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.
Hayes is from Boston. His mom, Priscilla, is an abstract painter and his dad, Robert, taught manufacturing at Harvard Business School for 35 years. "Industrial art is a union; I'm exactly a collision of my mom and dad," Hayes says. He's been drawing, painting, sculpting -- "just creating" -- since he was a boy, his parents say. He was attracted to industrial design, he says, "because I think it's the most challenging place -- things are constantly moving and changing."
"He's a laughingstock at Microsoft because he's so uneducated electronically," says his dad, Robert, in a phone interview. "He's not a computer geek. He's not a gamer. He can barely navigate his way around e-mail."
Priscilla, who's listening on another phone, cuts him off. "My husband is exaggerating."
Robert goes on: "About five or six months ago, there was someone in Microsoft leaking all this information about the Xbox 360, leaking it online. They got people in a room to talk about it, and when they turned to Jon, they said, 'You're not under suspicion.' "
What Hayes brought to Microsoft isn't technical prowess but an artistic sensibility that is at once classic and contemporary. The inspiration for the Xbox 360, he says, is a Constantin Brancusi sculpture from the 1920s.
"Go to Google. Click on 'images.' Type in 'Bird in Space,' " he instructs. "It traces a bird's flight. It captures the essence of upward thrust."
His favorite piece of art is Picasso's "Guernica" -- "It's about the horror of war, the best and worst of what humans can be, and it knocks the wind out of you." He quotes a line in a biography of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that reads: "I look for beauty and I express it as truthfully as I can."
"For me, it's the opposite," Hayes says. "I look for truth, and I express it as beautifully as I can."
Technology needs poetry. That's Hayes's mantra. He said it at a lecture at London's prestigious Design Museum in September, and he's saying it again here at Astro Studio, while he's waiting to meet with Lovelady and his designers.
"The force of technology needs to be balanced out with a softer, human edge -- make it more graceful, more enjoyable, more beautiful," Hayes continues. "When we were creating this console, what we kept asking ourselves was, 'Is this the kind of machine you'd like to show off? Is this the kind of game controller you can keep on the coffee table?' A friend of mine said, 'You gotta do me favor -- design a console that my wife would let me bring into the house.' "
When he describes the new Xbox as "curvaceous," "confident," "restrained" and "intelligent," you'd think he were talking about Angelina Jolie -- not the tattooed, gothic Angelina of the Billy Bob years, but the prim-and-proper, United Nations goodwill ambassador mother of two.
The original Xbox, he says, is the Incredible Hulk; it was about raw power, about raw energy, about showing the gaming world that the Xbox is a gamer's machine. The Xbox 360, he goes on, is about restrained power; "think Bruce Lee," he says. The old Xbox was more concerned about function; the new Xbox is equally concerned with form -- not only how it plays, but also how it looks in your living room. It practically screams, "I'm different, you've never seen me before, watch out!" Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The judgment of popular culture awaits.
The Xbox 360 is not an Incredible Hulk or a Bruce Lee. It is, in a way, a Jonathan Hayes -- it specializes in challenging expectations.
"I'm never gonna understand enough about gaming. I'll always be an outsider looking in, almost like an anthropologist," Hayes says. "That's a good thing to be."