Outside the Box

"The force of technology needs to be balanced out with a softer, human edge -- make it more graceful, more enjoyable, more beautiful," says the Xbox designer. (By Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO -- There's something a little off here: The designer of the Microsoft Xbox 360 -- the video-game console landing in a place of honor right next to the television in millions of living rooms starting today -- doesn't play video games.

"No, I'm not a gamer. Um, do you have to write that?" asks Jonathan Hayes, smiling sheepishly.

Everything about the look of the new Xbox -- its shape, its color, its feel -- is a dramatic change from the first Xbox, Hayes says. And indeed it is. The old game console, which came out in the not-so-very-old year of 2001, is a bulky, black square thing. Its reincarnation is a sleek, off-white, curvy vessel, like something out of a store that is part Pottery Barn, part Sharper Image. It's as if Microsoft's new baby, with two versions priced at $299 and $399 and expected to sell 3 million units in 90 days -- yeah, do the math -- has gone through a nip-tuck, and Hayes, scalpel in hand, directed the surgery.

When he says that the Xbox "doesn't look like anything you've seen before in game consoles -- not the NES, not Sega, not PlayStation," he's really speaking of himself. He is a 37-year-old misfit, a self-described "weird, idiosyncratic guy," a hardware designer in a software company full of engineers.

There's a history behind this.

He was the kind of kid at Amherst, the prestigious liberal arts college in Massachusetts, who wrote his thesis on wood as a material for sculpture. His friends "looked at me like I was a bit of a wacko," he recalls. He then went on to get a master's in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, "and I wasn't wearing my black turtleneck or chain-smoking," he says with a laugh. "They thought I was from Brown." Years later, at Microsoft, where he has been since 1997, helping design a joystick, a mouse, a keyboard and a cell phone before moving on to the Xbox, he continues to see himself as an outsider. "Like the sand in the oyster," he says.

After landing the job to give that increasingly ubiquitous bit of furniture, the game console, a new look, he remembers J Allard, the Xbox's big boss, telling him: "Gaming is not a very mature field."

"J was in a sense worried that I would bring in too much high design -- you know, too much philosophy," explains Hayes, who with his blond hair, blue eyes and beefy build, looks like a J. Crew model. In the living room of his loft in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle is a sofa, a CD player, a drawing table, a TV set with rabbit ears -- "I get three channels," he says -- and lots and lots of books. That's pretty much it. He recently started reading the John Reader tome "Africa: A Biography of the Continent" to "go back to basics, and study the first tools we made."

"At Xbox, we're loaded with people who are off the charts in their technical understanding," Hayes continues. "My job isn't to compete in that front. My job is to produce a counterweight to that."

Hayes, who took charge of the Xbox in September 2003, leads a global group of about two dozen designers, West meets East, from San Francisco and Osaka. For the past two years, he's been shuttling back and forth, always on "enthusiasm overdrive -- a type double-A personality who's on 24/7," says Brett Lovelady, president and founder of the San Francisco contingent, Astro Studio, which achieved renown for its S-shape Nike sports watches.

"The machine's purity of line and form -- I mean, it looks like a ceramic piece -- that's Jon's influence," Lovelady says.

"For this new Xbox, it was very important to bring in a fresh set of eyes in how we think about what it should look like," adds Don Coyner, who helped hire Hayes to the Xbox 360 team.

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