brand team, Microsoft worked with a dozen external consultants representing multiple disciplines--from color and materials through animation--over the course of the project. To ensure communication and cooperation, internal meetings were supplemented with a series of design summits held at various offsite locations. The goals of the summits were to achieve creative synergy and idea integration. The consultants were expected to work not only with Microsoft but with each other. This posed some challenges, as consultants sometimes weren't clear whether they were working on another firm's turf.

"An interesting outcome emerging is the meaning of 'design' itself," Jager continues. "The truly brilliant 'designers' are not specialists. They blur boundaries very, very effectively and can speak to the idea of design in a 360-degree realm successfully. This isn't to say that specialization is dead, but even as a specialist, if you can't decipher the other design dialects, you'll never achieve truly transcendent ideas."

Informal communication was critical: JDK and Microsoft people discussed the future of gaming and invented ideas for faceplate design at 3 a.m. in London's Covent Garden. Later, JDK designers--many who worked on Burton snowboard graphics--came up with over 100 unique faceplates. International execs partied into the night amidst and exhibit of memorabilia from Sex Pistols, the seminal punk band. Their epiphany: Xbox 360 was a revolutionary moment just as Johnny Rotten and his band had been music revolutionaries in their time.

Don Hall, Director of Brand Marketing for Xbox, explains: "We made a deliberate decision to avoid drawing hard 'ownership' boundaries across key functions. Team members got into each other's sandbox on a regular basis...but we did it constructively. This set the collaborative tone of the program and sent a clear signal to our external partners who responded in kind. While at times the process was messy, ultimately the overlap was not only healthy, but critical to elevating the end result. Everybody was learning and pushing each other and having fun doing it. After working together on Xbox 360, the fact that many of the players are recombining to work together again on new projects is proof that we forged something special. In the end, these collaborations paid off with ideas and twists on existing concepts that wouldn't have been developed otherwise."

Some of the Xbox 360 development team (from left, clockwise around table): Justin Kirby, Xbox brand identity and packaging; Don Coyner, General Manager, Design and Planning at Microsoft; Orlena Yeung, Xbox Global Brand Marketing Manager; Kara Fullmer, JDK Account Director; Don Hall, Xbox Director of Brand Marketing; Malcolm Buick, JDK Design Director; MIchael Jager, JDK Creative Director; Nick Constantinou and Duan Evans, AKQA (UI design); Russ Glaser, Xbox Platform Experience Group UI Design Manager; Sue Magnusson and Candice Leigh Baumgardner, O2 Studios (Principals).

 

Why is collaboration important?
Traditionally, industrial design, graphic design, user-interface design, advertising, and so on have been separate disciplines, with a product essentially being handed off from one to the other in logical sequence. However, delivering the integrated customer experience demanded today requires a more cooperative and, in many ways, more difficult approach.

Under Microsoft's direction, JDK drove design strategy and overall esthetic and then worked with specialist firms areas of industrial design, packaging, booth design, user interface, and advertising. The "ring of light" gesture shown on the faceplate above was emblematic of the optimistic, inclusive Xbox 360 brand.

Jager notes, "Training, process, and mindset have separated design disciplines for many years. However, the awareness of design, the democratization of information, and the accelerated pace of consumer demand have forced synchronization of disciplines and the sharing of understanding, learnings, process, and insights. Collectively, it's breaking down walls for those open-minded enough to get it on a new level."

"An interesting outcome emerging is the meaning of 'design' itself," Jager continues. "The truly brilliant 'designers' are not specialists. They blur boundaries very, very effectively and can speak to the idea of design in a 360-degree realm successfully. This isn't to say that specialization is dead, but even as a specialist, if you can't decipher the other design dialects, you'll never achieve truly transcendent ideas."

JDK designers created custom faceplates to allow individual expression around the Xbox 360 brand. JDK's experience in designing snowboard graphics for Burton, for example, gave it an understanding of how to best employ graphics on a three-dimensional object.

 

Touch the touch points
The Xbox 360 development process acknowledged a vastly increased level of design literacy and appreciation. (Think of mass-merchandiser Target putting design at the center of its message.) At the same time, consumers are skeptical of traditional marketing approaches; how they view a brand is dependent upon rational, emotional, and cultural connections derived from a broad array of touch points. Traditional advertising agencies are struggling to evolve from businesses that were highly skilled at use of traditional media tactics and rarely moved upstream (seldom influencing actual product design, for example).

Hall explains: "The brand discipline is changing. Getting your message out via mass-communications channels isn't enough. A thoughtfully designed, end-to-end user experience is a much more powerful expression of your brand than a sixty-second TV spot. That's why we focused so much on close collaboration between the product design and brand disciplines as we developed Xbox 360."

Adds Steve Kaneko, a Microsoft Design Director, The product experience needs to be clearly within the overall brand promise." Kaneko represents this interaction in the diagram below.

 

How can collaboration and integration be achieved?
Putting brand architecture and industrial design in the same organization is key to success. "This may be challenging for some to swallow," Coyner explains. "With Xbox, we had lots of conversations, summits, and good dialog back and forth. Trust and mutual respect are key to having it work. Do what you can do to eliminate territorialism."

The Xbox team used several approaches to try to overcome traditional corporate structure and process.

  • Team rituals such as engaging cross-functional groups in creative exercises helped to change the rhythm of the process. "Your brain needs interval training just like your body to hit new levels," Jager notes.

  • Whenever possible, the team presented together to senior management. Jager explains: "Be unified and aware even as the process develops at different rates. Learn and support each other. Elevate the meaning of your work from a project to a cause. When it's a cause, people tend to psychologically dig deeper together--as opposed to a project, where you have others who can be less driven."

  • Involve senior management in the process; bring them into the work environment. Present on your own turf, not in the boardroom. According to Hall, "The executive team was exposed first-hand to our collaborative riffing across both design and brand. The lines between client and agency, product and brand, had blurred and coalesced around a shared vision and visual language. It fundamentally changed the senior-management approval dynamic--instead of poking for holes, the execs asked how they could remove barriers for us and stay out of our way."

  • Strive to break down barriers between functional groups and to achieve common understanding. For example, make sure the product-development organization truly understands corporate strategy objectives. The branding group needs to understand product technology so they don't make promises that aren't supported by the product. Kaneko recommends, "Focus on a shared definition of the customer or user so that you don't have the individual players designing only for what makes sense in their lives." Coyner suggests scheduling summits involving both product and branding as early as possible.

  • Space matters. As he did for Xbox, Coyner advocates securing spaces that are accessible to the team and whose environment fosters collaboration, instead of using the typical sterile corporate meeting room. He adds that having the team do things together helps to build trust and an ongoing relationship. Continuing dialog even after the product is shipped is critical.

While not perfect, the collaborative process worked well to bring a product to market that arguably was the most high-profile consumer-product launch of 2005, and that quickly developed iconic status within popular culture. Great industrial design alone, without the close involvement of other disciplines, would not have made this happen.


David Kemp is Marketing Director and a principal of Jager Di Paola Kemp Design (JDK). Prior to joining JDK in 1989, he was a journalist with the Boston Globe and other publications and a public relations executive with Dow Jones & Co. He received his M.B.A. degree from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.