How Microsoft Embraced Design, Without Steve Ballmer

Microsoft is pursuing a complete design turnaround, and the change is coming from the bottom up. Can it last?

Between Windows 8 and Windows Phone; Xbox 360 and Kinect; the Surface tablet and new versions of Office, Outlook, and Internet Explorer, you may have noticed that Microsoft, a traditionally engineering-centric company, is undergoing a design revolution. But the origins of Redmond’s newfound sense of design are difficult to trace, not least because Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer is said not to be driving the change.

While Microsoft’s upper management may have realized the value of design, as manifested in its recent series of elegant and refreshing products, it’s not where the company’s design direction is coming from. Ballmer has not donned a black turtleneck and a pair of New Balance 991s. Rather, Microsoft’s shift toward a more design-centered culture has been a slow, bottom-up slog catalyzed in recent years by industry disruptions, mainly from Apple. (See: iPod, iPhone, iPad.) During my reporting for Fast Company's feature on design at Microsoft, which is part of our October design issue, I learned that many believe Microsoft has long suffered from never having a CEO who champions design at the company, as Apple did with Steve Jobs. As one former longtime Microsoft manager told me, "I don’t think Steve [Ballmer] could even spell the word design …There’s a large number of Microsoft employees who are just fed up that Apple continues to kick their ass."

To hear insiders tell it, Ballmer had little to do with the radical redesign of Windows 8, Microsoft’s flagship operating system, whose previous versions boast more than a billion users. For example, according to sources, there was never any meeting between Ballmer and the Windows 8 team to green-light the software’s redesign. "There have been no meetings where we’ve ever talked about the UI or features with Steve," explains one high-up source. Adds another, "Certainly he gets a copy of every memo, and gives us feedback on every memo, but there’s no ‘go’ or ‘no-go.’" (Windows president Steven Sinofsky is said to keep Ballmer abreast of the team’s progress.)

Click here for the full story on Windows 8

When I ask a slew of top former and current designers at Microsoft whether Ballmer is involved in the company’s design direction, their answers are almost all the same: "No." "Not at all." "Very little."

But some argue that the lack of top-down design direction has afforded Microsoft a uniquely democratic culture. "It’s not a case where there’s a top-down mandate: everyone go do this," Windows Phone SVP Joe Belfiore once told me. "There are few cases where senior management says, 'Everyone is going to do this.' Those [instances] are the exceptions rather than the rule."

"Unlike other companies that maybe have one person at the top, we don’t have a [design] czar at Microsoft," says Julie Larson-Green, VP of program management for Windows. Of Metro, Microsoft’s modern and well-received design language, she adds, "It’s not like Steve [Ballmer] decreed it."

Still, others believe this fragmented, bottom-up approach to design has hurt the company. "If the importance and value and DNA of design aren’t trickling down, they sure as hell are going to have a hard time trickling up," says Ian Sands, the former senior director of Microsoft’s product long-term vision and strategy, who left the company in 2010. "The lack of a design czar certainly becomes problematic at some point in the process of building a strong culture and an ecosystem of solutions across all of the different divisions and product groups. There was no one to speak of at the executive-office level who would champion design."

Sands and others believe Microsoft might be a different company if it had someone in that position, as Apple did with Steve Jobs. "I think a lot of people feel like, 'Why don’t we just have a senior VP of design?'" he says, "though I’m not sure if that’s the solution."

Microsoft’s top leaders have started to understand the value of design, however, but mainly because Apple has showed that good design is good business. Apple’s iPad now generates more revenue than Windows does; iPhone sales alone eclipsed Microsoft’s total revenue of about $74 billion for the fiscal year ending in June. "Microsoft only cares about design to the degree that it’s going to help them sell products, and now great design is a requirement to move units," says a former senior-level Microsoft source who advised Ballmer. "I don’t think they would’ve started placing such an emphasis on design for the sake of being beautiful—like for this Jobsian attitude of having a personal passion for designing the most elegant products. Microsoft is all about the dollars: They’re placing an emphasis on design because the dollars sit there. They’re looking at Apple’s market cap."

Simply put, says Bill Flora, a former influential Metro designer who spent two decades at Microsoft before leaving in 2011, "Microsoft realized that if didn’t embrace design, it wasn’t going to win."

There’s a Borg-like quality to Microsoft’s design culture—as if the Redmond hive mind had to assimilate this type of product thinking before it could accomplish the task. As Office’s PJ Hough told me of design at Microsoft, "We have to decide that something is important, otherwise it never gets done. It doesn’t matter how many people in the trenches believe that something is important. But when we decide that something is important, we have an enormous capacity for progress. We’ve had an innate capacity to do this all along; it’s just we have recognized the value of [design] as a company and strategically we have decided to make it a much higher priority."

All insiders I spoke with acknowledge that Microsoft has not yet become a design-driven company. Decades of engineering-centric culture is harder to about-face than the Costa Concordia cruise ship. And that transition may never occur until someone is able to institutionalize design at the 92,000-employee corporate giant. As Steve Jobs once famously said, "I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it."

But for others, that designers now have a wider field of play at Microsoft is proof enough that the company is changing for the better. Microsoft’s recent product success, at least in the eyes of critics, is certainly evidence of an evolution happening at Redmond, and it’s risky decision to radically rethink Windows 8 signals a deep commitment to design at the company. "That people are choosing to support design only because it will help the bottom line is not necessarily a bad thing," says a former top Microsoft design director. "Does it represent the new breed of Microsoft leadership?"

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  • Alexandre Sartini

    That Steve Ballmer knows nothing about design is a bit challenging but it is not necessarily a problem. The proof is that the recent redesign is actually a success. 

    It is clearly proven that the CEO doesn't have to be the best in all domains. The key success factor is building the right team and obvioulys Ballmer made it with creating a designer team which he can trust.

    Even though Steve Jobs had skills in design and was able to give a clear direction to its team. He had also genius designers in his team who could prove him to be wrong in some cases. Look at the design of his boat and you'll see that Steve Jobs may not have always the best choices about design.

  • 4c Design

    It is baffling how Ballmer can be so ignorant to the value of design, but also admirable I that he has the confidence to delegate the design to other more capable/interested people. It is also very impressive how focused the new design is, without a single mind directing it. Well done MS!

  • Whalley

    Did anyone consider the possibility that the distinct lack of Ballmer influence was intentional on his part?  In fact, the evidence that he was cc'd and yet didn't exert influence seems to say exactly that.  Christ, sometimes people in the techie trenches have no f'ing clue what it takes to manage themselves.

  • Mickcreates

     It is actually rather impressive to see Metro developed to the point we see it now with very little influence from upper management.

    Any designer here would nod knowingly about how bad design by committee can go. It takes a strong leader to call the shots, but it takes an even stronger leader to take a step back and let the talented do their best.

  • Paul

    "A man's got to know his limitations"....... as Dirty Harry would say.  There is a time when relying on the expertise you have put into place bespeaks the greatness of your leadership.  Let the machine run in it's sweet spot from the bottom up and see what happens.  I think that this kind of flexibility will be a welcome change for the future of Microsoft and we the consumers will reap the rewards.

  • Michael

    Maybe it would be prudent to hold off on all the acclaim of Windows 8 until folks have had a chance to use it. 

  • Evade Lower

    If Windows 8 is representative of "design" at Microsoft, then I'd like to see the whole "design" paradigm return to Apple.  From a functional standpoint, Windows 8 is worse than Windows Vista.  It will make Windows 7 the de facto new Windows XP - a long lasting OS because its successor is so horrible.  That said, there is room for design factors, if they are intelligently implemented and do not produce functional impairment.

  • Tritone

    All this talk about "design at Microsoft", and we still don't have a single designers name to associate with it, for better or worse, other than Ballmer, who apparently has no knowledge of it.......Any chance of a word from an MS design champion?

  • Max Smolev

    Just one question. "Microsoft’s recent product success" means what, exactly? Xbox360 is a special TV-oriented "content consumption interface". 

    Windows Phone, which is the prime example of new design in non-TV world doesn't seem to resonate with wide swath of users, otherwise it wouldn't linger in single-digits of market share (and nothing substantially changed design-wise from WP7 to WP8). 

    Windows 8 is both praised and hated for the new UI, but because users have no choice it's a bit silly to already claim it to be a success -- you don't give users a choice and then declare happily that users love it, all because they can't buy a new PC without your newly redesigned OS.

    New MS Design direction is great for those, who don't create anything with their computers, or are very single-threaded in their work. And I'm not sure it's a good thing :(

  • Stephan Poirier

    Cannot believe Microsoft didn't realize the value of a good design before that. In 2012, it's all about design.

    Innovation is not just about new feature. You have to "Think different" ;)
    J'ai de la difficulté a croire que Microsoft n'a pas réalisé la valeur d'un bon design avant 2012L'innovation ne passe pas seulement par de nouvelle fonctionnalité. Il faut "penser différemment" ;)

  • John Edson

    I talk about these very things in my book, Design Like Apple.  While Windows Phone is a distant 3rd in phone o/s, it is uniquely beautiful.  The team hasn't borrowed or copied or ridden the coat tails of others.  They have set out to chart their own territory.

  • BongBong

    So... Microsoft's CEO is a cement head, yet the answer to increase competitiveness is to go around him, rather than replace him with a more competent CEO?

    Ballmer should've been ousted more than a decade ago.

  • Lars

    Very good story, Austin. I did catch one glaring omission in your mention of Windows 8, "Microsoft’s flagship operating system, which boasts more than a billion users." It's not even out yet!


  • Cliff Kuang

    Hey Lars---We've tweaked the wording to read more accurately. Thanks for reading.