Minimal to the max: The story of a promising young designer and the Popsicle that never was
Designer Andrew Kim can talk about a lot of things – just not his work at Microsoft.
Even if his mother or one of his favorite designers (say, Naoto Fukasawa) stopped by for a visit, he could not show them his office, or his desk, or even crack open his work sketchbook. Which is why, on a day featuring the Pacific Northwest’s trademark sunny rain, I spoke with Kim while sitting at a table in the foyer outside the secure door leading to his office.
Behind that door is where the 22-year-old employee spends his days working with a broad, multi-disciplinary team to develop future generations of Microsoft products.
“The next wave,” Kim says, with a cryptic half-smile.
The demand for secrecy in his work is an interesting change for Kim, who has been sharing his design ideas, product reviews, sketches and projects with the world for years, most recently via his popular design blog, Minimally Minimal.
It was a blog entry on Minimally Minimal last year that catapulted Kim’s status from young designer with loads of potential to heavily recruited shooting star.
It all began, Kim explained, with a Popsicle.
As a third-year student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., last year, Kim and his classmates in “Creative Strategies” were challenged to redesign that timeless frozen treat on a stick. Their professor, Fridolin Beisert, is as tough as they come and is known for his brutally honest critiques. Kim knew he’d have to significantly part ways with the predictable to earn praise.
“Frido is by far the greatest instructor of my life,” Kim said. “But he’s the scariest man I’ve ever met.”
The day the Popsicle project was due, Kim watched anxiously as his classmates presented all manner of Popsicle 2.0, including alcoholic varieties and a superhero version with a wrapper that peeled into a cape. When it was his turn, Kim took a deep breath, stood next to the large computer monitor he’d hauled into class, and started his presentation. It didn’t include a single Popsicle.
In his effort to think outside the box, Kim had moved beyond the box entirely – and beyond the assignment as well. Instead of redesigning dessert, Kim had used his three days to rebrand one of the world’s largest technology companies. His project, “The Next Microsoft,” proposed a connected, futuristic approach for the company and its products that Kim called “slightly aggressive, almost science fiction – a look that promises to deliver the future today.”
Kim finished speaking. For a few arduous beats, it was crickets in the classroom. Then, the unflappable Beisert started critiquing Kim’s project as if it was what the design student was supposed to do in the first place.
“They’re supposed to break the rules,” Beisert said this month by phone. That said, Kim’s presentation was still a surprise.
“I didn’t see that one coming at all, especially because he was known as a guy whose aesthetic is incredibly simplistic and sophisticated. It was unexpected for him to pick Microsoft over all the companies you would have thought,” Beisert said. “I applaud him. To me, it wasn’t so much about whether his decisions were right or wrong, but the great line of reasoning that led to his design conclusions.”
So why did he choose Microsoft?
“Somehow, the timing just seemed right,” Kim said. “The Surface tablet had been announced but not yet released, Windows 8 and Windows Phones were coming out. Microsoft was talking about big changes, and all the fans were talking about that. All eyes were on Microsoft.”
Beisert remembers Kim approaching him after class that day.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” Kim said. “I already posted this project on my blog.”
“Good for you,” Beisert said. “Did you get any response?”
Yes. Yes, he did.
“The Next Microsoft” inspired widespread discussion and debate, and was covered by several major tech blogs. The Verge wrote, “You should definitely take a look at Andrew’s ideas, which aim to unify the mobile, desktop and slate computers that are coming up this year into a cohesive product that Microsoft can present to consumers.”
Soon after, technology companies and advertising firms came a-courtin’ (and not just because of his Microsoft project – Kim also made waves with other work, including his reimagining Coca-Cola as EcoCoke).
“My inbox became so full,” Kim said. “This is when I realized the internet is a powerful place.”
He did a handful of interviews with major companies, but found himself drawn to the Xbox team at Microsoft.
“I think the fact that Microsoft is in a growth mode, as opposed to a lot of other companies that are dominant,” Kim said. “If I’m going anywhere, I want it to be a place that’s going to see growth in coming years.”
He decided to take a job behind that locked door in the Xbox studio. But there was still the little matter of graduation – Kim technically had more than a year’s worth of classes left. He was tempted to drop out and start work, but instead doubled down, taking nearly twice the typical number of classes per term to be able to graduate in the spring.
Graduation must have felt good, right? Kim shrugged and smiled.
“I don’t think of things like graduation as momentous moment. Momentous is when I do good work at Microsoft,” he said.
They’re supposed to break the rules.-Fridolin Beisert
Until he can say more about that, Kim talks about the non-top-secret aspects of his life. There’s his apartment in nearby Bellevue, a sparse, museum-like tribute to his favorite color (white) and one of his favorite films (“2001 Space Odyssey.”)
“Recently I had a friend come over and she was like, ‘This is the most white room I’ve ever been in. Why is everything white?’” Kim said. “It’s extremely white. It’s very empty – I have very few things lying around. Some people say it’s a little cold – that there’s no warmth in my apartment.”
Does that mean minimalism is cold?
“To me, it’s …” he paused to think. “Yeah, I guess it’s cold, but I like cold. I like clean. I like space. I like the future. I like science fiction. I like Space Odyssey.”
Kim dresses impeccably in a white t-shirt (he owns many), a cardigan (unbuttoned), slacks and sneakers. He has thick, black-framed glasses and a handsome watch, which he says is a Void VO2 Retrograde, a gold square attached to a white band with a black clock face that is folded in half. The watch is stylish but, Kim will admit, it’s not the most useful. When someone asks him the time, he’ll look hard at his watch for a moment and more often than not give up and pull his phone out of his pocket to check. It’s rare that an object is allowed into Kim’s minimal collection of belongings that is not the pinnacle of form and function; he just really likes how it looks.
Kim also likes to talk about knolling. Knolling is “arranging like objects in parallel or at 90-degree angles as a method of organization.” Kim wrote the book on knolling (an e-book called “90 Degrees,” and the only book out there on the subject, as far as he knows).
Though Kim had long been organizing objects in this fashion, a few years ago he learned there was a name for it and an idea behind it when he watched a video created by designer Tom Sachs, who urges his protégés to “always be knolling.”
Long before top-secret Microsoft projects, The Next Microsoft and EcoCoke, and knolling, Kim filled his sketchbooks with velociraptors and tyrannosaurus rex. As a boy growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia (he was born in Seoul, Korea), he wanted to become a professional dinosaur artist.
“There are a lot of dinosaur books,” the young Kim reasoned. “Someone has to draw these dinosaurs.”
Then, he got a baby blue iPod mini, sparking a love for technology and industrial design as well. His parents, spotting his budding passion, allowed him a steady supply of gadgets to disassemble. They sometimes even called in sick for him to school so he could stay home and work on his projects.
“I was a mediocre student, but drawing was the one thing I was really good at,” Kim said. “My parents bought me every piece of equipment I asked for. I think they knew it was eventually going to help me out. They’d buy me something, and I’d take it apart. I never got in trouble for things like that.”
In high school, Kim designed a phone with “a weird flip-slip” mechanism he called The Butterfly. It was designed to allow high school students to connect with their teachers, and it landed him on Gizmodo.
“I just put it on a couple of forums and it spread,” Kim said. “This was the beginning of me being interested in showing my work on the internet.”
Until now, that is. At Microsoft, Kim promises to make his “greatest work ever,” as he wrote on his blog when announcing his new position with Xbox.
“When it came time to make my final decision, I wanted to work at a place I can really get excited about,” he wrote. “Working at a company is like getting married, it becomes a fundamental part of your life. If you’ve been watching Microsoft over the past year, it’s been exciting, regardless of what your ecosystem preference is.”
Back at Art Center, Beisert is trying to figure out how to recruit more design students like Kim.
“I don’t necessarily want to forecast anything about the future, but in school we always talk about alumni and the great accomplishments that some have achieved,” Beisert said. “Andrew’s got big things going on in his head. I have a feeling I’ll be talking about his accomplishments for years to come as his career develops and reminiscing about his time here.”Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft