Large corporations are historically slow juggernauts that seldom change their aim. Microsoft has long been considered a shining example of this analogy. It has been sitting on its success for too long, eventually becoming boring and non-innovative. Many still see Windows Vista as the greatest failure in the history of computing, due to its perhaps overpowering aspiration to change the foundations of Windows, which it definitely did. There’s no denying that Microsoft has too many separate divisions working against its fleeting corporate vision of making computing affordable and fun.
Unlike the recent outcry on Google+ following the momentary ban of the Google Nexus in the US, technology should not be about brands over the improvements it can bring to individuals. I’ll admit to having a bias against certain brands, yet with as much objectivity as I can muster, I would like to assess the path Microsoft seems to be taking into the future. It’s adapting to the changing landscape of IT; any company not doing so will very soon disappear. Look at BlackBerry as a relevant example for the failure of accepting change.
At least no one can accuse Microsoft of the same lethargy. Under Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky, a drastic wave of change is rippling through Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters. The world at large has yet to see the final version of Windows 8 in action (though the geeks among us have gotten a pretty good glimpse), but the now prominently missing Start button is proof of Microsoft’s commitment to change. Whether it’s for the better or not depends entirely on how the general public will receive it. This matters particularly since Microsoft is almost desperately attempting to enter the consumer market with a renewed sense of determination.
A legitimate question to ask is one that doubts the direction Microsoft has taken lately. This argument would begin with the now infamous new Windows logo. The bright blue logo, which is a minimalistic version of the familiar Windows flag, caused a very intense backlash on the forums. Taken out of its visual context, it certainly seems overly angular and simplistic. Yet seen on the back of the new Surface, the logo comes across as a very sleek symbol for a new version of the old-as-time vision.
It certainly is a departure from the previous iterations of Windows. However, the beginning of this new face of Microsoft began much earlier with the maligned Zune project. There we find the roots of what is known today as Metro UI. Next was the new Windows Phone with its live tiles, and generally colorful presentation. Metro UI is supposed to be a clean slate for Microsoft. Visually, one can agree that it certainly is.
What a New Microsoft Could Look Like
All we are seeing now is merely the transitional period between two worlds. A very extensive design project by Minimally Minimal founder Andrew Kim gives the imaginary The Next Microsoft a radical makeover. Not only is it a visual makeover, but also a reassessment of its vision, to position it ultimately as a company that makes sci-fi reality. In a very starkly designed poster, he illustrates the difference in which customers distinguish between the three big names of consumer electronics: Microsoft, Apple, and Google.
Just the change in fonts already makes a huge difference. On the first image he places the present Microsoft logo over a white background, while in his version he places white typography on a black background, hovering over a black and white image of Earth. This is already a very different representation of what his company stands for. In his eyes, it should rather stand for innovation and making sci-fi reality by pushing the human race forward.
Yet on the contrary to Apple’s more creative approach, Microsoft should be pushing the human race forward not by idealistic causes, yet instead by technological superiority. In one of the images he created, Microsoft’s alleged mission statement is as follows:
- We believe in advancing the human race.
- Providing the future today.
- Meticulous attention to detail.
- A new start.
There might be a fatal flaw in his design, since he takes minimalism to an unnecessary extreme.
Too Much Minimalism is Fatal
There seems to be a trend now in consumer electronics to simplify everything to its bare minimum. There is a point, though, where it becomes counterproductive. Art has the power to alienate customers, and if the target group is not categorized correctly, it can lead to disaster. Microsoft doesn’t cater to progressive geeks who want cutting-edge — at least not now. But it is certainly trying to get that image back.
He presents Microsoft like an avant-garde sci-fi film. The brand slogan could just as much be a line from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro UI is a very minimalistic and arguably progressive approach already. What Andrew Kim is doing is simply jumping on the bandwagon of misled design. When someone utters the word “minimalism,” many designers interpret it as reducing a product to its bare necessity. This is what Apple is known for doing.
It wouldn’t be of any surprise to me if he made these designs on an Apple computer. This is not supporting stereotypes, but simply making a statement about the intentions Andre Kim might have had. If he really wanted minimalism, then there would be no need for merely graphical logos. Just clean typography on its own would perfectly convey the message of “bare necessities.”
Ideologies Are Always Different
The corporate identity he proposes looks to me very much like that of an ominous corporation, the likes of which Steve Jobs always opposed. In my opinion, it would suit the IBM brand much better. “The next Microsoft is built around the belief and passion for the future. Innovation and progress are engraved into the culture and expressed to the public in a bold and mysterious fashion.” With these words, Andrew Kim explains his vision for the future of Microsoft. To me it sounds very much like what Apple tries to convey, only in a more monotone and eloquent fashion.
This stands in direct opposition with Microsoft’s true direction at the moment. Its aim is to put all efforts on unification — a goal similar to Google’s. Microsoft is achieving this visually and through a much simpler representation of its ideas. Metro UI beautifully encapsulates this air of progress. Unlike Kim’s design, Microsoft is trying to progress its corporate juggernaut to be more flexible, and more customer-driven. Its progress is not an idealistic aim, as Steve Jobs would have, but is much more grounded in the idea that technology is a tool to improve the human condition. Apple, on the other hand, sees technology as something to create art and culture. These are two differing ideologies that couldn’t be more distinct from each other.
What Microsoft needs is not more minimalism, but a better connection with its customer base: something much less corporate, and more human. Kim’s proposal for an ad for the Windows Phone (he likes to call it Surface Phone, which makes no sense, by the way) sounds more like a rally to arms. “Mankind’s most advanced phone” is as presumptuous and superfluous as Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, which compared the computer to the deeds of great geniuses.
Wanting to Improve the Human Condition is Not the Same as Wanting to Change the World
Design always coexists with purpose. It makes a huge difference if a designer is told to come up with concepts for a machine that will help battle poverty, or if that machine will simply help advance creativity. Both are noble goals in their own rights, yet Microsoft is not a company that wants to elevate the individual, like Apple conveys in its marketing, though this is exactly what Andrew Kim tries to show in his corporate identity for Microsoft. “A promise made, a promise kept.” Is that supposed to represent progress, or rather wishful thinking?
German designer Dieter Rams left in his legacy the widely recognized principles of good design. The last of which was: “Good design is as little design as possible — less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.” I believe that Andrew Kim, though his intentions were good, took this last principle to an extreme. Purity and simplicity don’t necessarily mean absurd simplification to a point of artsy abstraction. This would be a design that would in every way contradict Microsoft’s foundation. Bill Gates is not an idealist; he was only a businessman who is now spending most of his accumulated wealth in an effort to improve the human condition.
If Microsoft continues with its race to simplification, it should end at the noble intent Bill Gates and his wife are pursuing now. This is something people can identify with, and not some abstract symbolism.