When Microsoft’s Xbox gaming hardware division began gathering information on its next generation consoles ahead of the official launch in early November 2020, the list of muscular hardware specs wouldn’t come as a surprise. Microsoft – and its rival Sony – had previewed a considerable amount of detail ahead of the imminent arrival of their next-generation consoles. For the most part, to some extent, players knew what to expect. The industrial design of the Xbox Series S and especially the monolithic Xbox Series X, however, would each reveal a radical departure with a reducing design that seemed to owe Dieter Rams more than any other game console before.
With Nintendo taking a playful and family-friendly path and Sony applying a hyper-angular futuristic application to its Playstation 5, these Xbox consoles are characterized by minimalist and modern silhouettes – a basic geometry that allows for a wide range of placements that none of the Competitive solutions inspire.
We spoke to Chris Kujawski, the lead designer for Xbox consoles, about how these designs came about and what each design says about Microsoft’s vision of the current and future state of gaming.
Unlike the Xbox Series S, which has some recognizable DNA and a silhouette similar to previous Xbox consoles, the matte black Series X appears to obscure its purpose as a slot machine rather than openly communicate it. What was the design philosophy behind the simple monolithic case compared to other consoles?
We know our fans buy consoles for one reason – to play games. We also know they live with this hardware for years. We designed both the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S to have different personalities and characters, but also to disappear in the background when not in use. We deliberately tread the line between expressive and subdued.
The Xbox Series X meets almost a 2: 1 ratio for height to width. Was this by design or a case where function dictated shape to help dissipate heat?
We were deliberate in making this choice and the truth is, it was some of both. With the Xbox Series X, the team had to rethink the rules of console design to efficiently cool internal components. As a result, the team split the motherboard in half to move a large amount of air with a sufficiently low acoustic level throughout the system for the console to run quietly and efficiently.
It is the size of the fan that determines the space required by the device. The team then worked the ratio of the case around the other major components to achieve the 2: 1 ratio of two stacked cubes that became the basis for the sheer geometric identity of both consoles. Engineering and design work together here to harmonize not only performance but also form. With the product area anchored by a single coaxial fan, we have optimized the height to achieve a proportionality of almost 2: 1.
Both Xbox consoles have a simple geometric monochromatic design, with the grill of each console – a square, the other a circle – acting as the center. How was the pattern and size of these grills determined?
One of our primary design principles was to let functional elements control the expression of the form. This is the basis of our “Intelligent Geometry” approach to design – starting with mere building blocks to creating character through revealing the functionality of the device itself through details. When developing the ventilation systems for both the Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X, the scope and number of ventilation holes was determined by the functional requirements of the open space ratio (FAR).
The Xbox Series X moves more air than any other console we’ve built before, and we know how important it is for the console to run quietly – this required a higher FAR, and therefore bigger holes. To further emphasize the boldness of the vent, we created an arched indentation in the top that thins the depth of the holes in the center and increases the depth of the holes around the edges. We then added a green accent under that surface in mirrored geometry – thicker in the center, thinner around the edges – which creates an optical illusion. When the viewer changes his line of sight, more or less green becomes visible. We wanted the effect to be like the soul of the Xbox brand is at the center of the device and as you get closer to it the green blooms and reveals itself.
Could you elaborate on the design language of these consoles in relation to the Xbox line?
One of the design concepts that has remained consistent with Xbox hardware for years is the way we view consoles as more architectural and controllers as more organic. Console architectures, in the sense that they are often devices that are viewed from afar, tend to have more linear elements and consist of large silhouettes with small features. A controller is a device that you hold in your hands and that requires more organic, complex surfaces in order to meet our ergonomic needs.
Most designers will tell you that creating something simple is more difficult than creating something complex. When there are so few elements of design, each needs to be considered and intended. One of the things we’re really proud of, and something that most of the folks who own the consoles may never notice, is how elements align across all sides of the case – vent patterns for punching rubber feet, connectors Labels – you can see the orientation all around. We purposely pinned our vent patterns so that they are in a grid rather than a staggered pattern. The grid-based hole patterns add a visible structure and a graphic element to the consoles. Using the grille vent for the circle element for Xbox Series S resulted in a stronger – if subtle – bond with Xbox Series X.
The challenge is to design two devices that have to speak the same design language but have very different natural properties. Products like the Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and the Xbox Wireless Controller are pure 2D geometric shapes like a circle. The circle can be seen on all of our products, but in very different scales, different contrasts and in both positive and negative areas. Simple elements such as a circle are much more flexible in their execution, but still act as a uniform element due to their purely geometric nature.
However, our team didn’t stop after creating the shapes of the consoles. When it comes to actually making these parts, our goal is always to push the boundaries of injection molding and tooling for the ultimate in fit and finish. The steel molds for all of our cases have been chemically etched rather than spark eroded during the texturing process. The resulting texture is one with microscopic ribs that are rounder and reflect the light more softly – the finished plastic part is almost a painted quality and feels better.
The vent on the Xbox Series S is also controlled by a target FAR, but we were able to mimic the extent of the vent on the Xbox One S. The shape and position of the vent is controlled by the position of the fan in the device. The fan is round and the perimeter of the vent is a circle. We chose to use this shape as an iconic element of the device and make it black as opposed to the white of the rest of the case for a very specific reason.
These are both reductive designs that hide a degree of complexity. Could you share the challenges associated with a design process that appears primarily reductive?
Very early on in the program, when we were still evaluating various technical architectures, we examined various form factors. They shared the same design philosophy of building from pure geometry and adding details through functional elements. Our final architecture choice for the Xbox Series X was solidified by making these various shapes available to our customers and letting them tell us what worked for them. We had them replace their current consoles with the models, tell us what fits in their homes and what feels the newest and most exciting. We were delighted with how many of our fans chose the Xbox Series X. This gave the team the confidence to do something bold and different.
And what about the subtle texture on the wishbones? How and why was this particular pattern chosen?
We conducted extensive user testing throughout the game to find out how much and how much texture was enough to dissolve surface tension in people’s hands. This nearly microscopic element is another example of the team applying purely geometric shapes in a functional way. Under magnification, you can see that each bump is a rounded circle that is only 0.05mm high and is arranged in a grid.
However, the surface of the controller is very complex, so each elevation was manually placed and arranged in the 3D CAD modeling program. It’s incredibly time consuming to go through such a small pattern, but we did it to land on a texture that was grippy but not abrasive. Fortunately, we work with some very talented and very patient CAD sculptors.
What does each and the sum of these console designs say about the Xbox design ethos?
We understand intelligent geometry as this approach to designing the way our products look, feel and work. Our approach to design is based on functionality and performance, recognizing that these are products that a player, family and household will live with for years. We know that some of our fans want to celebrate the console, and for others, they want it out of the way. Our goal is to design for both.
All pictures / photos: Microsoft