The story behind new Xbox design
Since this was new territory, Microsoft hired dozens of firms and solicited ideas worldwide on what the Xbox 360 should look like.
Seattle Times technology reporter
Microsoft's Xbox team was sure of one thing when it set out to design a new console: If the system won the approval of Japanese consumers, then others would love it as well.
The goal sounded simple enough, but it was something Microsoft had failed at before. The company has sold only 1.7 million original Xbox consoles in Japan, where gamers deplored the system as too brash and bulky.
"You couldn't get it through the door of apartments in a lot of places," joked Peter Moore, a corporate vice president in the Xbox division.
Microsoft also wanted its new console, which it named the Xbox 360, to become a part of home-entertainment systems around the world.
To do that, it had to appeal to nongamers: the wives who rolled their eyes at their husbands' expensive toy, the mothers who had banished their child's Xbox to the basement TV.
The company won't know if it succeeded until after the Xbox 360 goes on sale in November. Microsoft unveiled the console last week and will give more news about the console today at its briefing at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.
Design can play as big a role as technology in consumer electronics these days, particularly when everything else about a product is standardized. Telephones pretty much work the same, for example, but are set apart by the way they look. Microsoft knew that if the Xbox 360 was to be seen as on par technology-wise with other next-generation consoles, its appearance would matter too.
This was new territory for Microsoft. Software was its forte, not design, and the Xbox team knew better than to guess at what kind of console would seduce the Japanese consumer and win nongamers throughout the world.
So Microsoft did what a company with $38 billion in the bank can do. It poured money into the effort, flying around the world to interview consumers about their tastes and hiring a cadre of design and engineering firms.
Casting a wide netThe Xbox team cast a wide net at first, bringing on a dozen firms two years ago to brainstorm ideas. Armed with an array of concepts, the team made several trips — to Japan, Europe and the United States — to see what people liked.
Patterns arose in the responses. People wanted a softer look than the original console. They wanted Microsoft to tone down the logo. They loved the use of chrome as an accent color.
At the same time, the team solicited the opinions of Microsoft executives. Jonathan Hayes, the 37-year-old design director for the Xbox platform, didn't show them actual models for fear that each executive would pick one to champion. Instead, he asked them to consider four themes: mild, wild, architectural and organic.
The original Xbox was certainly on the wild end of the spectrum. And, with its complex geometry and lines, it was architectural as well. Should its successor have the same look?
The executives talked about vehicles as a point of comparison. A Hummer had the same wild, architectural sense as the Xbox. On the mild, organic end was the Porsche 911, which had a well-evolved and distilled feel. That's the look the group eventually settled on.
Apple Computer's iPod is mild, executives said. Mild will still look fresh five years from now. Wild and aggressive will seem dated.
Turning from originalEach design firm Microsoft had approached initially tried to mimic the aggressive feel of the original Xbox. The Xbox team had to steer the firms in the opposite direction, using phrases like, "Less Hulk, more Bruce Lee."
"They'd say, 'OK, Xbox was this much testosterone and this much raw brute force last generation, so it's going to be even angrier and have more machismo in the next,' " Hayes said. "It took us a little while in every case to instruct the partner that no, we were going to go somewhere different."
To design the final system, the Xbox team narrowed its field of consultants to two: A San Francisco group called Astro Studios formed the concept, and refinements were added by a firm in Osaka, Japan, called Hers Experimental Design Laboratory.
Hers was a crucial partner, with its knowledge of Japanese tastes and its emphasis on peaceful, pure design. Astro, which had previously designed sport watches for Nike, pumped in energy and action.
"We happened to be typically a little bolder and more iconic in a lot of our design, and [Hers] was typically a little more refined and more craftsmanlike," said Brett Lovelady, Astro's president and founder.
In fall 2003, an Astro designer suggested curving two console sides inward, creating a double-concave look that would increase the surface area on the sides. That would enable the console to pull in more air to cool down the high-powered engine inside.
The Xbox team seized on the idea, repeating the concave shape in the on-screen layout of its Xbox Live online gaming service.
The designers tested the concept in prototypes, making everything from subtly curved models to one with shapes so extreme that it was nicknamed the "Fischer-Price nuclear reactor."
Mild, organic categoriesThe design process delved further into the mild and organic categories. Microsoft selected a color consultant in Southern California that had developed the color scheme for the new Volkswagen Beetle introduced in 1998.
Microsoft would go through 30 color combinations before settling on four: three variations of gray and a white with slight green undertones.
Microsoft hit the road again, testing the colors last December on focus groups in Japan, the United Kingdom and Texas. People felt the gray was wishy-washy and vague. Reaction to the white was extremely positive — particularly in Japan.
When people there were asked what company might have made the console, they guessed Sony or Apple. That thrilled Microsoft executives.
It was settled. The Xbox 360 would be a creamy white called "chill" and framed by four lines — two concave, two flat. For its centerpiece, Microsoft's engineering consultants devised a glowing circular power button called "the ring of light."
One designer who wasn't involved in the project said the Xbox 360's smaller size and ability to run horizontally or vertically are improvements over its predecessor.
"More of it has to do with what you're doing with the device," said the designer, Rick Lewis of Seven02 Design in Palo Alto, Calif.
Another designer described the Xbox 360 as playful, with contemporary features such as the pill-shape window that covers the system's USB ports.
"The original Xbox was meant to make a much more aggressive, graphic statement, versus the more elegant statement the new design makes," said Bill Cesaroni, president of a Cesaroni Design Associates in Glenview, Ill. " I have no way of knowing what turned off the Japanese; however, I would venture to guess that this new design language will be successful."
Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or firstname.lastname@example.org