The Design Studio Behind Xbox Reviews The PlayStation 4

Teague is known for designing Microsoft's original Xbox. Here, they critique Sony's PlayStation 4.

Even if you don't know the design consultancy Teague, you know their work--ranging from the original Polaroid camera to the interiors of almost every Boeing plane to date. They were also the firm Microsoft tapped to design their original Xbox, conceptualize controllers for the Xbox brand, and create the Xbox 360 racing wheel. Imagine our delight when they volunteered to apply their expertise in a critique of the Xbox's latest and greatest competitor, the PlayStation 4. --Eds.

Sony’s path to the PS4 reads much like any classic story arc.

Act I, PS1 upstaged its toy-like competitors by targeting a more tech-savvy and mature audience.

Act II, PS2 literally destroys its competition, by bringing guns to a knife fight and becoming the highest selling console platform of all time.

Act III, the point of conflict…PS3 was used as a trojan horse to push Blu-ray and 3-D TV technology platforms, theoretically to bolster additional offerings of the Sony brand. However in doing this, Sony lost sight of its core gaming audience and Microsoft gleefully picked up the mantle as the villain in Sony’s story. Sony did succeed in winning the HD format war--Blu-ray is the successor to DVD--but not without casualties, and it’s taken seven long years to restore gamers' faith in the PlayStation brand.

That brings us, potentially, to the final act. With cloud-based technologies promising a more invisible and integrated world, the PS4 ($399, available now) could be the last flesh-and-bone PlayStation console. So how well did Sony pull off the final act? Sony designed both a beautiful console and a much improved controller, but it's almost as if these two components were designed discretely, and they never combined to create a truly cohesive system.

All about the details.

At least in message it’s loud and clear, this is Sony's return to pushing their console as gaming first, and for this review, we’ll focus on the key industrial design choices that make their view so apparent.

In terms of the PS4’s console design, it’s clear Sony is paying homage to its finest moment, the PS2 Slim--a super svelte, super powerful system that remains the greatest technical marvel of console hardware to this day. The PS4's matte/gloss dissected box is a subtle nod to PlayStation heritage that signals Sony is serious about returning to its gaming roots. It’s nowhere near as small as the Slim, but the PS4 is still compact enough to feel at home in and around the entertainment center.

With respect to configurability, the console has a particularly clever two-faced design philosophy that we loved. When laid horizontal, the forward facing elements are subtle, allowing the console to disappear within its surroundings. Placed vertically, the PlayStation logo jewel and power/state light bar become fully visible, going so far as to graphically play off one another (light bar leading to logo) giving it the desired bold presence as a show-car of the entertainment world. More elegantly than past efforts, the PS4 pulls off either orientation with a serious and refined box form--a significant departure from PS3’s sculptured form falling somewhere between Frank Gehry and grand piano.

The 360-degree approach to the console’s design reveals carefully considered details, and a clear detail hierarchy. The larger horizontal split quietly houses the Blu-ray slot drive and the USB ports. The matte/gloss separation unifies all of the touch points: power, eject and even the rubber feet it stands on. All venting has been moved to the rear of the console which leaves all facing sides clean and bold. There is a nice play between matte and gloss finishes that makes PS4 look more elegant while minimizing the appearance of dust. All in all, theses details work hand in hand to give the PS4 a simple, powerful and refined gesture that we feel is appropriately mature for this generation.

It’s worth mentioning just how well the PS4 light bar is executed; it now provides functional feedback cues through more emotional color hues and behaviors--a major improvement on the schizophrenic LED indicators of previous PlayStation consoles.

Not so premium. But that’s okay.

While falling in love with Sony’s approach for the finer details, we couldn’t help but notice that less attention was paid to the execution of the PS4’s finishes. Even from across the room you can see the unevenness in the glossy surfaces, and blushing in the injection molded textured surfaces. The net effect: a premium price tag on a (seemingly) less than premium product. Ouch.

There were also quite a few perplexing design choices for this generation, like the slot drive's placement on the left. Visual massing suggests the drive would be on the right (and PlayStation’s slot drives have been right side load since the launch of PS2, making this choice even more curious). This is not just a visual oddity, though, but also a potential functional misstep as it places the capacitive power button directly in line with where user’s hands will be when inserting or removing a disc.

Next in line--the slanted, angular body. On its own we liked the effect--it adds visual interest and energy to the form--but is that really the best choice for a box that will likely live side-by-side with the rectangular boxes that fill most of our living rooms? Probably not. On a functional note, we found the angle makes installation unnecessarily difficult as it obscures visibility for cable connection in the back. We’ll side with Louis Sullivan on this one--as a general rule form should follow function, or at least not get in the way.

The PS4 is a good-looking, nicely proportioned console that fits well into the modern living room. Luckily for Sony, fit and finish aren’t typically deal breakers. A lot can be forgiven if the on-screen gaming experience is delivered as promised. And for hard-core gamers, this delivery is all about the controller.

18 years in the making.

For the first time ever Sony has redesigned the workhorse controller. Sony has evolved the PlayStation controller over the past 18 years based on new technologies and game demands, but they haven’t completely overhauled it until now.

Overall, the new controller feels solid, not light and toy-like like the previous generation. While the footprint doesn't deviate far from the original, a subtle increase in scale makes the redesign feel just right. A unique texture on the bottom improves grip and gives the controller a high-end feel. Parting lines are super minimal and tight which again helps improve the way it feels in the hand, but also makes it look more refined and high-end.

The joysticks have been spread out, making them far more usable for those with larger hands. More importantly, they've added a lip around the edge, curving inwards to improve thumb grip and precision in use.

Much like the joysticks, the triggers have been shown some much-needed love. Scooping rather than curving in form means fingers will no longer slip in the heat of battle. We think they could stand to be a little bit larger, offering more comfortable surface area to connect with thumb tips, but as is they are incredibly improved from previous iterations. And finally--a small detail but one that has irked us as designers for quite some time--the text on the triggers and bumpers has finally been rotated so that they are legible while the controller is in use (function first, looks second).

We could go on about how they’ve integrated the six-axis motion controller, a speaker, microphone, and headset jack, but the most prominent addition to the PlayStation controller is the touchpad, which dominates the center of the device. It’ll be some time before we can determine how useful this feature will really be (in our team critique, designer Clement Gallois thought it looked more like a flip-up door than a useful touchpad). But in general we really like the new controller for how it feels and how it performs.

How it looks is a different story. We couldn’t help but notice a fundamental design disconnect between the controller and the PS4 console; so extreme in some cases that it was almost as though they were designed separately.

Some examples of this disconnect include: the consoles use of square grid-like patterns for venting, while the patterns and textures on the controller use circles. It’s an odd break in the design language, but minor. The choice of color is maybe the biggest question mark for us: The console is black-on-black. But texturing the controller introduces gray into the mix, muddling their visual relationship, for reasons that may forever be unknown.

There are attempts to pull the console and controller together, the matte surface is sliced open at the point of the d-pad and buttons to reveal the gloss piano black of the console, but even this execution prompts questions as to why the joystick islands didn’t follow suit.

At best, these are puzzling design choices. At worst, they’re complete oversights. But truth be told, they’ve got a much bigger issue to contend with: The controller has lost its iconic look. It feels like they tried so hard to improve the feel and play of the controller that they forgot to step back and look at their creation. As Creative Director David Wykes said, “It looks like a piece of clay that’s been worked with too much.”

It’s always a challenge to design two functionally apposed objects to look like they’ve been born from the same creator; one a box to be quietly placed, admired, and left alone, the other a controller to be held and beaten into submission. But the controller is the main touch point for the console; and in the future, we believe it will have to do all the talking as consoles disappear into the cloud. Getting the ergonomics right is only half the battle, the other half is to make this handheld device the icon of the brand. Ironically Sony had achieved that with their original controller; although not everyone loved it, it still said “PlayStation."

If this is in fact the final act for home consoles boxes, Sony may have just missed the mark on creating a truly climactic finish. Our thought is that they should have put everything into the new controller. This should be the face of the PS4. The console needs to be supportive, not central to the gaming experience.

Read Co.Design's take on the PS4 here and Xbox One here.

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191 Comments

  • Alex Rogers

    These guys designed the original Xbox, the single ugliest console ever released, who are they to critique the playstation?

  • Manco M

    I ve read many comments, and i ve seen many critiques over the critiques. I simply don't understand the logic here. I think they actually made a great thing and were almost brave to put their experience and smartness at our disposal with this review. Many fields are dominated by a little hipocricy , i mean the work of everyone must always be respected, especially if you make the same work, but there's nothing wrong in making simple observations. At the opposite it is usefull to understand better, to openly talk about and improve.
    Aother thing I don't understand is the apparent contraddiction between form and functionality, because i don't see contraddiction at all. Is not aesthetic coeherence and harmony a primar concern ( therefore a function ) is not reconscibility a function too ? Here we see the contraddiction and point out an aspect over the other, but the work of a designer i guess is solving all the problems togheter in a coherent way, in a balance that has both logic and aesthetic, in wiich the two falsely divided aspects face each other continuously. Therefore there's no party to take between form and function they both need each other, as well there's no incoeherence in saying, with expert eyes, that sony choice is partly an unsolved puzzle, sometimes lacking coeherence, reconoscibility. Ok it works, but they made a probably not fail proof compromise, the vent spins, the pad is fine, but still, you don't get the same feelings as opposed to a well designed and coeherent product. It lacks something, and that something that is missing, are important functions too. Howev these are so complex machines that the work must be tremendous, so it's not that they failed something easy to do.

  • Manco M

    Mmm. I must add, because editing was a bit painful.... Well it's not that sony failed at all. They just reached a more questionable compromise.

  • Michael

    lol, it's strange to me that first they talk about how it's form over function for the console due to the back ports you'll plug in once, and then when it comes to the controller they complain that the form isn't up to par, when clearly it was designed for function first.

    Not to mention I feel like the overhang on the back serves a function as a slight roof for those massive vents.

    Who cares about the form of the controller?
    Who cares about the function (of the body) of the console?

  • Nicholas LeVack

    They did say the console's meant to blend into the entertainment center and thus its form is less important than the form of the controller, which should visually represent Sony since it'll be in sight more and may even outlive the console itself. However, I think the same could be said for function, considering that even if the rear overhang is a problem in setting up the system, it's a small inconvenience you'll forget about once it's at home in your entertainment center. The controller, on the other hand, will be in constant use, and thus its function should be priority. The "form over function" principle makes sense, but I think the author overstates the practicability and clarity of that binary.

  • Chris

    Quote "function first, looks second" then their final verdict is that the contoller looks like clay and it has been a failure. After praising how functional it is..... And the angle on the back is so it can still move air if pushed against a wall or entertainment center.

  • Moriarty

    They designed the first xbox and it was horrible...All that they can say is rubbish.

  • Valentine Xavier

    The original Xbox and controller was one of the ugliest things I'd ever seen.

    And look at these whizzes - "function first, looks second" they said before they wonder about, "the consoles use of square grid-like patterns for venting, while the patterns and textures on the controller use circles. It’s an odd break in the design language." Well perhaps the grid-like patterns didn't feel so great on the hand and the circular pattern had a better tactile feel... maybe? Not so odd then.

    And did they really want tiny squares on the controller? Or maybe they wanted circles on the back of the PS4? That doesn't help the function of either device. From just the controller's perspective - because of its shape and all of the circles already on it - you really shouldn't be thinking about square vents there anyway. It wouldn't work. And obviously if you're trying to have as much venting area as possible on the back of the console, circles aren't going to be as efficient there - gotta go squares. Function first, looks second.

  • Michael Stewart

    From an aesthetic and/or a "how does it make me feel about the brand" design perspective, I agree. This is a pretty comprehensive article. However, from a "not missing the point" perspective, the closing paragraph summarizes why this article is a failure.

    To say that despite becoming more functional, solid-feeling, and ergonomic, the new controller was a mistake because it doesn't look like an icon of the brand anymore is a complete contradiction to "function before form." The old controllers look the way they do because they're an ergonomic nightmare. Trust me, I used to test games. After 8+ hours, 5+ days a week with one of those things in your hand, it stops screaming playstation and starts screaming carpal tunnel.

    To me, the thing that has always screamed "playstation" about the controllers wasn't the (awful, horrible, unforgivable) way they were shaped. It's seeing an X, a square, a triangle, and a circle on the four primary buttons. They screamed playstation when they were on the PSP (something I felt fit the playstation brand very well despite not being shaped like a DualShock® controller), and in my opinion, Sony would have clever as hell if they had made THOSE the only logo visible on the outside of the box, and the controller.

    Getting the ergonomics right is 99.999999999% of the battle, in my opinion. Making sure it looks iconic doesn't figure into it. Just write Sony on it and make sure to draw the right symbols on the buttons. Done and done. But hey, I guess this article was written by designers, and for designers. I just think that when designing a product, the end-user should be the primary consideration, and the last thing the end-user of the PS4 is going to be thinking about is "what do these design choices say about the final act of the playstation opera and Sony as a brand?" As long as the console isn't an unimaginable eyesore (*cough* original xbox *cough*) then all they're going to focus on is FUNCTION. But yeah, from a design perspective that DOESN'T ACTUALLY PUT FUNCTION FIRST LIKE THESE PEOPLE SAY ONE OUGHT TO, sure, it's a great article.

  • themuIe

    Xbox and Xbox one are two of the fugliests consoles in the last 20 years.

  • mrjoedoty

    As a gamer I care about three things. Quality of graphics. A Functioning smooth movement controller. And interactive gameplay.

  • mrjoedoty

    Damn I was hoping for facts and specs like how hot it gets or how much ram in unnecessarly uses for a the simplest of games. Maybe mire in depth of how it's functions. Not a step by step sociology report...

  • Joseph Adiasor

    If they're experts. Then why was the original Xbox so ugly? Why was the original controller so large and unusable that it had to be re-designed 6 months after release?

  • John Blue

    They are designers, and designers should not be called experts (defining who's an expert in arts is tricky)

  • Tynan Muddle

    "Our thought is that they should have put everything into the new controller. This should be the face of the PS4. The console needs to be supportive, not central to the gaming experience."

    Kinda like Wii U and its GamePad, then?

  • Daniel Okada

    One of their biggest gripes was the design aesthetics disconnect between controller and console, which I will have to agree with. However, on a functional level ("function first, looks second" to quote the reviewers), the DS4 has addressed nearly every gripe I have had with the original PS controller, all the way through the DS3 during my 18 years of experience using every one of them. More tension in the L2, R2 triggers and in the analog sticks would be preferred, and that is more of a personal preference.
    Regarding the box itself, rubber feet on the right side of the console are absent, meaning it will slide on a glass top surface without the addition of the plastic stand sold separately. The trapezoidal profile, easily the most distinctive characteristic, is more aesthetic than functional, but the quoted anti-functionality of the rear overhang (making it difficult to see the ports from an overhead POV), do actually serve two very functional purposes: first, the overhang keeps dust off the ports and plugs and second, it keeps the exhaust ports in the rear of the console from being butted up against anything, insuring there will always be some degree of clearance for the ports. Hard to believe professional design experts failed to pick up on this.
    Fit and finish are probably the most lacking, falling short of the standards of the original piano black PS3, which looked (glossy mirror finish, subtle chrome accents) and felt (heavy as a stack of bricks) expensive. The PS4 matte surfaces are more functional, but look cheaper and the uneven texture (blooming, or blushing) of those large flat surfaces only exacerbate the look.
    There will likely be two revisions for the console over the next 6-7 years; maybe SCE will go with a more contoured or rounded corner look for the follow up to more closely match the design aesthetics of the DS4, which will likely remain unchanged through the product cycle of the PS4.