Inside the Arc of Innovation: A Designer’s Story

Shockwaves

A distant rumbling could be heard just before the shockwaves hit my office. It was 10:54 am, on February 28th, 2001, when the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake welcomed me to my new job at Microsoft. As a fresh design recruit, something told me this was not going to be a normal ride, but I was excited and ready to go. This was the beginning of the next 15 years of my life, at Microsoft.

Blissful

A month into my new job, I sat in my office listening to music. I cracked open Photoshop and began the meticulous work of adjusting the saturation levels of the blue sky, rubber-stamping the white clouds and cranking up the saturation of the green hill. Who knew this image would soon be the “most viewed image in history.” I didn’t choose the desktop background image called “Bliss” for Windows XP, but somehow I was given the task to “Photoshop it.”

What are the chances

Who could foresee the lessons to be learned, the impact to be made and the friends to be gained, at the beginning of this journey? What are the chances of having had a front row seat in imagining the future of computing, with such an amazing group of people called Microsoft? What are the chances of working across the entire computing industry, while it just so happened to be, at one company?

When you work at a place long enough, you begin to see the larger patterns most don’t see. You get to see, the arc of innovation. You get to see the arc of people’s lives. You get to see the arc of an entire industry. When you work at a place long enough, everything begins to look clear, of course in hindsight.

Sure, Microsoft was my job, but for me, it really never felt like work. You’d think someone who stayed at one company for over 15 years wouldn’t be much of a risk taker; You’d be wrong. My lucky career trajectory went hand in hand with a company, an industry, and eventually the world. I got to help the world go from desktops to phones to gaming consoles to Mixed Reality, all in the last 15 years. Oh, what a ride it has been.

“When you work at a place long enough, you get to see, the arc of innovation.”

What does the future look like

As a designer you have one foot in today, and one foot in the future at all times. What does the future look like, was the question we’d ask ourselves each time we pitched a new design concept for Windows. Over the next 4 years, I never got the chance to attend the BillG concept presentations, but I did get the chance to make the content for at least 25 of them. This “time in the trenches” of design taught me how to make something from nothing, how to make clarity out of uncertainty and how to deliver the impossible. At the time, the new “AERO” glass design language was one of my contributions to the effort of defining the future. This semitransparent UI treatment for windows is still seen on most platforms today.

Dream Team

There are two times in history, when I saw Microsoft gather the best of the best and put them on one project, and in one space. The first time was in 2003, in building 9, on Windows. If you would have had a chance to look down that hall, at that time, you would have literally seen today’s top company and design industry leaders; all in one hall.

What are the chances to have worked with the who’s who of the design industry. Many left to start companies, or lead other great design organizations. This natural process of attrition always brought a fresh batch of new design recruits to continue to fuel the innovation machine. These colleagues and managers, both past and present, are more than that just that, they are friends who taught me by example, invaluable life and design lessons.

“There are two times in history, when I saw Microsoft gather the best of the best and put them on one project, and in one space.”

Some Learnings

  • To innovate: think fast, make a lot. repeat.
  • Ideas are the easy part; getting a large organization act on them, in the right way, is the hard part. I learned ideas have to be connected to three key things to see the light of day. 1.) leadership 2.) user’s needs 3.) the production line.
  • When emotional noise is the main challenge, focus back on the work at hand.
  • Some of your best ideas can happen at 3a.m. at home.
  • Keep a folder called “future ideas” and add to it regularly.
  • PMs are your best partners, to not only get things done, but to actually understand the design problem. (Thank you to all the amazing PMs I had the chance to work with)
  • Devs that care about design should be your best friends. (Thank you to all the amazingly creative Devs I had the pleasure of working with)
  • Don’t wait for someone to ask you to do it, just do it.
  • Talk less and show way more.
  • Things change. Be flexible so you don’t break.
  • Ride Coattails.
  • People are what matter.
  • How a product makes you feel, matters as much as what it does.
  • Discomfort means you are being given the opportunity to do something new.
  • Good or bad, you aren’t your designs, you are so much more.
  • Focus on doing fewer things and doing them really well.
  • Tell crisper stories.
  • Get to market quicker.
  • Hire the right people and put them in the right positions.
  • Have a f*cking process. :)
  • Creativity is an actual energy…use it wisely.
  • Create your own re-org. If you feel the need, move on to something else.
  • If you take yourself too seriously you are doing it wrong.
  • In a large organization, you have to know what critical what part of the machine you play.
  • Your direct manager is key to your work happiness.
  • Find a mentor and be a mentor.
  • Designers want to be heard.
  • All great runs eventually come to an end.
  • Use critics for their useful feedback.
  • Work at it until it works.
  • Good ideas don’t care who created them.
  • When you struggle with a design problem is when you truly understand it.
  • When does it get easy? Never. Learn to love the process.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Not everyone will like you or your ideas. That’s ok.
  • You can’t be angry and thankful at the same time.
  • Don’t overthink it. Keep your mind off things that don’t matter. Think positive.
  • Good designers listen to feedback with one ear and ignore it with the other.
  • Taking a break lets your subconscious give you a breakthrough.
  • Good enough is the enemy of great.
  • Have a thick skin.
  • Design your time.
  • There is no failure, just make and iterate.
  • You have to be a great influencer to get products made right.
  • When ability meets opportunity amazing things happen.
  • The value of a good designer in an organization is very measurable.
  • Sometimes criticism is worth much more than compliments. As a designer you have to take both with a grain of salt.
  • At some point everything is going to go south on you.
  • Your family matters more than your job.
  • Rejection is a great motivator.
  • It seems impossible until it is done.
  • Don’t fear having eccentric ideas and opinions. Every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  • Everyone can be your teacher if you let them.

Secret Project

“I need your help on a secret project.” Those were the words I heard every time I was asked to join in on a special OPs, or secret project. Many of these “secret projects” turned out to be the beginnings of things like Zune, Kin, Kinect, Metro Design Language, Cortana, Search and HoloLens.

More Human

When you are a designer, it is normal to play in the future. In the summer of 2008, we were locked in a small air conditioned room, that only a few people had access to. We were working with a technology that could sense your physical presence. How could this tech be used to create more natural user interfaces? How could you become the controller? Those were our questions as we made one of the first UX prototypes for a project called “Natal” (today it is the Kinect). Proof of concept prototypes were of course, only the beginning. It would take large teams to turn these concepts into real products. This was a large step towards truly more human interfaces.

“When you are a designer, it is normal to play in the future.”

When they zig you zag

In 2008/09 the world was in love with a competitor and their skeuomorphism (UI made to resemble real objects). The only way to stand out was to go in the opposite direction; to zag when they zigged. A small team was assembled to tackle the design problem. I immediately went back to my desk and wrote the first brief for the design language called “Airport” (later it would be called the Metro Design Language, a visual design language focused on flat to 3D UI). Over the next few weeks and short months, I’d spend every night cranking out new visuals and prototype examples with this Swiss graphic design philosophy in mind. The team turned it into Windows Phone 7 and the rest is history. An entire industry, including those large competitors took notice, and eventually followed suit.

Mixed Reality

The second time in history when I saw Microsoft gather the best of the best and put them on one project, and in one space was on HoloLens. The interview to join went like this. “I can’t tell you what the project is, it will be very challenging and scary, but we will change the world…are you in? My answers was, “yes of course I’m in!” For the next few years even my wife didn’t know what I was working on because it was so secret. How do you make something from nothing? How do you make something work when you don’t even know what problem to solve? Turning ambiguity into tangibility, through making a lot, is the hallmark of the HoloLens team. I’m so lucky to have been part of the this team and to help define a computing revolution that is taking place before our eyes.

“Turning ambiguity into tangibility, through making a lot, is the hallmark of the HoloLens team”

The Quest

The best thing about being a designer, is the quest to design something ever better. Over the last 15 years, the long term effects of this mindset turns out to be a fountain of youth for the mind. The quest to make something better, to reinvent, turns out to be the quest of a lifetime.

I recently walked past my old first office, in building 9. Amazing memories flooded in as I walked down the hall. Everything looked the same, yet everything was completely different. It had changed, and so had I.

So, what does the future look like for me?…a new arc of reinvention.

With much love,

Greg Melander

gregmelander@gmail.com

gregmelander.com

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