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    05.26.17 7:00 am

Why Designers Are Reviving This 30-Year-Old Japanese Productivity Theory
Toyota’s 5S principles, which ushered in lean manufacturing in the 1980s, are experiencing a renaissance.
Why Designers Are Reviving This 30-Year-Old Japanese Productivity Theory
[Photo: Filip_Krstic/iStock]

By Meg Miller5 minute Read

Decades before Marie Kondo became the go-to Japanese organizational guru—transforming her name into a verb and selling more than 6 million copies of her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—another declutter philosophy became one of Japan’s biggest exports.
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Called 5S after its alliterative core tenets—sort, set in order, shine,  standardize, and sustain—the methodology originated on the Toyota assembly line, then went on to become a foundational element of the lean manufacturing wave that swept the world in the 1980s. Its underpinning idea is as simple as its steps: Namely, that a well-organized workplace yields a safer, more efficient, and more productive system.

And while over the years 5S has mostly been used in regards to factory design, the principles have recently been applied to software development, housekeeping, and even architecture. What makes it exceptional is that it teaches not only how to visually organize for efficiency, but also how to maintain the system. So where did 5S come from? And how can it be useful off of the factory floor?
[Photo: Qilai Shen/Getty Images]
A Brief History Of 5S

5S originated with Japanese inventor Sakichi Toyoda–the founder of Toyota who is also known as the “father of the Japanese industrial revolution.”

In the wake of World War II, Japan was rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and bolstering its new manufacturing systems. Toyoda and his son Kiichiro, along with Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno, spent the decades after the war exploring ways to trim the fat in Toyota’s manufacturing processes. By the ’70s, the English-speaking press had picked up on a production method they had been developing, called Just-In-Time manufacturing (also known as the Toyota Production System).

The Just-In-Time system seeks to cut costs, increase worker satisfaction, and cut down on waste by tightly managing and organizing every aspect of the production process—ultimately incorporating concepts like keeping tools visible and workspaces clean, and giving workers a sense of autonomy and involvement. The methodology spread throughout Japan, then hit the U.S. and spanned worldwide in the 1980s. (It’s considered a progenitor for lean manufacturing, another efficiency strategy that sprung out of the ’90s and is still practiced today.)

The Just-In-Time concept arose out of Toyoda and Ohno’s idea of 5S, whose steps are mainly concerned with creating a tidy work area, identifying and storing items that are most frequently used in production, and maintaining that orderly system. Here’s a summary:

    Seiri (sort): Sort out unneeded items.

The first step is essentially Kondo, condensed: Get rid of any waste and unnecessary items that aren’t regularly used. Basically anything that does not bring joy–or in this case, utility–to the factory floor. The steps following are what differentiate 5S and make it useful as a tool of a broader theory known as visual control, which essentially states that systems are more efficient if all of their elements are visible and easy to access.
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    Seiton (straighten): Have a place for everything.

With 5S, tools are arranged according to their uses, on a first-in-first-out basis.

    Seiso (shine): Keep the area clean.
    Seiketsu (standardize): Create rules and standard operating procedures.

Once everything is clean and in its right place, that becomes the standard–meant to be maintained every day.

    Shitsuke (sustain): Maintain the system and continue to improve it.

The concept also relies on the self-discipline of employees to maintain the proper order systematically, without being told. In that way, tidying up becomes a routine—a series of tasks that are almost second nature. And those milliseconds saved in not searching for a tool or having to clean it before use turn into monetary gains.

[Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images]
From The Factory Floor To Your Smartphone And Apartment

In broad strokes, 5S basically exemplifies the theory that production—and individual productivity—is much easier to maintain if all the tools of the trade are orderly and in plain sight. For example, a labeled storage container communicates what goes where, and what is missing when it’s empty. Visual control is the business management term for it. In The Toyota Way, the company’s 2001 book that sums up its production principles, it is known as mieruka. Either way, the main takeaway is that clear visual cues allow for people to ingest information quickly, with only a glance.

For graphic and UX designers, this will sound familiar—these rules apply to any type of visual communication or instruction. In the same way that clear icons or labels allow for the smooth functioning of a factory’s assembly line, clear wayfinding allows for the efficient functioning of a city. Concise and clever identity design conveys a company’s mission, and simple icons on an iPhone home page allow users to find an app faster.

The 5S principles can also be applied to theories of user-friendly design—instead of clarity for the sake of factory workers dealing with heavy equipment and multiple tools, visual controls can be useful for anyone using a software program, or navigating a website. In fact, the book Clean Code, A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship even proposes applying 5S to programming, keeping lines of code clean, orderly and well-maintained.
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Likewise, it’s no leap to imagine 5S principles from the factory being applied to the home—and in fact, many interior blogs and housekeeping tips already suggest keeping the most used household things most accessible, without ascribing it to a 20th century Japanese industry technique. But what about designing an entire space around the 5S system?

That’s what Australian architect Nicholas Gurney did recently with his design of a micro-flat in Sydney. Working with a home that measures under 300 square feet and sleeps two, Gurney looked toward the five principles to design an open floor plan with a kitchenette, bathroom, and bedroom, all tucked away in different corners of the house, divided by a sliding door in the case of the bathroom, and a perforated wall for the bed. Gurney streamlined all appliances and household objects and organized them neatly in overhead storage, deep shelving, and multi-use furniture—in true 5S fashion, every object has a specific place. The clever safe-saving furniture allows for the apartment to look spare and decluttered, though everything can easily be found if you know where to look.

It’s a classic example of decluttering and then standardizing the system, so that the cleanliness and order is easy to maintain. Neatness can go a long way in a small apartment, and 5S is a valuable method for any tiny apartment owner. With more and more people moving to cities, architects and interior designers would do well to incorporate 5S in all small apartments or homes.

But organizing your space so that everything is in its place, easily visible, and clearly labeled is beneficial for anyone, homeowner and designer alike. Go on–redecorate your place like a car factory.
About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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    05.17.17

Google’s 18-Month Quest To Redesign Its Terrible Emoji
Google is notorious for having some of the worst emoji on the planet. Now it’s righting its wrongs–and taking on gender stereotypes, too.
1/9 Google goes circular: The old emoji is on left. New, right. [Image: Google]

By Mark Wilson5 minute Read

We’ve all been there. On Android or Gchat or Gmail, you try to send a crying emoji, or a grin. Basic stuff, really. But when you click the icon, you’re suddenly reminded that Google’s emoji are atrocious. Call them melted marshmallows, or congealed dollops of lard. Mutant egg yolks or Clippy’s deformed, inbred cousins. These lumpy, misshapen visages aren’t just ugly. They don’t match the emoji used by Apple or Microsoft.
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“It’s a communication issue,” says Rachel Been, Creative Director on Google’s Material Design. “If I sent my friend the dancing woman on iOS, and I’m on an Android device and I see a blob, there’s a miscommunication.”

And now, thanks be to Google, that miscommunication is being fixed.

“We’re doing a full redesign of the emoji set,” says Gus Fonts, Product Manager, Android. “We took a look at many things, but mostly the thing that’s most striking is, perhaps, that yes, the candy dots or blobs, are now substituted with a set of squishy circles–for a lot of good reasons.”

The full update, which will roll out with Android O later this year, represents a year and a half of work within Google. It isn’t just a design overhaul of the (melting, yellow) elephant (dung) in the room, though. It also addresses deeper problems within Google’s emoji set: As Google has made its emoji people more realistic, the company had to completely rethink how–and why–it represents people the way it does.
Old, left. New, right. Note the stroke and gradient. And the cooler haircut. [Image: Google]
What Happens When Emoji Become People

It’s a problem born from progress. Google lobbied for the introduction of female professions last year with Android N. People loved them when they hit, but these new emoji were highly detailed figures, complete with torsos and props. On an aesthetic level, these more detailed emoji only clashed with Google’s existing, dumpy, gum drop emoji. “As we looked at this, for N, converting the blobby people to actual people, to moving for racial selection, we started asking, ‘do we need a stylistic overhaul to bring in one cohesive piece?'” recalls Been.

As part of its design overhaul, Google rounded out its old, blobby expressions into circular faces, giving them continuity with the rest of the emoji universe. Other unifying graphic guidelines match the old guard emoji with the new inside Google’s emoji language. For instance, dark strokes outline shapes, while subtle gradients simulate lighting to create a subtle dimensionality that might seem inherently unhip just a few years ago during the era of flat design. The yellow “simple smile” emoji and the female scientist inherently match in a way that they formerly did not.

To develop the more cohesive look, Google didn’t just create a bunch of new emoji. It created a new emoji logic. Unicode adds as many as 100 new emoji each year–each of which can have many permutations for gender or skin tone. To create each as a bespoke graphic takes time, but it also has requires the designer to start from scratch for every image. Been wondered if the efficient graphic language Google had developed in Material Design–in which a few fundamental rules ground how everything from app icons to menu bars are designed–might simplify and clarify the production of new emoji. “We used a lot of reusable components. Expressions have a very consistent set of eyes and mouths,” says Been. “We [also] used a grid system, most specifically and prevalent in people and expression emoji, and based it on the Material Design grid system, so there was parity there.
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“It allowed us to create these much quicker,” Been continues. “If the expression is really sad, you hit certain grid lines…to hit a sad expression.”
Google’s new women at work. [Image: Google]
Designing Gender Stereotypes Out Of Emoji

The underlying challenge of the project, for Google, was to tackle some of the lingering stereotypes lurking within the emoji themselves. After all, emoji are symbols, meant to be instantly recognizable as a thing or emotion. But it’s precisely this sort of iconographic treatment that makes some people feel misrepresented, or pigeonholed. The design team wanted to address some of these existing cultural stereotypes with its update–most notably when it came to gender.

“I don’t think any of our emoji were culturally insensitive, but the things we tried to do when having conversations about representation [was to ask], ‘since these are global, how do we remove any representation of same gender, and what it means to be a woman in any culture,'” says Been. “We purposely moved away from just putting the girls in pink. We needed for legibility purposes to tell the difference of men and women, but why did she need to be in a stereotypical color? And we put women in pants.”

The team also shied away from jewelry and makeup, scrubbing men and women of those props in acknowledgement of a shift already taking place within emoji culture: The new Unicode standard features three gender-neutral figures, and it’s easy to imagine emoji continuing to move beyond binary representations of gender so that everyone feels more welcome.

“We wanted to make sure the system was ready to expand if we were to release wider representation of gender,” says Fonts. “In the old set, the style we had wasn’t very adaptable.”
The new mind blown emoji. [Image: Google]
Can There Be An Emoji For Everyone?

When I ask about the team’s most passionate arguments over the course of the redesign, they laugh. Something as simple as the tinfoil texture on the burrito emoji led to great debates. And new emoji, like the “mind blown” expression, raised nearly existential questions: What does a blown mind really look like? Is it a nuclear bomb drop? Or something closer to a firecracker? (Yes, these things have to be decided by someone.)

Google’s new burrito emoji–a work of great debate. [Image: Google]
However superficial these burrito foils and minds explosion arguments may have been, they always embodied the same high stakes question from the user: Does this image–even if it’s a stupid taco–represent my taco? Does this visual word represent my human experience?

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“Emoji is a balance of symbolism and actual representation of the real thing,” says Fonts, as he talks about Google’s yellow blobs–he calls them “peanuts”–which started the debate. “We were on one extreme before with the peanuts, and now the other has real representation. What we saw was, if you go too far in that [representational] direction because you want to be inclusive, people don’t see themselves represented and they’re not going to use it. You have to have enough specificity to represent you enough, but not so inclusive that your emoji palette is hundreds of thousands of emoji.”

It’s one thing when you’re talking about a taco. But the stakes are higher when you’re designing human emoji, which encompass gender, race, and cultural identity.

That’s why, for Been, the biggest challenge of the project wasn’t rendering Google’s conventional emoji faces as circles. Rather, she says it was Unicode’s new mandate for “fantasy” emoji, which include mermaids, genies, and vampires. Users should be able to change the skin tone of their vampires, Google determined. But what about zombies? They remain only green. “It’s all a little bit arbitrary,” she adds a moment later, considering how silly emoji can spark these intense cultural debates. “But it’s fun.”
About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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    05.16.17

6 Absurd (And Kinda Brilliant) Design Details From Apple Park
Apple’s attention to architectural detail may be excessive, but boy is the spectacle impressive.
6 Absurd (And Kinda Brilliant) Design Details From Apple Park
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

By Mark Wilson2 minute Read

Anyone following the $5 billion product development known as Apple Park–the company’s new 175-acre development on which a 2.8-million square foot Norman Foster spaceship has officially landed–will want to read the latest feature in Wired, which takes the closest look yet at the “insane” attention to detail within the campus.
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It’s easy to be cynical about the sheer attention to detail that Apple has applied to its own campus. After all, the tech press has been staring at Steve Jobs’s final project, asking “what does this mean?” for years now–all while Apple has yet to release another hit product since the iPhone. Nonetheless, it is an incredible attention to detail, from the materials and engineering. Here’s what we learned from Wired:
[Image: United States Patent and Trademark Office]
Apple Has A Patent On The Pizza Boxes From Its Cafe

It’s not delivery, it’s…lunch brought back to your desk. For those who can’t take the time to eat in the 4,000-person cafeteria, Francesco Longoni, who heads the Apple Park café, helped Apple develop a patented new pizza box. It appears to have vents on the top to let steam escape so the pizza won’t get soggy in transit.
The Cafe’s Glass Doors Weigh 440,000 Pounds

The cafe itself is essentially a giant atrium, with floor and balcony seating. But despite the space’s size, on nice days two doors can be slid open to let the air in. Yet, thanks to their steel frames and 10 panels of glass, these doors weigh 440,000 pounds apiece–so Apple stuck machinery underground to silently open and close each door on command.
Jony Ive Saved The Day With A Trick From…iPods?!?

In one of the wilder details from the piece, Jobs consents to Foster that the building needs “fins”–shades that break the monolith’s circular silhouette to provide the broad, 45-foot-tall windows with much-needed shade. However, since all glass contains sand, and sand contains iron, the original glass fins had an unacceptably green tinge to them. In response, Ive’s own design team suggested a solution, inspired by their experience designing physical products like the shining white iPod. By painting the back of the glass white, and attaching it to metal sheets coated with white silicone, and mixing in a touch of pink to the white pigment, Apple got the shining, non-green aesthetic it wanted.
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
 Apple’s Desks Have No Wires, Of Course

Apple’s workspaces are built in a rearrangeable pod structure around the ring. And in a moment of restraint, Apple’s height-adjustable desks are made from a custom timber veneer from recycled wood. They bracket into the wall with integrated fiber optics and electrical wires. And two buttons allow employees to raise and lower the desks. “Users can tell them apart by feel: The convex one raises the table, the concave lowers it,” Levy writes.
The Gleaming Stairwells Hack The Fire Code

The building’s stairwells are white concrete with arm rails molded into the walls. But they don’t require heavy fire doors mandated by code, despite being classified as fire stairs. How? Jobs argued that, much like on yachts, “in cases of flagration, glass encasing the stairwells should be drenched by high-­pressure sprinkler heads producing a dense mist,” Wired’s Steven Levy explains. The argument worked.
Apple Used Hydrodynamics To Keep Its Glass Spot-Free

Apple Park uses unfathomable amounts of glass, and anyone who has taken their car through a lazy automated carwash knows how water spots can form as drips dry. Apple designed its glass canopies scientifically to roll water away, rather than pooling it. That may not seem like a revolutionary idea–until you realize the research behind this particular shape was only published in 2006.
About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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    05.15.17 wanted

Want To Understand The Future Of Design? Read These Books
Upgrade your summer beach reading with these tomes about the future of cities, AI, big data, and more.
Want To Understand The Future Of Design? Read These Books

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan6 minute Read

The president communicates via Tweet. Artificial intelligence rates our outfits. We talk to our devices like they’re children.  Today’s reality is stranger than anything fiction could have imagined–and the vast political, economic, and technological upheavals of the past year don’t exactly lend themselves to clarity.
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Here at Co.Design, we’ve watched as these shifts have rippled across the design world. In cities, citizens are debating affordable housing, their right to privacy in the connected city, and the rise of privatized infrastructure. In the product design world, the conversation revolves around changing notions of intellectual property, worker rights, and–again–the rights of the user. Meanwhile, the tech industry and privacy advocates are grappling with the role of machine learning and the ubiquity of algorithms in our world.

In short, we’re living in a moment when design and technology sit at the crux of a society-wide paradigm shift. Luckily, there are plenty of public intellectuals, technologists, data scientists, and writers tackling these topics already. Here are several recent titles that lend coherence to an incoherent time.
[Cover: Crown Books]
The Algorithms Are In Charge–And We Put Them There

Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy came out almost exactly two months before Donald Trump surprised the world last November, igniting a global debate about fake news and the role of algorithms and big data in our lives. Yet it can be tough to get a grip on this issue if you don’t have a background in it, and O’Neil’s writing is compelling and essential reading today.

Over the course of each chapter, O’Neil–who is also known as Mathbabe through her eponymous blog–shows how complex and opaque mathematical models had already colonized our world, from the models that are used to judge public school teachers, to algorithms that are used to establish sentencing in criminal cases, to Facebook itself. WMDs, as she calls these models, are “churning away in every conceivable industry, exacerbating inequality and punishing the poor.”

This is what is sometimes missing from the debate around algorithms in our lives: A voice that speaks with clarity about how faulty algorithms are worsening inequality in our world. In addition to explaining the math, she makes an impassioned argument against the growing over-reliance on totally opaque models that are often biased and downright incorrect.

A bonus? Her vivid description of working at the leading hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the credit crisis, and how the crisis unfolded. Here’s hoping O’Neil keeps explaining the complex math that governs our society.
[Cover: Basic Books]
Populism, Inequality, And The Paradox Of Creative Cities

In Richard Florida’s latest book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class–and What We Can Do About It, he grapples with his theories about “the rise of the creative class,” which described how cities that focused on technology, talent, and tolerance could see great economic gains.
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Florida’s ideas drove many progressive urban agendas over the past two decades. But in The New Urban Crisis, published in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, he looks at the “dark side” of the creative city phenomenon: The fact that even in these progressive cities, the poor get poorer, equality is worsening, and the benefits are seen mainly by the well-off. “So which is it,” he asks early on in the book, as much to himself as to us, “Are cities the great engines of innovation, the models of economic and social progress, that the optimists celebrate, or are they the zones of gaping inequality and class divisions that the pessimists decry?”

According to Florida, they’re both. The book paints a detailed picture of the urban crisis he sees in cities, and sets up a framework for “urbanism for all” in its final chapter, with policy suggestions ranging from reforming land use regulation to changing the way housing subsidies are designed to encourage suburban, not urban, growth. But maybe most vividly, it’s a portrait of a society in flux, and a vivid portrayal of the socioeconomic forces driving populism–not just on the national or international stage, but in our cities, too.
[Cover: Hachette]
A Guide To Seeing The Future In The Present

Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, the new book by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, begins with a series of hair-raisingly embarrassing anecdotes–all concerning tech pioneers who utterly failed to see the impact of transformative technology. From the Lumière brothers (who pioneered film and then called it “an invention without a future”) to Steve Ballmer (who said the iPhone would have”no chance” at any “significant market share”). Ouch. The point, as Ito puts it? “Our technologies have outpaced our ability, as a society, to understand them.”

Ito’s book is about trying to step back from your own time and see the broader, macro-scale implications of the technology that populates it. It’s not an easy task, but over the course of this short, vivid tome, he lays out nine principles that serve as tools. The principles themselves sound esoteric out of context, but Ito and Howe explain them using everything from synthetic biology to the 2012 tsunami and nuclear disaster. Even if you don’t come out the other side a seer, you’ll have learned how Ito thinks about the future.
[Cover: Basic Books]
What Is Fun, Anyway? And How Do You Create It?

As its name suggests, Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games, the 2016 book by the game designer Ian Bogost, is about playing–but this isn’t a book about “gamification” in design.

Really, it’s about how we as a culture have totally misunderstood what play and fun really are. Bogost explains that fun comes from restrictions, rules, and tensions, not freedom.”Fun isn’t pleasure, it turns out,” he writes. “Fun is the feeling of finding something new in a familiar situation. Fun almost demands boredom: you need the sense that nothing good could possibly arise from an experience in order for the experience there to smolder with the hot pleasure of surprise.”

While it’s an anomaly in this list since it could be read as a philosophical meditation on modern life, Play Anything is a fascinating perspective on a time when many feel uncomfortable without some form of digital stimulation in front of us. It’s a worthy read for anyone working in UX or design, touching on the psychology of boredom, delight, and pleasure in daily life.
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[Cover: W. W. Norton & Company]
The Privacy Crisis Is Here, And It’s Worse Than You Imagine

In theory, most of us know that our digital lives are an open book, and that–again, in theory–our privacy is being constantly and subtly violated and our data leveraged and sold. In fact, most of us have already given up on trying to protect our privacy. Who hasn’t thought “eh, so be it” when accepting an app’s invasive Terms of Service?

In Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, the privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier explains why we should all care–and how mass surveillance, which Schneier terms a “public-private surveillance partnership” between the government and corporations, makes us “less safe… and less free.” Over the course of the tome, Schneier decodes this often-opaque and jargon-filled world, and explains how “anonymous” data is rarely anything of the sort.

It’s a fascinating (and, frankly, kind of horrifying) exposition of surveillance, and for designers and anyone working with products or technology, it’s an eye-opening glimpse into the way a seemingly innocuous stream of data–say, from a fitness tracker, a drone’s camera, or an app–can be used, sold, and contextualized with startling ends.
About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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    05.11.17 exclusive

Exclusive: Behind Fluent Design, Microsoft’s Vision For The Future Of Interfaces
Ephemeral. Light. Ethereal. The language Microsoft’s designers uses to describe its new design language are borrowed from the art world.
[Image: Microsoft]

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan6 minute Read

Bojana Ostojic was working on Microsoft’s experimental mixed reality headset, HoloLens, when she realized that she was seeing the future of design at the company.
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“I have to say, coming into that space really challenged me as a designer to really rethink a lot,” she remembers of her two years building HoloLens. Creating a holographic version of reality requires you to be part architect, part cinematographer, and part developer. If you’re using your hands to model an object in your living room via holograph, and need to move over to change something in the CAD model on your PC with a mouse, how should the interface respond? “Those were the moments in my holographic experience that I felt we were onto something really different than we had been in the past,” Ostojic says.

[Image: Microsoft]
HoloLens was, and is, the most experimental high-profile product in Microsoft’s stable. Again: Holographs. So it seems like an unlikely place to incubate the company’s first new design guidelines in years. Yet Ostojic, who is now the company’s Principal Director of Design, explains that HoloLens was the inspiration for Fluent Design, a set of design guidelines the company introduced at its Build 2017 conference. It’s a loosely defined and still-evolving set of best practices for designing across mobile, desktop, voice, gesture, AI, VR, and holographic interfaces, a necessarily broad language of interactions, animations, and visuals that may be updated frequently.

Conceptually, it’s the exact inverse of the precise, typography-based Metro design system the company released almost a decade ago, and a glimpse at how Microsoft is striving to remake itself with a more transparent, collaborative culture.

Over the past two years, the company has led the shift toward inclusive design, an approach that is now evident across the industry. It’s increasing its emphasis on real-world applications of machine learning and AI. It released a radical holographic device that no one saw coming, inviting developers and designers to collaborate on its development. In addition to evolving its popular Surface line, Microsoft launched a bevy of new hardware devices, like the Surface Studio, that are meant to eat Apple’s proverbial lunch: creatives. Perhaps more than anything, it’s been dramatically more transparent about its many experimental products and apps.

At the same time, such a diverse stable of devices and apps creates a problem of continuity. 2D interfaces are largely a solved problem these days, and most screen-based operating systems share some of the same basic qualities.”2D has been the name of the game for a really long time,” says Tim Allen, who came on as a partner at Microsoft this year. “The industry knows it, breathes it, and, to a certain extent, has started to perfect it, as well.”

[Screenshot: Microsoft]
Yet no company–not Apple, Facebook, or Google–has quite figured out how to integrate the old world of 2D devices with the new world of 3D or mixed reality hardware. “With HoloLens, you’re interacting with literally light–holograms–and that’s a new experience,” says Albert Shum, Corporate Vice President of Design. “At the same time, how do you make sure, as a creator making something, that you can easily go from a PC to a HoloLens and back?”

That was the problem from which Fluent Design emerged. It’s meant to serve as a cohesive interaction language across all of Microsoft’s devices and systems: Windows 10, HoloLens, Surface, Xbox, Cortana, and more. “We were realizing that a lot of our experiences today don’t need a screen,” says Shum. And beyond VR, how could they standardize an experience across emerging interface modalities like voice and gesture? Shum has led Microsoft’s push towards inclusive design over the past few years, and Fluent Design is an expansion of that kind of thinking. “We’re thinking a lot more about new technologies that enable not just new experiences, but experiences for everyone.”
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[Screenshot: Microsoft]
It’s still very early days for Fluent Design, and many of the conversations around the system haven’t been formalized as strict guidelines. The first wave of elements the company shared today describe things like “connected animations,” a series of motion graphics that are designed to standardize the animations that a user sees when navigating between two apps or pieces of content, or between devices. A new creative app the company introduced today, called Story Remix, creates stories from your videos and images using these animations. Then users can add 3D objects to 2D images and videos easily and seamlessly–a demonstration of the kind of mixed-dimensional creativity the Microsoft design team wants to enable.

“I think we’re moving in a direction of our operating systems feeling more temporal and ephemeral,” Ostojic explains of the system’s emphasis on motion and animation. “It’s not as rigid as it used to be in the past. We summon things that come and go, we search for them, we don’t necessarily anchor ourselves in very rigid structures.”

[Image: Microsoft]
Acrylic, the first standardized design material the company is publishing under the system, is a glassy layering of materials that are rendered as a thin pane of gaussian-blurred glass. Here’s where Fluent Design is very similar to Google’s Material Design in terms of how it applies to 2D interfaces; it’s meant to replicate the physics of the real world. But its primary emphasis is on light, which Ostojic attributes to HoloLens. In the company’s holographic interface, your gaze directs a spot of light–instead of a pointer–to control menu buttons and navigation panes.

“Without light, it would be very hard to orient yourself within a VR or holographic space,” she says. “[Light] becomes a very fundamental need in that kind of design paradigm. We looked at that and said, ‘Okay, if that’s effective within VR and holographic space, how do we bring it across the rest of the devices?” The answer: An interaction the company calls “Reveal,” which visually highlights unseen parts of an interface when you touch, point, or look at it, a lot like HoloLens does but across more devices. Light, rather than a color palette or a font, is the “connective tissue” in Fluent Design.

[Image: Microsoft]
The system is intentionally light on rules, right now. Allen, Ostojic, and Shum explain Fluent Design as an evolving library of interactions, behavior patterns, and interface elements, not a finished product. Every three to four months, using feedback from the community, the system will be updated. It’s a shift away from the way design standards are typically published–and the way Microsoft presented its previous design language, Metro–and toward a fuzzier, more community-driven approach. Both Shum and Allen, who joined the company two months ago after leaving his post as president of Wolff Olins North America, describes it as a shift in culture. “I don’t think this would have been possible in an earlier Microsoft,” he says. “I think currently, there’s this drive to want to be more than just a utility–to be more than just useful for people.”

Right now, Fluent Design is more of a mission statement that a fully-developed set of standards. We’ll have to wait and see how this still very young system evolves over the next few years. Will VR and HoloLens ever achieve ubiquity? Will mixed reality reign supreme? Will voice interfaces colonize even more of our world, or will they wither and die? Fluent Design aims to adapt to the uncertain future of these paradigms. Shum describes the process as creating a personality: “Design’s job is not just ‘hey, push this button and get this.’ It’s actually: how do we want our customers to feel?”
About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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