Reflections on our design history, the progression, and the potential of how we collectively design for the future

Joseph McLaughlin
Feb 21 · 5 min read

The idea of establishing a design system at Microsoft started a decade ago when several product teams merged and a handful of design pioneers started working together. Their work gave rise to our first shared design language — a bold achievement given that design was in its infancy at Microsoft and the company’s success at that time was built on a myriad of siloed products.

These early efforts toward a shared design language built a better creative environment and fostered stronger partnerships between teams.

The Fluent Design System continues this work. Fluent is evolving to be more than a set of outcomes and will define the process by which we collectively design and build products. It represents the growth and influence of design thinking within Microsoft.

It’s a living thing that continues to evolve. And like any living thing, it has basic needs to grow and flourish.

Fluent becomes the best version of itself when there is clarity around what it is, what it could be, and why that’s important. Today, we aspire to make Fluent a collective, open design system that connects us, inspiring and influencing everything we create.

As a 10-year design veteran at the company, I’m excited to share my perspective on how we got here and where we’re heading.

Design at scale

Microsoft does not lack in design talent, but certainly faces the very real challenge of learning to scale and span the products and experiences as we grow.

Historically, Microsoft designers have valued product-level expertise, innovation, and experience. As a discipline, we've focused on building design culture, having a seat at the table, and working more closely alongside engineers to learn, to grow, to craft and build together.

These engineering partnerships inspired us to think like a network as designers. And to wonder how we could build on the collective cross-disciplinary excellence of our Microsoft design and engineering community — a key component of Fluent.

So, how do we tap into our design talent, collectively scale design, and build better together?

We do it openly. Transparently. In a systematic way where folks can leverage, contribute ideas, be leaders, have collective ownership, and self-govern as a network of makers. This approach reaches toward the greater good for designers, the products we shape, and the customers who use them.

It’s time to redesign how we design and build products — together.

Designing how we design

The timing has never been better. With a proliferation of new design tools on the market that bring design and development closer together, we can do more with less.

Just like product design, we’re looking at our design system as a design challenge that can solve problems for our users. A human-centered approach. But the users this time are our designers, design teams, engineers, and product leaders.

To solve this challenge, we must believe that how we do something is as important, if not more important, than what we do. And that a better design system will benefit everyone involved and create a more coherent ecosystem of products. The familiarity we build through our shared design system translates to the best experience of each product across all platforms.

Our efforts do not seek a one-size-fits-all answer or design for the lowest common denominator. Instead, Fluent must encompass our shared foundation plus layers of product experience and brand expression, across platforms.

The value of Fluent’s collective approach is becoming more evident as we build coherence across products and platforms. A rich unified search experience, people experience across products, our recent brand iconography efforts, and alignment around the universal language of illustration are just the beginning of Fluent’s impact.

A collective, open-source design system

Fluent Design System builds on the momentum of great things already happening at Microsoft, standing on shoulders without stepping on toes. It celebrates those who contribute to what we collectively do, regardless of what team they work on. It borrows from engineering workflows to help us be efficient where we can, saving creative energy for where it’s most needed.

We’re taking a few pages from our engineering partners’ playbooks and looking for ways to work more openly and collaboratively. Shared tools and communication are an important part of that. If tens of thousands of engineers across teams and products can work together globally, there’s certainly something to learn and apply in our design efforts.

The evolution of Fluent makes sharing part of our DNA. With this shared system, we become more open by design, more intentional about cross-team collaboration, more efficient — doing more with less — together.

Fluent is about creating products at a higher level of craft. It’s about playing the long game: designing a system that helps us design for the future, not just for now.

Rising to this challenge will take a lot of time and effort, and we all have day jobs in specific products. But it’s going to pay dividends along the way. Over time it can bring our culture, our business, our technology, and our experiences together.

Our collective value is much greater than any one product. That’s the spirit behind our Fluent design vision: many perspectives, one open, cross-platform design system. One Microsoft experience.

We’re eager to explore it with you as it keeps evolving.

We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Please join the discussion over in the LinkedIn Fluent Design Group.


To stay in-the-know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or join our Windows Insider program. And if you are interested in joining our team, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Joseph McLaughlin

Written by

Partner Director of Design, ECD at Microsoft, Experiences + Devices Group — Microsoft Fluent Design System. Opinions expressed here are my own.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

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