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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?"