On August 23rd, Microsoft announced its latest rebranding. It was, shall we say, a little boring. As an interesting contrast, we’re reposting this story about a proposed Microsoft rebranding.—Ed.
Microsoft has had its fair share of problems, but within the last year, the company has undergone something of a transformation. Just last month, Steve Ballmer introduced the new Surface tablet, and initial impressions are fairly positive.
However, Microsoft’s current visual identity—an inconsistent collection of new and old parts—does little to help convey this new direction. "I think the flaw with Microsoft’s rebrands is that they aren’t cohesive," comments Andrew Kim, a 21-year-old designer who recently reimagined the company’s brand identity during a three-day design charrette. "It feels outdated and has connotations that aren’t helping Windows Phone or Surface." The Next Microsoft is Kim’s reimagining of the company for the tablet age, and it’s gaining serious traction online.
Over the past 26 years, the Microsoft logo has undergone roughly eight redesigns, but they’ve never deviated from the four-paned window. When the company introduced its new, simplified logo this spring, they positioned it as a radical departure from tradition—new font, new imagery, new color. In reality, says Kim, "the new logo is radical, but does not shed the past." Furthermore, what works on a Microsoft Office box doesn’t necessarily work for the brand’s rapidly expanding line of products, like XBox and Surface. "Microsoft is showing a progressive vision that was missing in the company for years," says Kim, and their logo should reflect that progressivity. By clinging to the past, Microsoft is projecting a muddled picture of its new direction.
Instead, Kim proposes something called "the slate," a parallelogram inspired by the windows of corporate towers ("windows in the metropolis never look like four squares," he explains). The slate can be adapted for any of Microsoft’s product lines: At its simplest, it’s infilled with constellations and cityscapes. For Office, it becomes more of a banner, riffing off past iterations of Office branding. The idea is to unify the company’s diverse products under one simple, oblique mark.
Importantly, the slate lets Metro, Microsoft’s UI design standard, shine. Introduced last year, Metro sets the graphic standards for the company’s tablet and phone interfaces. But Kim points out that the 2012 logo’s forced perspective conflicts with the colorful, simple squares of the Surface UI. The slate, meanwhile, fits in with the flat Metro style perfectly.
Kim has also made tweaks to the Surface UI. One of the main premises of Metro is the shedding of extraneous design "metaphors," or elements that make the interface look older than it really is—the sliders, buttons, and rasterized textures familiar in Apple products. These metaphors are "skeuomorphic," meaning that they’re functionally unnecessary, but they make us feel a little more comfortable with new technology (Co.Design wrote about them here). When Microsoft introduced Metro last year, they were adamant about doing away with the drop shadows of yore and "treating pixels as pixels," hence the poppy, super-graphic look you get on Windows phones. The one problem, explains Kim, is that purely digital UIs can be difficult to read. He’s reintroduced a few metaphors—notably, in the Wallet app—to improve readability. "Functional metaphors aren’t skeuomorphic," he argues.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that it took an outsider to point out these fairly obvious flaws. Kim had the advantage of working free from the shackles of corporate bureaucracy, and the endless rounds of edits that are every designer’s bane. It’d be interesting to see what Microsoft’s lead designers could come up with, freed from the company’s notoriously rigid management structure. Still, Kim’s work is a preview of how a younger generation of designers will treat today’s hot-button issues, like skeuomorphics. The Next Microsoft is a thoughtful, balanced treatment of a company fraught with history.
So, who’s next? I could think of a presidential campaign or two that might be interested.