The June issue of Fast Company carries the magazine’s latest picks for its annual 100 Most Creative People in Business, which celebrates “innovators who dare to think differently.” This year one of our own made the coveted list: Windows Phone designer Jeff Fong. Check out his write-up.
Fong, 43, joined the Windows Phone design team three years ago and has been one of the leading thinkers behind Windows Phone’s signature look and the set of underlying design principles known as “Metro.”
Trained as an illustrator at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., Fong says he always had an interest in combining traditional media with technology. In 1993 he won an internship at Microsoft and was assigned to work on two of the company’s early multimedia efforts aimed at kids—Creative Writer and Fine Artist. He hasn’t looked back since.
Over the years Fong has worked on everything from an interactive gardening guide to Windows Media Center and the Zune music player, two other Microsoft products often praised for their fresh and distinctive designs. After the company made the decision to reboot its smartphone effort, Fong was tapped to help lead a team to define the look and feel of what would become Windows Phone, turning to airport and subway signage as one source of inspiration.
I caught up with Fong last week for a quick Q&A on Windows Phone and design.
The design of Windows Phone—and its influence on other high-profile Microsoft products like Windows 8—has been getting a lot of attention lately, including stories in Bloomberg Businessweek and the New York Times. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak also recently gushed about his “beautiful” new Windows Phone. Some folks seem genuinely surprised that Microsoft could design something like this. Are you?
A lot of people come with preconceived notions about Microsoft. There’s always been good design here. But I think the stuff that we’ve done previously has been mostly expected. The thing we did with Windows Phone is we came out with a design that is unexpected. It’s not like anything else you see out there. That change in direction is the thing that’s bringing the attention I think.
What is the “Metro” design philosophy? Can you boil it down into a sentence or two?
Without going deep into the principles, we wanted to find a way to present content in the most clear, direct, and honest way possible. Really that’s the heart of it.
It’s certainly a big break from the look and design of other smartphones I see out there.
There’s a tendency to make things look kind of pretty. And the way you make things look pretty is by adding decorative elements like drop shadows, reflections, glassy surfaces, and things like that. To me, it’s a distraction. One of my favorite examples is when you go to a museum, a lot of times the frame of the painting actually feels more important than the painting itself. It’s the same idea here: When you start adding other things on top of the content, it’s actually taking your attention away from it. Stripping away complexity is really relevant today in our very busy lives. I want information to be presented in a way that’s really easy for you to consume.
You spent a bunch of time working on Windows Media Center, a popular Windows desktop feature designed for connecting PCs to TVs. Was it difficult going from a big screen to a small one?
The thing I like about what we’re doing now is having touch surfaces for direct interaction, versus TV and a remote control. There’s a lot more nuance in that interaction, and we spend a lot of time thinking about the gestures and how the UI [user interface] responds. There’s something kind of magical when you touch something and it just responds.
Speaking of responding, people often mention how much they like the subtle animations found throughout Windows Phone. Are those just for decoration?
It’s storytelling. We’re taking you on a journey from Start. Motion brings a sense of depth and life and makes you feel like the phone is responding to you. We also use motion to enhance your perception of speed. For example, we often start with an initial fast motion and then we slow it down, so what you notice more, mentally, is that initial burst of speed. It makes our software feel really responsive to our customers, and I think that’s delightful.
I saw a report last week arguing smartphones may be the fastest spreading technology in history. How will the Windows Phone I carry in my pocket 10 years from now be different?
I don’t know, and I think that’s what makes it so fun. [laughs] But I think the biggest shift that’s happened over the last few years is how connected everything is and I don’t think we’ve pushed the limits of that connectedness, whether it’s technology-to-technology or person-to-person. I think there’s a lot of really interesting opportunities to explore.
Where do you draw inspiration from when you get stuck on a design problem?
Right now the thing that really fascinates me is architecture. I see a lot of parallels between what we do and how an architect thinks about a space. And the other thing that’s really an inspiration is the great designers we have in this studio. We have just awesome designers here. When all else fails, we have a brainstorming session. There’s nothing like just talking to other really smart, amazing people to get past a mental block.
What will you be doing in 10 years?
The great thing about Microsoft is there’s always some new technology to work on. Since I’ve been here, I went from floppy disks to CD-ROMs to the web to TV to devices to phones. There’s no way 10 years ago I would’ve been able to say I’m going to be working on smartphones. To me the fun part is just combining technology with design to bring really amazing consumer experiences.