In the minds of many, Microsoft is more associated with market domination and acute commercial acumen than cutting-edge design values. But that might be about to change. Young Kim, an appropriately named 30-year-old designer originally from Seoul, is one of a number of young Turks who are pushing design up the agenda at the Seattle-based mega corporation.
When he joined Microsoft seven years ago, Kim was one of only 12 industrial designers in the company. Now there are around 40 of them spread through the different divisions (or ’flavours’, as he calls them) of Microsoft, including gaming and mobiles. Overall, there are about 750 user-experience designers (as designers are termed within the company), a figure that is still dwarfed by the 91 000 people that Microsoft employs as a whole.
Kim is industrial design manager for the hardware group, responsible for all the products from the division supplying ancillaries for computers. ’There’s a lot of interest in design the company’s now realising its importance,’ he says. ’Management can see the benefits, no one has come in from above to impose this on us.’
It’s Kim’s job to raise the bar and also participate in the development of a company-wide sense of brand. Research, he says, has shown that many customers don’t associate Windows as operating as a Microsoft product. Without a single head of design or hierarchical structure, different parts of the business have been doing their own thing.
’Very flat, very collaborative’ is how Kim describes the working culture now, with plenty of ’bridges and cross pollination’. All the designers from the various parts of the business meet up every other month, and as many of them are, like Kim, graduates of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, relationships are good. In addition, Kim works with external design consultancies such as One & Co and Carbon Design Group. ’A lot of effort is going into creating a cohesive, communal design language,’ he says. ’There’s no reason, for instance, why we shouldn’t all use the same black resin.’
Before joining Microsoft, Kim was an intern at Ashcraft Design in Los Angeles where he got to work on AVR (audio video receivers) for Harman Kardon, the premium consumer electronics brand. At the time, Kim couldn’t afford one, but he’s recently bought the model he designed. ’It’s pretty cool,’ he says with a smile.
As well as giving him pleasure, the project taught him a vital lesson in real-world design. ’At college there were all these crazy, wacky concepts,’ he says. ’This was my first taste of designing something, and people would either love it or hate it. People would have to pay their hard-earned money for it. It was not about me but about the end customer, and I shouldn’t just make assumptions.’
Now Kim and his colleagues put considerable effort into researching how people use computers. ’We spend a lot of time going into people’s homes all around the world, to see how people actually use their computers and their own clever solutions.’
Kim is particularly proud of the Arc Touch Mouse, a recently launched design. About a third of lap-top users apparently still want a mouse, but Kim noticed that it was a bulky and unwieldy presence on the move. The response was to develop a flexible mouse that could fold flat for convenience in the bag, but which could be bent and curved for ergonomic comfort. It’s simple appearance belies a complicated construction, with some 90 parts in the tail section alone.
It also marks the use of more advanced gestural interfaces, further present in the new Touch Mouse, Microsoft’s take on Apple’s Mighty Mouse. There’s also a plethora of other simple and colourful products.
’Limited editions is an area that we are focusing on,’ says Kim. ’We see how people take our products and use them as a canvas. They’re not just tools, but curated objects that you carry around with you.’
And what else can we expect in the future? For all his engaging, relaxed friendliness, Kim is too much the corporate man to divulge future product plans, other than that they are very excited about new possibilities in the ways people interact with computers. ’Just look how far we’ve come as an industry in the past ten years,’ he says.