During its “Future of Gaming” livestream last Thursday, Sony revealed the much anticipated PlayStation 5 console. But the event wasn’t even over before critiques of the “future facing” design came rolling in. Memes poured in over Twitter comparing the PS5 to a Zaha Hadid building, Eve from Wall-E, the Pope’s headgear, a wifi router, a gentrifying condo development and a $60 million USD performing arts center.
But is the design truly as ludicrous as the twitter commentariat have made it out to be? HYPEBEAST spoke with Spencer Nugent, the industrial designer behind the popular Sketch A Day platforms, to process the somewhat divisive console. Fresh off his livestream critique of the PS5, Nugent shares insights into how the PS5 broke with Sony’s design strategy for PlayStation, Xbox’s more “agro” approach, and whether Sony’s aesthetic gamble will pay off.
Were you anticipating the PS5 from a design perspective?
I was aware of the pending release. I’m part of a PlayStation family. We have Xbox as well. As a designer, I like to surround myself with a variety of products. I’ve been doing consumer electronics for over a decade now, so I was anticipating something.
What were your initial impressions? How would you kind of label or address specific design elements that felt wrong in some way?
I think if you’re going to critique something, you have to come at it with a certain set of rationale and context to the discussion. When I look at the historical progression of [Sony Playstation’s] products, I tried to identify what I would consider to be those qualities of each era. They tend to be what I would consider progressive at the time and certainly polarizing in their designs. My initial impressions of [the PS5] were that it felt like we were cruising down this path on a freeway, and then all of a sudden we just took this off-ramp.
The placement of the connectors feels like an afterthought. Maybe that’s a theme throughout the product; much of what I’m seeing feels like afterthought: the drive, you know, being a hump. A lot of questions just came to mind. How is this thing gonna lay flat? And if it lays flat, what’s the cooling scenario? The foot on the product is one I can’t quite wrap my head around either because it feels so out of place. When I consider the approach to something like the PlayStation Four where the foot is at least contained to the profile of the unit, and it feels like okay, this belongs. I get that perhaps they want to create their own brand language, but it feels like a revolution and not an evolution because the aesthetic execution is if anything provocative but certainly questionable at its core.
How do you approach critiquing a game console?
In the consumer electronics industry, the hardware falls back and these digital interactive experiences are brought to the forefront. In the case of a console, I don’t see the value in spending as much money or time on the aesthetic design of the thing if your primary interaction is really the controller, maybe the headphones, the VR headset and what you’re seeing on screen. Why have the sculptural thing?
We’ve seen others online taking the USB port and the disc drive as a means of measuring [the PS5]. Perhaps they realized, okay, this thing’s going to be huge. And if it’s going to be huge, it’s not going to fit neatly in a cabinet. If it’s not going to fit neatly in a cabinet, maybe we should make it part of people’s homes. The challenge there, and having worked in the smart home industry for about five years, is people are very sensitive about their personal aesthetic. Not everyone’s this way, but many people are.
So, if vanilla is the flavor of consensus and this is, this is not vanilla ice cream by any means, and it’s not even vanilla bean with a few flecks. This is a rainbow sherbet with add-ins and something you find at a Coldstone because it is so polarizing and specific. The only thing that’s rational to me and feels grounded [in the PS5] is the symmetry of the device. And again, with the disc drive, it completely throws it off for me.
What I don’t get is why the aesthetics are so over the top. You have what I’m calling the “panda look”: black and white, plus blue lights, plus this foot. I can just keep plussing and plussing. I’m like, why are you trying so hard? The skeptic in me goes, maybe they’re trying hard because they know the performance isn’t going to be as good as the competitors. It’s like people; you meet someone who tries really hard, and it’s like, what are you trying to hide here? Keep it real.
Exactly. This brings up the Xbox. The history of that design is much more aggressive.
Yes. It needed to be at the time. When the Xbox came out, Nintendo had a strong foothold, Sony had the PS2 and Microsoft wanted to enter the market. So they basically just kitted out a kickass PC and then made it agro as f*ck and were like, “Let’s go.” And it worked. They were able to wedge their way into the industry. And over the progression of [the Xbox] we’ve seen refinement. They started big and now they’re realizing, “okay, let’s, let’s be quiet.” It’s like a martial artist, when you know, you’ve got the sh*t, you just, you’re quiet, you’re disciplined. You don’t have to be screaming out and then freaking people out.
If you think of the structure of a home, the foundational structure for a home is very rigid. Within that structure, we then express ourselves. I would argue that something like [the PS5] is a structural component of an experience, but not meant to be the highlight of the experience. The vents aren’t screaming out for attention, but they do their job well. I would be f*cking pissed if they didn’t do their job well, but I don’t need them to be glowing. I would place something like a PlayStation firmly in the category of a structure that provides a good experience, but not necessarily something that needs to be sculptural.
In relation to taking a logical and thoughtful approach to the design, could you explain a bit more what you meant by “form story” in the livestream?
Going through the historical account of PlayStation, there’s the form story. On the first one: the disc drive. That was the most prominent thing on the top, clearly identified by a circle. You knew where the ports were. It made sense. We could go through PS2, PS3, PS4. Each of them has what I would consider to be some rationale. This one [the PS5], I can’t quite land anywhere beyond symmetry. And that’s where I struggle.
If you look at the PS4, and it’s a slanted block. Simple to explain. If you had never seen the PS5, even as a designer, I would struggle without drawing anything, to try and explain to you what it is. I’d have to go, “Well, it’s like a tower, maybe a building you’ve seen in Dubai.” I don’t know where to even begin. I can’t quite give you a point of reference for it.
What are a couple changes you would make to the PS5 that you think would make the most difference in the device?
Certainly what’s called the CMF: the color, the color material and finish. Pick a color that’s meant to blend in. Granted again, I haven’t seen it in person and I don’t typically do these first reaction type things, because again, I haven’t seen it. But I think if it were black or maybe, if you want to try a different color palette, my PS4 is the Uncharted version. It has a bluish color to it, and I like it. At least it feels different, but it doesn’t scream for attention. Perhaps a muted color palette or something that had tones or colors that related to the home.
The foot feels tacked on, the drive feels tacked on. I don’t mind the lights so much as long as I’m able to turn them off, which I hope is the case. I’ve purchased products in the past not understanding that I wouldn’t be able to turn certain things off, and it’s really frustrating.
Did you have any other notes on the PS5 or things you wanted to highlight?
I just want to make it clear. I’m not entirely sh*tting on the design I’m trying to challenge my reactions as a designer and for designers who [read] this, I would challenge them as well to evaluate their feelings and make sure that if you’re going to critique it, you have a point of view that you can ground in some sort of framework, if you will.
I don’t think it’s pure marketing in the sense of, “Let’s just do some crazy sh*t and have people talking and memeing about this” because it does a disservice to what I would consider to be the significant investment a lot of companies make in their products. I would hope that [the PS5] is something that comes from a place of empathy, research, and understanding their user base. Maybe their target market is 12 to 18-year-old kids who are going to ask their parents to buy this. I have to kind of empathize and put myself in the shoes of those designers, the company, and also consider who are they trying to sell this to? Because it might not be me.