Elliott Hsu, a principal hardware designer, created the Surface Pride Type Cover. His inspirational prompt came from Fedorov, who introduced Hsu to the flags of the many LGBTQIA+ communities that span many gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual and romantic orientations. And every year, they and the teams they worked with found that more people resonated with the design.
“We love the rainbow flag. I think it’s fantastic,” says Fedorov, who, along with others working on the design, wanted to focus on the idea of intersectionality coming together across communities. “At the same time, we need to understand the community is not a monolith. Everybody’s experience is different and there are many communities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella.”
Every year, Hsu and Fedorov wanted to challenge themselves and the teams working on Pride products (such as the Surface Skins that shipped in 2020) to make the designs more meaningful and keep the momentum going.
“We wanted a way to show our commitment through a Microsoft product and use our design skill set to build it,” Hsu says. “It was a very creative project that speaks to a lot of people.”
Eventually, this design would lead to the Pride controller, a project that spoke to people all over the company, drawing in hundreds who helped develop, fine-tune and bring it to the public – a monumental effort with many moving parts over the years.
“The goal here was to make the gaming world a more inclusive space and Pride was an opportunity to take a good step in that direction,” Ruiz says.
In 2021, with the pandemic still affecting the supply chain and many other constraints, this collective decided to put the flags (at the time, 18) on an Xbox Wireless Controller – an idea that had been percolating since 2019. Knowing they couldn’t mass produce under the conditions of the time, they created a limited-edition controller they wouldn’t sell, but sent to about 100 players and creators in the LGBTQIA+ community.
The reaction was unexpected – people loved it but were unhappy they weren’t able to buy their own controllers, lighting up social media with both praise and dismay. This reaction ended up proving the internal case for a wider audience, prompting more conversations with engineering and marketing teams who committed to the project. These and the other teams working on the controller were invigorated by the amount of attention the prototype got, and how people wanted more. June 2022 became the goal for the Pride controller’s grand entrance and availability. This would give the teams enough time to develop the design, as it’s usually a one- to two-year process to produce a custom controller (which includes tests and trials as well as a myriad of color adjustments).
“While some fans were super disappointed that they couldn’t purchase the Pride controller, the creators who actually received the controllers were super stoked,” Ruiz says. “They were really overjoyed to be recognized in their communities. So our biggest takeaway at that point in time was that the gaming community had an appetite for a Pride controller that they could purchase.”
Jen Nichol, a senior business development and partnerships program manager at Xbox, was part of the collective effort that drove the proposal and strategy to bring the Pride controller to Xbox Design Lab. She was also embedded in the Xbox community (through her previous work with Microsoft Mixer and as head of community management for Xbox Studios) and part of the LGBTQIA+ community, both as an ally and as a parent to a daughter who identifies as trans.
“My understanding and connection to that community is personal. It’s my family. It’s my people. So it wasn’t hard to know how important it was,” she says. “Through gaming, you build really strong relationships that last years with people on the other side of the world. It’s community. And there’s no way you can embrace community without embracing everyone and acknowledging that people have value.”
For her and the rest of the team, this project was a love letter to the community; a way to say, “We see you and we want you here.” She also forged a path to give back to that community. To add to the ways Microsoft is supporting LGBTQIA+ communities, the teams made upfront charitable contributions totaling $170,000 to multiple nonprofits supporting these communities.
“It would make sure that we’re doing this in a way that shows actual support – not just words – and that we’re donating whether or not we sell them,” Nichol says. “We all agreed that it’s better to do it this way than not do it at all, because it’s important that positive, real-world change happens.”
While the Surface Type Cover and Skins were flat, the controller’s 3D shape proved much more challenging from a design perspective – especially when the “+” part of the community was so massive – and the team wanted to continue expanding its representation.
“What you’re designing here impacts somebody who can see themselves represented on a product,” says Hsu, who had experience designing previous custom controllers, such as the one tied to “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and the Elite Series 2. “You have to fit every flag in there and still make it look like a flag. It’s tricky having 34 elements. We usually try to reduce elements in design.”
But everyone on this project agreed: the controller needed to maximize inclusion through those flags.
“Every little thing matters to increase acceptance and inclusion for the LGBTQIA+ communities. We know that visibility matters, representation matters,” Fedorov says. “When people see their flag represented, it changes lives. We have 34 flags and some of them are not seen often, they’re not mainstream.”
The teams kept working on it, kept balancing and recalibrating. Hsu and other designers made sure every flag fit and still looked like a flag. Fedorov says the design’s intent is to show many communities (to try to give equitable treatment) and to drive attention to those who are often most marginalized. The end result exemplifies the intersectionality within the community and across communities, while at the same time creating a sense of unity, of people coming together across groups.
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