A new vision for Microsoft

When distressed and wildly experimental typography were all the rage, Chris Ashworth made his name as an emerging UK print designer. These days, however, he is leading the creation of the Microsoft Windows Phone brand. Patrick Burgoyne reports on his new role and its connection to the introduction of a radical new design philosophy that Microsoft is adopting across its products

To older CR readers, the name may be familiar. Chris Ashworth was a rising star of the UK graphics scene in the 90s: in fact he was profiled by CR as one of our Creative Futures in 1993. At the time, Ashworth was working at Sheffield consultancy Eg.G. He went on to MTV and then to form his own studio, Substance, with partner Neil Fletcher. The pair worked for a variety of clients (including CR for whom they created two covers).

At Substance, Ashworth worked on the launch of Blah Blah Blah, a new music and style magazine jointly published by MTV and Ray Gun publisher Marvin Scott Jarrett. The latter then invited Ashworth to art direct Ray Gun, the magazine that, under David Carson, had inspired a generation. Ashworth moved to California and worked on the magazine from January 1997 to June 1998.
Fast forward a couple of decades and Ashworth is now leading the creation of the Windows Phone brand at Microsoft. How then does a designer famed for complex, handcrafted type treatments, a self-confessed technophobe who still writes his schedule for the day on the back of his hand, end up in such a hi-tech environment?

Sheffield to Seattle

Again CR, or a CR alumnus at least, played a role. In 1999 former CR editor Lewis Blackwell, by now at Getty Images, asked Ashworth to become the photolibrary’s global design director – he subsequently became executive global creative director for Getty Images, based in Seattle and co-ordinating Getty’s creative teams there and in London.

“I hired a design intern called Mike Guss,” Ashworth says. “He was pretty much straight out of college, but it was clear he had a real eye for design. He moved on after only a short while but working under myself and Mark Fraser, one of my incredibly talented art directors, gave him a thirst for Swiss design. Fast forward to May 2009. I’m living back in the UK, working [as creative director] at Nokia. Mark Fraser, who is also back in the UK, gets an email from Mike Guss who is now part of the Windows Phone product design team asking Mark if he’d be interested in a role within the team he’s in. Mark wants to stay in the UK, but passes the details on to me. When the folks running the product design studio saw my CV they immediately passed it on to the head of marketing as they’d been looking for someone with the right brand, design and marketing experience for a while.”

Ashworth now has the job of heading up efforts to articulate what the Windows Phone brand is all about and translate that message into the huge array of communications work employed by such a big brand. His first task when he started in January 2010 was to help define the brand itself. Specifically he 2 3 was asked to create tools which Microsoft’s internal and external marketing teams could use for the launch. “At that time we had a 25-page brand ‘booklet’, a logo and some stock photography. Let’s just say it was a little ‘lightweight’,” he says.

So Ashworth had to spend his first few weeks talking to as many of the interested parties within Microsoft as he could, including overall Microsoft creative director Jeff Boettcher, those working on Windows, the Windows Phone team and Wolff Olins New York. “From this I was able to define four brand characteristics for Windows Phone (‘genuine’, ‘spirited’, ‘supportive’ and ‘balanced’), and then more importantly develop these into a well articulated and inspirational brand personality,” he says.

For this he enlisted the help of writer Jim Larkin, who he had worked with at Getty Images, and who has worked at J Crew and Eddie Bauer on defining ‘brand voice’. “Once I had the personality piece in place it enabled me to create multi-sensorial branding work – I could create guidance and examples on how to bring the brand to life visually, sonically, verbally and spatially (I never got around to ‘smell’, though we did some fun stuff on that area in my Nokia days),” Ashworth says.

A big part of his role now is helping implement the brand by creating marketing communications.

“I work with our various marketing teams and their agencies doing anything from briefings, to concepting, to execution,” he explains. “I commissioned Digital Kitchen to create a 90-second promo video for our digital channels – I storyboarded it, art directed the music, wrote the copy and the agency produced it. I did something similar late last year working with our PR team and their lead agency, Wexley School For Girls. Now I’m starting to share our new branding work with CP+B, who are our agency of record for above the line, as they start to concept our next major campaign.”

No more shiny surfaces

At the heart of the Windows Phone brand, and much else besides at Microsoft, is Metro, which, it seems, is becoming less a design style and more a guiding philosophy for the entire company.
While the interfaces of many digital devices are still mired in literal-mindedness, all shiny-surfaced representations of real-world objects, Microsoft has decided that it’s time to move UI design on.
“The rendering of artefacts has outlived its usefulness as the definitive approach to user interface design,” wrote Mike Kruzeniski, a creative director on the Windows Phone design team at Microsoft, in an April 2011 blog post.

The first interfaces, Kruzeniski argued, had to use direct representation in order to explain what they did. And surrounding elements with the texture and shading of a button made it clear to uncertain users that something needed to be pressed. “In the early days of interaction design when software concepts were best explained through heavy-handed metaphors, the familiarity of these objects and textures was appropriate,” he noted.

Now we assume that all on-screen content is interactive. “We don’t need to make an eBook look like a book for people to understand how to use it. A notebook does not require leather and a spiral bind to be familiar,” Kruzeniski wrote. Yet this literal approach persists, most markedly (though Kruzeniski makes no mention of Microsoft’s great rival) on Apple devices where an app on Newsstand sits on a faux wooden bookcase, mail is represented by a stamp and Keynote a lectern with a stack of paper on it.

“As interaction designers, our role of making UI’s familiar as tools has shifted to one of communicating vast amounts of connected information. It tilts the form and function balance from a focus on how things work to how information and meaning is conveyed,” Kruzeniski argued. And the people who know best how to do that are graphic designers.

Clear and direct

In various public pronouncements and blog posts, Microsoft designers have paid tribute to the influence not just of graphic design but of the Swiss International Style in particular in developing what has come to be known as Metro. The idea has its roots in work done by various Microsoft design teams for the ill-fated Zune music player, Windows Media Player and even Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia software in combining graphic design, interaction design and motion graphic design to attempt to create a compelling user experience. But it was the Windows Phone team that developed those principles into a coherent design philosophy.

When looking to change design direction for the launch of Windows Phone 7, the design team looked not to other phone interfaces but to those designers they felt had led the way in conveying information – people like Josef Müller-Brockmann, Massimo Vignelli, even Dutch designers Experimental Jetset were cited as influences. Instead of mobiles, they looked to transport systems and infographics.

Jeff Fong led the interface design team on the Zune and Windows Media Player. “When a small team of designers (Bill Flora, myself, Jae Park, Ryan Bickell, Greg Melander, Albert Shum) started working on conceptualising a design direction and principles for the Windows Mobile redesign, transportation wayfinding was a major inspiration for us,” he says. “It’s a clear, direct visual language that helps people navigate a complex environment. Why not take inspiration from that and apply it to helping people navigate complex technologies? We combined that inspiration with the principles that Bill and I have worked with for over a decade to develop the Metro design principles.” Bill Flora left Microsoft but most of that team went on to develop the Windows Phone 7 UI, along with Microsoft engineers, with Fong as creative director.

Metro, metro, metro

The new interface, they decided, should be clean, light, open and fast. Unnecessary visual elements, including gradients and faux 3D were to be stripped out. Particular emphasis was to be given to motion, to the way in which one element transitioned to another, and to typography. And the interface would be ‘honest’ in that it wouldn’t be dressed up to look like real world objects or materials – no ‘skeumorphic’ shading or glossiness (Apple take note).

A key facet of the resulting interface for the Windows Phone is the way in which it brings content into the home screen. The system of tiles displays information ‘live’, whether mail, Facebook updates, or calls. The result is an elegant system of rectangles employing an adapted version of Segoe, the sans serif typeface developed for Microsoft by Steve Matteson at Monotype Imaging.

Both Fong and Ashworth point out that, although the look of Metro might owe a debt to print design, “it’s not really just about print. It’s about applying solid, timeless design principles to the world of interface design,” Fong says. “‘Metro’ is a philosophy – it’s a principle-based approach to (product) design,” Ashworth adds. “It’s not one ‘design answer’, it’s not about squares, Segoe type and flat colour, which is something that the WP design team and myself on the brand side of things face challenges with. It can be taken too literally. Swiss design is soulless, sort of deliberately. It’s the purest of communication methods. Jeff and the UI team understood its wealth as a rigorous system for succinctly displaying information. But through clever application of motion and more importantly their overall approach in designing a user experience that puts each user’s passions and connections right on the surface, alive with constantly updating data, they’ve given Swiss design a real soul. Each Windows Phone is a unique living fingerprint,” Ashworth claims. “My challenge is to elevate this intimate user experience onto a brand level and bring it to life in everything we do.”

Windows Phone 7 launched in October 2010. Last year, Metro was introduced to the Xbox and shortly the latest version of the big one, Windows 8, will come with a Metro-derived Start screen. At this year’s CES Live, the Las Vegas electronics extravaganza at which major brands launch their big new products, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer claimed in typically hyberpolic style that “Metro will drive the new magic across all of our user experiences. So, in 2012 what’s next? Metro, Metro, Metro.” Ashworth and his colleagues will be busy.

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