Carving the One: The industrial design of Microsoft's next-generation Xbox

Carl Ledbetter, head of the team that crafted Xbox One's look, sits down with Polygon to talk about what went into the console's design.

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n the shadow of Mount St. Helens, 10-year-old Carl Ledbetter would sit for hours smashing rocks together. It took him a long time to get the chunks of volcanic glass shaped just right. Then, holding them with a piece of leather to keep from cutting himself, he would apply a gentle pressure with the tip of a deer antler, breaking off tiny slivers of obsidian along the edge. As the flakes fell away he would uncover the arrowhead shape inside.

He always thought his hobby meant he should become a geologist.

"I went to university to study geology," he told the audience at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference earlier this year. "The first thing that the instructor pointed out was, 'Hey, [geology's] already been discovered.'"

That realization crushed him. But in the end it led him to change his major and eventually find his passion: design. Today he is an 18-year Microsoft veteran and the creative director of industrial design for Xbox.

"If you think about that act of making an arrowhead," he says, "it wasn't so much about the rock. It was more about the making."

Ledbetter is a modern-day artist whose talents have given shape to iconic products like Microsoft's Intellimouse, HP's first Touchsmart computer and the Zune media player. He's also a huge geek.

"I spent the night on a lawn chair at a local store to get [the original] Xbox," he says. "They only had 12 units. I was one of those 12 people."

His highest-profile project to date is Microsoft's new next-generation console. As the head of a team of 30, he's also experiencing one of the most challenging and complex undertakings of his career.

A tale of two Bruces

The Xbox One will not exist in a vacuum. It will sit in living rooms around the world below a high-definition television, beside a cable box, near an audio tuner and perhaps alongside competing products from Nintendo and Sony. Maybe even Apple. Or Roku. Or Ouya.

To stand out, Ledbetter says that the new Microsoft console will have to communicate to the user, even when it's turned off. And given that the lifespan of consoles is getting longer and longer with each generation, what it says will be more important to sales than ever before.

To better understand the Xbox brand's voice, Ledbetter's team first had to deconstruct the spirit of previous Xbox console designs.

"The Xbox [brand] has always had something to say," Ledbetter says. "It has this kind of bold personality."

None were more bold than the original Xbox. When it was released in 2001 it bullied its way into a crowded market with a burly shape, looking more like a modern production car's plastic engine cowling than a game console. From every angle it seemed to push at the edges of its profile.

"We used this whole idea of intelligence and new types of gesture and interactions to re-establish this whole idea of restrained power."

"We always equated it to the Incredible Hulk," Ledbetter says. "It was this amazing, powerful thing, but it was very raw and unrestrained."

Microsoft's next console had much more sophisticated roots. The Xbox team circled the globe for design talent, in the end selecting six consultants to dream up their own concepts before pitting them against each other in an exhaustive evaluation. Japan's Hers Experimental Design Laboratory, famous for elevating Nike's pedestrian watches and golf clubs to new conceptual heights, barely edged out the competition. In the end Microsoft collaborated with San Francisco's Astro Studios to finish the project.

The result was a form that looked almost completely opposite of the original Xbox. The Xbox 360 was a lean, swooping, creamy device that traded hard edges for careful curves. If you looked quickly you might think it was filled with Swedish memory foam.

"We always called it the inhale," Ledbetter says. "The icon for that was, rather than the Incredible Hulk, we thought about Bruce Lee. His inhale before the strike. It was as powerful as the Hulk, but it was a more restrained power."

The 360, like the PlayStation 3 it competed with most directly, has been on the market for more than eight years. With such an unusually long life cycle, Microsoft went to great lengths to regularly refresh the design. Over its lifetime it became smaller, darker and more angular through a kind of slow metamorphosis. And so the Xbox brand voice changed again.

Ledbetter was at the helm for the design of the 360S, a smaller, sleeker version of the original 360. The soft cream color disappeared and a thick, glossy black took its place. Gone were the smooth, organic curves, replaced with a sharper, more geometric design.

He says all these changes stemmed from the introduction of the Kinect, an assembly of cameras and microphones that tracked the user's movements and voice. Ledbetter had designed human-input devices before, but never one that understood gesture and speech. For the first time people were communicating with their consoles in natural ways, and Ledbetter wanted his design to show that.

"[Kinect] drove this whole new re-creation of what Xbox was about," Ledbetter says. "We used this whole idea of intelligence and new types of gesture and interactions to re-establish this whole idea of restrained power."

The Hulk had evolved. No longer did it ask users to reign it in, or withhold from them a kind of sacred energy like Bruce Lee. As the 360 grew up, it invited players to be part of it, to be enhanced by it. In a way it was no longer just a box; it was a partner.

Call and response

Ledbetter has a favorite quote by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He put it up on-screen for all to see during his Worldwide Partner Conference presentation earlier this year.

"Form follows function — that has been misunderstood," Wright says. "Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union."

It is a quote he returns to again and again during his conversation with Polygon.

"I love industrial design," Ledbetter says. "You're designing physical products. People are physical and they love to interact with physical things. Industrial design is about solving problems. It's about connecting people with real needs."

To determine the form of the new Xbox One, his team had to understand its function. It partnered closely with the Xbox software group, which works on the same floor, and met with them regularly through the process to completely understand what the Xbox One will do for users and mirror that experience in the design.

"Xbox One is being even more," Ledbetter says bluntly. "More power. More games. … On the one hand the pure simplicity of just playing a game. The original Xbox had that, while Xbox One ... does so much more.

"When you look at the console itself, it's very architectural."

"We really challenged ourselves to think about the form in a new way, which was 'how do we make something that does so much feel right at home in anybody's entertainment center?'"

He says his team began a brainstorming process unhindered by the logical needs of the device's interior. Using an in-house rapid prototyping shop, it designed dozens of potential shapes, from elegant crescent curves to the sharp and gem-like angles of modernist sculpture. But in the end Ledbetter's team took an approach that Frank Lloyd Wright would be proud of. The homes Wright built were organic structures, taking their cues from the shapes and the materials around them. Just as Wright sought to make a natural, comfortable space for humans in the wilderness, so did Ledbetter and his team try to create a space for Xbox-branded entertainment in consumers' homes. Instead of stone and wood, their materials were glossy and matte plastic of the deepest black they could make.

"When you look at the console itself," Ledbetter says, "it's very architectural."

Ledbetter says his team took inspiration from the 16:9 aspect ratio of the modern high-definition television. Materials and finish experts on his team helped to divide the exterior of the device into discrete panels, to play off of that 16:9 proportion. Glossy surfaces sit beside matte ones, helping to break up the device's profile and allow it to blend into the wall of electronics sitting across from users' sofas — so it "feels like it's an extension of that home," as Ledbetter puts it. Where the original was brash, the newest Xbox iteration is meant to be more unobtrusive.

Elevating the brand

With the overall form set, there were two design challenges that Ledbetter's team sought to conquer.

First was cooling. The Xbox 360 was plagued throughout its life with overheating problems, a flaw that cost Microsoft billions of dollars to correct. And even with later revisions like the 360S, the fans inside were never as quiet as users wanted them to be. So Xbox One had to keep cool, and do it almost silently.

Over the course of the project Ledbetter's team built over 75 variations of the final Xbox One design. Engineers responsible for the guts gave Ledbetter's team feedback on each of these models, commenting heavily on the need for venting. It nearly drove Ledbetter mad.

"I'll be the first to admit we would like it if it didn't have any vents," Ledbetter says. "To just make a solid form it's pretty easy. As soon as you have to start interrupting that form with ventilation, holes, perforations and patterns and things like that it really does amplify the need to agonize over the design of what these things are. Because that is part of the personality of the product.

"It was a constant back and forth between the way the vents looked and the way they were spaced and the way they would perform. ... How big are they? What's the relationship? What are the proportions?

"If you look on the side [of the Xbox One] it has this 50/50 relationship on the one side, of vent to solid plastic. On the top again it's that 16:9 ratio between the vent side and solid side, so everything was completely thought out and considered."

The second challenge was branding. Ledbetter's team was never happy with how the original 360 was physically branded on the exterior. "If you go back to the 360," he says, "it was more about the green ring and a separate power button ... So one of our goals was how do we simplify all this stuff."

The revised Xbox logo sits alone on the front of the Xbox One — the only imprint on the face of the device. Instead of the green of the previous generations it is lit white, a change Ledbetter says is intended to represent the unification of all colors.

"The purpose of this was to really make the logo feel like it's part of that entertainment experience," Ledbetter says. "And in the UI you'll see that it also has the same treatment of the Xbox logo. It's white; it kind of glows right through that front panel."

While the console is built to blend in — to almost recede into the entertainment center in a consumer's home — the Xbox logo itself is pushed to the front. It does not merely brand the console; in the right lighting conditions it brands the whole space.

What about the other black box?

As soon as designs of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 were unveiled, fans and commentators alike were struck by how similar they seemed, both inside and out. The devices appear to have the guts of a high-performance white-box PC, smashed into ... well ... a little black box.

Xbox One is very much a shiny rectangle, while the PS4 is a shiny parallelogram. It's interesting how two companies, after more than eight years and thousands of man-hours of design work, came to shapes that are so similar to one another.

After all the discussion of his design for Xbox One, we wanted to know what Ledbetter thought of the competition, so we asked for his interpretation of the PlayStation 4's design. He says it's still a mystery to him.

"I haven't seen one up close. ... I really want to try it and see what it's like, see how it performs, see how it stacks up. ... I don't know what PlayStation 4 is trying to communicate."

Freedom of expression

One aspect Ledbetter isn't able to comment on is how users may be able to customize the device.

When the 360 was released, one of its unique features was interchangeable faceplates that consumers could change out to match their own style. Designs ranged from brightly colored pinstripes to classic wood grains. But it was a novelty that never really caught on.

"There was this whole industry built on it," Ledbetter says. "But then being part of the redesign of Xbox we realized that not everybody really changed out the faceplate. ... Instead we started doing more special editions.

"While we were designing it we did think about how the console could be customized, and it has plenty of opportunities to do it."

"The very first special edition, or limited-edition console we did for the 360 I think was Halo 3. It came in our Master Chief Green with the golden iridescent visor color and stuff like that, and so I was a proponent with the marketing team of doing very select limited- and special-edition consoles. And we found that those are the things that excited people, because it was related to who they are, the games that they played, be it Gears of War or Halo. Kinect Star Wars was a hit with people. ... It was R2-D2.

"And we found that people were actually more engaged with this holistic treatment of customization on the hardware than just the faceplate."

With so much time and energy spent on the unified, streamlined design of Xbox One though, it will be a while before Microsoft starts monkeying around with it and applying custom color treatments.

"While I can't talk about if there are going to be or if there are not going to be any limited- or special-edition consoles," Ledbetter says, "while we were designing it we did think about how the console could be customized, and it has plenty of opportunities to do it."

Until release day Ledbetter's careful consideration of form and function will have to stand on its own in his office. Like the arrowheads he made as a boy, this creation is very much his own work of art. Soon the world will be able to tell if his time was well spent.

Images: Microsoft
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan