Designer has movement down to an art

Andrew Moroney animates Xbox features in a job that feels like playtime

Art has always been a big part of Andrew Moroney’s life: The drawing in kindergarten that hinted at his potential, the nights spent sketching the human form in high school and the panicked moment in college when he realized his passion might not translate into a career.

It did, and in a way he still finds unbelievable. Determination, an interest in honing new skills and a bit of advice from someone he admired at Microsoft led him to the company and, ultimately, to what he’s doing now: Animating cool new features for Xbox.

“We get to put a little bit of our own fun into the product,” Moroney says. “I feel like I get to play all day while I’m at work.”

Being a motion designer is just one of the many design-related jobs at Microsoft. For Moroney, it’s meant working on several different projects, but most recently getting the chance to have a key role in the completely new Xbox One experience that launched Nov. 12.

Moroney designed the motion of a new guide that pops out from the left side of the screen, giving Xbox One console users quick access to notifications, friends, messages and other favorite features. He says the guide’s consistent left-to-right movement and other animated motions within the menu are geared to make it fast and intuitive, and also to look sharp.

“I think of motion design as kind of like leaving breadcrumbs from point A to point B, so that users know where to go,” Moroney explains. “We also try to make that path really delightful. We make it expected where it needs to be, and unexpected where we can kind of play and have a little bit more surprise.”

On projects like these, design developers write the code to bring Moroney’s designs to life. Moroney then works with them to refine the motion and get it exactly right.

Larry Butcher hired Moroney about five years ago and later brought him to Xbox in part because Moroney had taught himself much of what he knew about motion design, “made himself better by sheer determination” and was eager to learn all he could.

“I look at Andrew as one of the better things I’ve done at Microsoft, in terms of hiring him and mentoring him and having an opportunity to see him grow,” says Butcher, who is now senior design manager for Microsoft Band. “He works really hard and makes everyone around him better because he’s got an amazing work ethic.”

Moroney grew up in a small town in Illinois and, as a teen, devoted time every night to working at the studio desk in his bedroom. He drew and painted a lot of anatomical human forms and focused especially on depicting movement.

He majored in studio art at Eastern Illinois University, where he studied drawing, painting and printmaking. He developed a love of Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow, which he says he tried to emulate in his etching style, and his studies were about as far from technology as they could be.

But just three months before graduating, he says he realized he might not have what it takes to make a living as an artist. He got one of his friends to show him a bit about graphic design, giving him a basic introduction to using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.

Moroney found a job for a small organization that needed a graphic designer and was able to learn as he went. When the need arose for an animated video, no one knew how to make one, so Moroney agreed to give it a shot.

“I worked on this video, and it was like a lightbulb went off,” he recalls. “I instantly fell in love with animation and started doing everything I could to learn it.”

A few years later, after he’d gotten a similar job in the Seattle area, a friend at Microsoft told him they were looking for a motion designer. Moroney met with Butcher, who wouldn’t hire him until later, but Moroney says their conversation was pivotal.

During the meeting, Butcher tossed a napkin on the table and had Moroney watch it fall. It floated slowly, then slid smoothly to a stop. Something heavier, obviously, would descend in a different way. They talked about why — and why that mattered so much in motion design.

Moroney says Butcher told him to study two concepts: physics and timing. Moroney went to work on learning them immediately.

Butcher was impressed with “the fact that he was interested in growing, and self-aware enough to know he had things to work on,” he recalls. When they met again later, Butcher told him Microsoft had a contract position for him if he was ready to make a leap.

Moroney told Butcher he needed at least a six-month contract to justify leaving the secure job he had. Butcher could only offer a three months. Moroney says he knew what a huge opportunity it was and took it.

“I felt like the people I was going to work with were so much more talented than I was — and I still feel that way — that I just wanted to be in a room with them,” he says. “It felt like if I could be in a room with them for three days, I would learn an exponential amount that I would never have been exposed to before.”

The three-month stint turned into a longer contract and eventually led to Moroney’s current job at Xbox, where he’s been a full-time employee for several years. Butcher says Moroney has a keen eye and a “strong design sensibility that he’s synthesized over time.”

Moroney says he loves working for a team of “insanely talented” people who are a lot of fun, but he also appreciates the degree to which they are there for each other. He felt that support when his mother became ill and died two years ago.

Moroney’s managers had encouraged him to go to Wisconsin and be at her bedside as often as he needed. They checked in with him to see how she was doing and sent her flowers, leaving her “so absolutely tickled that the people at Xbox would even think of her,” Moroney recalls.

“People here just really care for each other and they’re really kind to each other,” he says. “It sounds cliché, but it really feels like a family that’s in it together.”

Moroney says his mom always liked telling people that she knew he’d be some kind of artist; she’d realized it when he drew a picture of their family in kindergarten. Unlike many children’s stick-figure renderings of arms that seem to grow from heads, each person in his drawing had an actual body.

Moroney still draws every night, though these days, his efforts are focused on animation. He revels in using motion to tell stories.

And getting paid to do that every day? He says he really believes he’s at a point of his career that he’ll always look back on fondly. It’ll be the time he’s referring to years from now when he says, “Ah, those were the days.”

“I feel like I have to pinch myself. To be a motion designer professionally is a dream come true — I’m just absolutely in love with it — but to be a motion designer at Xbox?” he says. “I just feel really, really lucky.”