Microsoft has changed the way it approaches design. The new Office icons unveiled this week are the first glimpse at a far bigger design overhaul that’s going on inside the company. Windows is also getting its own icon changes, but the bigger change is a collaborative effort going on between the Windows, Office, and Surface teams. “This is definitely a cross company effort,” explains Jon Friedman, Microsoft’s head of Office design, in an interview.
The company’s design leaders — Friedman with Office, Albert Shum on the Windows side, and Ralf Groene for Surface — all work together now. “We operate like an internal open source team,” Friedman says. “So we’re all openly sharing our design work, critiquing the work, working on it together. What we’ve found is that the best way to develop our Fluent Design system is to truly open source it internally. What’s happened is that we’re getting the best of everyone’s work that way.”
In the past decade, Microsoft has increasingly been focused on design. Zune, Media Center, Windows Phone, and Windows 8 all contained the design principles that eventually became the Metro design language in 2003. It was a strategic approach to design, all about content and typography. While it mostly worked well on phones, Metro landed on PC in the form of Windows 8. It was a rush toward touchscreen computing that went a little too far for most PC users, and Microsoft stepped back from its Metro design language in a big way with Windows 10 and the death of Windows Phone.
Over the past year, Microsoft introduced Fluent Design. Unlike Metro, Fluent includes more subtle design changes with a focus on animations and blur effects. While it originally debuted in Windows 10, we’re starting to see more of its principles appear in Office and Microsoft’s web services. Microsoft was quick to note at its launch that Fluent would be a “journey” and not the type of Windows 8 Metro rush we saw. That’s been true over the past year, as Windows 10 design has evolved slowly with touches of Fluent.
Design has always been a core part of certain Microsoft products, but it hasn’t always felt like there’s been total coherence across the company. “Design always wanted to work together and do this kind of stuff,” Friedman says. “What you’re seeing is the entire company following suit, and design being able to use that gear in a really nice way … and you’ll see it happening across Windows, Office, and Surface more and more over time.”
Microsoft is taking a careful approach with Fluent Design, instead of trying to cram it into everything at the same time. Friedman has been at the center of Microsoft’s more ambitious product bets, including the SPOT watches from 2004, ultra mobile PCs, the KIN phone, and the unreleased Courier device. Those failures appear to have certainly taught Microsoft some valuable lessons to avoid, and the new Office icons are a good example of that.
“If we have to change everything at the same time, it will never happen,” explains Friedman. “We’re highly coordinated internally, so the Office designers know exactly what’s coming next with Windows. The Windows designers know exactly what’s coming next with Office.”
Microsoft no longer has a mobile hardware or software platform after the death of Windows Phone, so that makes it difficult to influence other mobile platforms like it did with Metro. However, it has found some success with apps like Outlook for mobile. It’s now used by more than 100 million people, and it has high ratings in the App Store. It’s getting a design overhaul today as part of Microsoft’s renewed focus on design and the way subtle animations and features can make you appreciate using an app.
Outlook Mobile is a good example of the sort of attention to detail that Microsoft has lacked in some areas over the years, and for Windows users, it will be encouraging to hear that Microsoft’s best designers are now working very closely together on the future of software and hardware at the company.
“It’s about bringing the software to the place it needs to be,” Friedman says, “and then doing hardware and software together at a high polish and high craft.”