A designer’s journey from arrowheads to Xbox One
It’s 11:47 p.m. on a Thursday, and Carl Ledbetter is 29th in line to buy a new Xbox One.
Which is kind of funny, considering he designed it.
“How could I resist? You spend years working on something, so it’s pretty special to be there at the moment it’s launched into the world,” Ledbetter said. “It’s cool to be around other people who are as excited as I am.”
The Nov. 22 waiting-for-midnight launch line goes out the door and around the corner of Seattle’s University Village Microsoft Store. It’s freezing – verifiably so – and the crowd’s collective puffs of breath hang in the air like a foggy force field. A force field that smells vaguely of … Cool Ranch Doritos?
“They’re passing out gamer food — Doritos and Mountain Dew,” Ledbetter said.
The rest of the crowd is decked out in puffy coats, hats and scarves, but Ledbetter wears only a black T-shirt (adorned with a stylized 16/9 to represent the standard aspect ratio of HDTV), jeans, Adidas sneakers and a black A Bathing Ape hoodie (designed by Japanese DJ Nigo). Ledbetter’s hood provides a dome for his close-cropped, silver-sprinkled hair. His hands are thrust deep in his pockets.
“It feels like a ski lift line,” Ledbetter said, shuffling from one foot to the other to generate heat.
In a poetic coincidence, it was eight years ago to the day Ledbetter was waiting in line for the launch of Xbox 360. He and a handful of gaming devotees spent the night outside a local Fred Meyer, which only had 12 consoles to sell (luckily, he was number eight). The excitement and anticipation is similar, he said, as is the significance of each launch in gaming culture. Otherwise, much has changed.
Last time, Ledbetter was joined by a lone coworker. This time, he’s flanked by dozens of colleagues from the Xbox design team, many of whom are taking breaks from the cold, drinking hot toddies at a nearby pub. Eight years ago there was no such thing as pre-orders or midnight launches. It was also before Microsoft Stores, smartphones and tablets existed.
“It’s not the line it was eight years ago. There’s a heated tent, a DJ, they’re throwing out swag, there was a “Killer Instinct” tournament and everyone is posting updates to social media,” Ledbetter said. “That’s what’s so cool about all of this. That’s what makes it …”
He pauses for effect, assuming a deep announcer voice, “THE NEXT GENERATION.”
Ledbetter’s vocational journey is a winding path that stretches from a barn in the shadow of an active volcano to his current desk behind a locked, frosted-glass door in a top-secret area of Xbox.
He grew up in the tiny southwest Washington town of La Center on a small “hobby farm,” where by the age of 12 he was driving the family tractor with Mount St. Helens looming nearby. He was a tinkerer (anything mechanical, particularly cars and motorcycle), an artist (“I used to draw everything from cars and people to mountains and trees”) and a musician (he plays the guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and clarinet). In high school he was in a band called Fanfare (all rock, no covers).
Ledbetter collected chunks of volcanic obsidian and, using nothing more than a piece of leather and a deer antler, he gently carved the rocks into arrowheads.
“Growing up around an active volcano actually had a big impact on my life,” he said. “I was super interested in geology, so naturally I thought I was going to be a geologist.”
The young would-be rock hound arrived at Western Washington University, but found that geology wasn’t the right fit for him. He tried engineering next, where the class was studying mechanical components. Ledbetter raised his hand, “Hey, can we change the way the part looks?”
“No, you can’t change it,” the professor told him. “That’s not what we do. If you want to do something like that, go be an industrial engineer.”
When Ledbetter opened the doors to the university’s industrial design studio, he saw rulers and drafting tables and sketches and models. It was where he belonged.
“It was a new world,” Ledbetter said. “Looking back, I realized that making an arrowhead wasn’t so much about rocks, it was about the act of making something – about taking great pride in the craftsmanship and the design.”
After college, Ledbetter worked as an industrial designer at Patton Design and Fluke Corporation. When he joined Microsoft in 1995 as an industrial designer for the PC hardware group, he predicted he’d spend “maybe three or four years” at the company, design a few things, and move on. Eighteen years, dozens of projects and nearly 200 patents later, he’s still going strong.
Looking back, I realized that making an arrowhead wasn’t so much about rocks, it was about the act of making something – about taking great pride in the craftsmanship and the design.
He cut his industrial design teeth with the IntelliMouse, one of the first mice to feature a rubber wheel for scrolling and clicking between the left and right buttons. He earned a patent for it.
“To this day, my wife always teases me, ‘You invented the wheel!’” he said.
Over the years Ledbetter designed (or helped design) a number of other mice, keyboards, trackballs, gaming devices, laptops and the Xbox 360. In 2006, Ledbetter was working to help manufacturers like HP, Toshiba and Dell “embrace a unified software and hardware experience” when he was asked to join a startup team working on a new mobile entertainment device called Zune.
“Zune was incredible. It represented our first effort bringing together hardware, software and services,” Ledbetter said. “That was a huge undertaking. The company hadn’t done anything like that before.”
Zune, late to market and eventually shelved, was considered by many as an out-and-out failure. Ledbetter sees it differently. It was an important landmark, both for the company and his design career, he said. Zune represented a number of firsts – a first-party hardware device that had its own user interface (the debut of Microsoft’s flat design), a PC client to assist it and a marketplace where you could buy or subscribe to a whole world of music.
“At the time, the only other fully integrated product we had like that in the company was Xbox,” Ledbetter said. “Working on Zune was definitely one of the highlights of my career. I learned a lot and it was a delight to work with such a passionate team.”
In 2010, Ledbetter became senior industrial design manager for Xbox. His tasks, in order: design the new Kinect sensor, and redesign the next-generation Xbox 360. Then get started designing the next generation of Xbox (code name: Durango).
Metaphorically, this put Ledbetter right back on the slopes of an active volcano, plucking shapeless chunks of obsidian from the ground and painstakingly shaping them into something both beautiful and useful, the pinnacle of console form and function.
“There was this conundrum in that we had to meet and satisfy desires of core gamers and Xbox fans, and at same time we wanted Xbox to reach out and mean something to new people. From a design perspective, how do we make that happen? That was a big challenge.”
If the devil is in the details, Carl was sitting across the table from him for the arduous, two-year design process. Trading out the deer antler and piece of leather, Ledbetter and his colleagues on the Xbox industrial design team sketched and then 3D-printed iteration after iteration until there was literally a pile of prototype possibilities. By the end, they had more than 75 iterations of the console, 100 of Kinect, and more than 200 of the controller.
“We were extremely thorough,” Ledbetter said. “We were trying to push boundaries, to do something new and inventive, but there was so much at stake that we had to be really careful as well. The reason why there was so much at stake is that people really, really care about Xbox.”
The console needed to be sophisticated yet approachable, something perfectly at home next to the DVR, DVD player and HD television. It had to be a premiere gaming console, yes, but its job description had drastically expanded since the launch of Xbox 360. The new console also had to continue where Xbox 360 left off, acting as the bright-burning sun of the living room entertainment solar system.
“We wanted to take every component of what people love about Xbox and amplify it, but also make it disappear into the living room – to stay in the background, robust and reliable,” Ledbetter said.
He and his team labored over every curve, corner, vent, angle, color and finish. While one sound designer dreamed up a new three-note startup sound (one more note than Xbox 360’s), another designer spent much of his time creating a three layered lens that would look simple from the outside but accommodate Kinect’s complicated technology inside.
The console needed to house the core engineering components for delivering a top-tier gaming and entertainment experience (a console powerful enough to remain relevant for years to come). It had to run more quietly than ever, which meant designing vents to help it stay cool. The console, Kinect and controller had to look unmistakably like a part of the Xbox family, but also be undisputedly forward-looking.
As for the controller, “there was never a direct ask for us to make it better. People were a little apprehensive, like, ‘We have a great controller. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,’” Ledbetter said.
Still, the team managed to make more than 40 improvements to the controller, many of them subtle – the shape of the joysticks, the finish of the buttons, the streamlined battery pack. “We had more than 1,000 pairs of hands testing controllers throughout the course of design evaluations to make sure the triggers felt right, the overall form felt right and that people could use the new controller in a way that was as good as or better than the old,” Ledbetter said. “We crafted every last detail.”
His favorite details? “It’s the stuff that people may not easily notice,” Ledbetter said.
The “white, magical” backlit Xbox logo on the console, Kinect and controller that knows to dim when the room is dark and shine brightly when it’s not. The jewel-like, ABXY buttons, which now have a new finish, three different color resins, and are clearer to read. The micro-texture around the sides of the thumbsticks, which now “look more crafted and perform better.”
“We put a lot of time into all of the details,” Ledbetter said. “The overall product is really premium. It really feels designed, engineered and crafted in quality.”
The finished product, not just black but “liquid black,” is a style Ledbetter refers to as “boldy understated.”
“This kind of attention to detail is absolutely a signpost for the new Microsoft,” he said. “When you look at what we’re doing in devices, and how we reorganized the company, and acquired Nokia, we’re really going deep to design best-in-class products. We’re starting to get there in a very serious and competitive way.”
After midnight, the line of people who pre-ordered the Xbox One starts moving into the glowing, warm store. Those who didn’t pre-order, including Ledbetter, look longingly at the gleeful customers emerging, most with not one but two consoles, balancing a large bag in each hand.
Ledbetter’s teammates stop by to congratulate him, take photos with him and tease him for waiting in line for hours.
“You should have pulled the Carl card,” said one coworker. Though Ledbetter actually is kind of a big deal, he’s the anti-Ron Burgundy.
He smiles shyly. “No, no, that’s not what it’s about.”
What it is about, for Ledbetter, is form and function. One of his favorite quotes comes from legendary architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright: “Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
“I’ve really taken that to heart,” said Ledbetter, who lives and breathes form and function inside and outside of work (unless, of course, you count his questionable choice of outfit for a freezing-cold launch line).
More than a decade ago, he and his wife sat in a vacant lot on Mercer Island with a white board and a bottle of wine and designed their dream home. His favorite room (apart from the kitchen, which they designed as large and open for maximum hanging-out appeal) is the “escape room” off the living room, which sports a large TV for Xbox playing and movie watching.
In the home office is Ledbetter’s collection of form and function. He collects interestingly-designed household products (blenders, irons, old Electrolux vacuums dating back decades). There’s also a pile of camouflage items – he’s had a growing fascination with it since he researched and designed a camo Xbox 360 controller a few years ago, which has been quite popular.
“Camouflage is a great example of function and form,” Ledbetter said. “The graphic elements that make it critical in its function also become its design essence.”
Though he is modest and mild-mannered, Ledbetter is also an adventurous and a Renaissance man. The scar above his top lip is, bright pink in the cold, is an indicator of this. It’s a battle wound from a recent mountain bike race, he said. He also snowboards and enjoys off-roading in his vintage Land Rover.
Lest you think his life alternates solely between fodder for Design magazine and Red Bull commercials, Ledbetter is also an “avid bonsai guy.” He picked it up on a trip to Japan more than a decade ago, and loves maintaining his own little trees, which live around the reflecting pond outside his home.
“I love the aesthetic of creating a miniaturized version of a mature tree,” Ledbetter said. “I also love the fact that it is never done. It’s a living, ongoing thing that is never static. There’s also something in that for all of us – if we stay too static, there’s something wrong.”
Finally at the front of the line, Ledbetter hands the store clerk his credit card.
Ledbetter has gone the entire night without mentioning his role in creating Xbox One – not to the festive gamers in line, not to the friendly clerk at the counter. Trying to prod him past his modesty, I ask him whether Xbox One is the best thing he’s ever designed.
“Yeah. It’s certainly the most significant,” he said.
“So far,” he added with a wry grin.
Ledbetter then shared an email he sent to his team from earlier that day. In it, he’s a bit more forthcoming with his feelings:
“One thing is for certain. Meaningful, breakthrough products aren’t easy to create – otherwise everyone would do it. With Xbox One we have created an amazing product that truly is a next generation product for Xbox customers. It’s one of those products that don’t happen very often, and it is a moment in our careers that we will all carry with us for years to come.”
“I just wanted to make sure they all take the time to enjoy the experience,” Ledbetter said, carrying his new Xbox One to his Land Rover. “It’s definitely one of those big moments in life.”Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft