Exclusive: How Alienware dared to ditch black, boxy designs for something radical

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Gaming designs tend to have a distinct look to them, and it’s a formula that’s rarely deviated from. They’re black, boxy, and RGB-laden — and getting a little stale.

Alienware wants to change all that.

Throughout 2019, the company has been rolling out the largest transition in its design language since its founding in 1996. Alienware calls the new aesthetic “Legend,” and it touches everything from its gaming laptops to its new Aurora R9 desktop announced today at Gamescom 2019. Prior to the launch, head designers at Dell and Alienware gave Digital Trends the exclusive story on how it plans to not only revolutionize its brand, but gaming design at large.

A legend is born

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Back in 2016, designers at Dell were tasked with seemingly insurmountable goal: Create gaming system that didn’t look like anything you can find on the market from a competitor. The directive came from Alienware co-founder Frank Azor – who has since left the company to become the Chief Architect of Gaming at silicon-maker AMD — and looking at the current state of gaming designs, it’s not hard to see why.

“We want to make sure that the language can span across all of the products that we that we might make, and some that we won’t.”

“Intuitively, he thought the industry was looking very similar – everybody was arriving to a similar design place,” said Justin Lyles, Dell’s Vice President of Consumer Design. He recalled the fateful meeting where Legend was conceived, noting that most gaming PCs looked like rectangular boxes with glass side panels.

“And [Frank Azor] asked us to go research this, look into this, and ultimately see if there’s a better direction for the future of anywhere. So, we embarked on a one-year journey.”

That journey, which consisted of understanding the market and researching trends was led by two other seniors designers at Dell: Josh Probst and Jason Minehart, with Probst eventually leading the Aurora desktop efforts and Minehart leading the charge for Area-51m. After evaluating the market, ideation began six months using Alienware’s big three fundamental themes: “Human-inspired,” “machine-inspired,” and “alien-inspired.” These concepts have always been present in Alienware designs, but with Legend, the inspiration feels like a complete reboot.

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The team took cues from movies such as Independence Day 2, The Matrix, Tron, Star Trek, District 9, Wall.E, Interstellar, Lucy, and more. It’s not uncommon to see different manufacturers talk up this type of inspiration in marketing materials, but with Legend, it’s more than just lip service. With its palette in hand, Dell moved on to internal testing to show how these science fiction themes resonated with its audience. By the fall of 2017, the development journey for the Alienware Area-51m laptop was underway.

“Once we finally arrived to the three themes, we were really on the right trajectory to take our brand and move it to a completely new visual center,” Probst said. The designers explored how these themes would shape notebook and desktop designs, but also how they fit into the entire PC ecosystems, including things that Alienware to date has not released, like VR goggles.

“Whenever we do this, we want to make sure that it’s not designed just to be a laptop,” Minehart added. “We want to make sure that the language can span across all the products that we that we might make, and some that we won’t.”

After the overarching theme and design language was finalized, it took about another year or so for Dell to complete the development of the products, and the Area-51m was the first product to bear the new Legend design language. In this final phase of design, the team of designers work collaboratively with engineers and Dell’s business unit to ensure that the systems function properly and that there is a market need to fill, Lyles said.

Finding inspiration in likely places

Designers often find inspiration from adjacent industries, and Alienware’s Legend vision board is packed full of design elements from jets, cars, motorcycles, movies, and science fiction. In creating Legend, over 1,000 images were collected for Dell’s inspiration board, each filtered into the three aforementioned main themes and further distilled into eight sub-themes.

“By creating different groups, it helps us choose a main direction; it kind of helps us choose what sort of details and features we want to include, or what we don’t want to include as well,” Probst said. “There may be a lot of different ideas out there that we find really interesting and cool but that doesn’t fit the feel of the product, so it’s not necessary to have.”

The LED lighting system at the front of the Aurora R9 or on the rear of the Alienware Curved 34 monitor stand is actually called “stadium lighting,” and it contains elements from the digital fantasy world of Tron. With the high contrast black-and-white color scheme this year named Lunar Light and the darker hued Dark Side of the Moon, the shades are evocative of the regalia colors of Star Wars stormtroopers. In both cases, it’s a welcome change-up to the flat black colorways that are often offered on gaming products.

“People should love it. People should not love it. We love that about it. I love the provocative nature of it.”

Another place Alienware designers drew inspiration from was video games. Though Alienware is a natural place for gamers to play a battle royale title, designers also look towards video games to find inspiration.

“I think that’s always kind of a neat — sort of a cyclical way — that this inspiration when we’re designing comes from video games, and the video games are designed to help design the computers, and it sort of everything sort of influences on each other,” Minehart said.

The idea of competition in sports (and esports) also provide big inspiration for Alienware designers. The numbers that are printed on the systems — ranging from laptops to desktops and monitors — are actually inspired by athletic jerseys. Others sources of inspiration include fashion, sneakers, and jewelry.

Words like “risky” and “brave” get thrown around the tech space quite a bit, but these new designs definitely stand out — and not everyone will like that. Of Alienware’s bold Legend design, Lyles admitted that it is polarizing. That’s especially with the unique shape of the Aurora R9 desktop.

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“Some people absolutely love it,” he said. “Others may not, and gaming is supposed to be that way. People should love it. People should not love it. We love that about it. I love the provocative nature of it.”

Drones, patterns, and the way that light behaves when passing through different fluids and materials are also sources of inspiration for Minehart and Probst. The influence from science becomes clearer when looking at the hexagonal air vents. Not only do the shapes help drive the physics of air flow, but the hexagons look like molecular structures and bonds from chemistry, helping to give the Aurora R9 its science fiction inspired aesthetics.

Going boldly where no aliens (or humans) have gone before

“What we’re seeing is a lot of square boxes,” Lyles said, and that’s a design direction that Alienware wanted to avoid with its gaming products. Instead, the company wanted to create a bold design that stands out. “We are not a delivery vehicle for the latest processors or graphics. That is part of the equation, but our customers want something greater than that when they buy into the Alienware brand. It’s not technology for technology’s sake.”

In designing desktops, Minehart states that there are two approaches. The first is designing to blend into the environment, and that’s what Alienware attributes to a majority of its competitors with steel enclosures and glass windows in a fish tank-like design. On the other hand, Alienware’s philosophy is to bring the environment to a different level, and the company has been largely successful on this mission.

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“One of the things that was kind of interesting about the R9 development is that we knew we wanted to, to build a very form driven product and create something that looks different than everything else out there,” Minehart said. Looking at the Aurora R9 desktop, most people wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s based on the same chassis as last year’s R8 given how drastically different both desktops look, and that’s a testament to the skills of Minehart’s design team in reshaping the utilitarian lines of the R8 into the R9’s sculpted curves.

For Minehart, Probst, and Lyles, being iconic also means having a design that is instantly recognizable from 20 or 30 feet away. The sculpted shape of the company’s latest desktop’s departure from the rectangular boxes on the market today speaks to that.

“I always strive to create details that were very immediately recognizable from a from a distance,” Probst said. But for a company that was built around an Alien head logo that caters to the needs of enthusiast gamers, it’s also more than just the look and feel of the product. Alienware views iconic design as one that is evocative and beautiful, which creates envy when viewed, and inspires people to aspire to what the brand stands for.

“With R9, there’s a semantic of speed. It’s about moving air from one side to the next, and it does have that form where it looks like it’s going fast while standing still.”

To achieve this bold new design direction dictated by Legend, the Aurora R9 relied on plastic. The choice of material is important, Lyles said, because it dictates not only the look and feel of a product, but also the thickness and weight.

Described as resembling an elongated jet engine, Lyles says that the R9’s design has a very specific front intake area – with vent surrounding the curves in the front – and the desktop has an impression of a rear exhaust area, and the overall object helps give the piece a sense of movement, speed, and performance.

In automotive parlance, a sports car, if designed successfully, can be described as looking like it’s going fast while standing still, and that was a key strategy into sculpting the R9’s form. To do that, designers reused the same chassis from the older model and used 3D printed to print plastic parts to attach to the case.

This allowed them to quickly prototype, iterate, and refine the Aurora R9’s design, and the material was a key choice in allowing Alienware to create a bold, sculpted design on this generation of desktops.

“With R9, there’s a semantic of speed, and it’s more of a high performance system,” Minehart said of the design. “It’s about moving air from one side to the next, and it does have that form where it looks like it’s going fast while standing still.”

Aside from helping designers create a visually appealing design for the desktop, the choice of plastic in the construction of the desktop also helped engineers optimize the overall system performance.

“As we were coming up with new concept designs, we can 3D print the plastic parts, attach them to the chassis, and actually run that chassis to real world performance test to know what the thermal impact of the design would be,” Minehart added, noting that designers meaningfully chose plastic as the correct material for the R9’s case. “And so we did a couple of iterations of that, as well, until we saw improved performance.”

With fast prototyping, engineers were able to test how air flowed through the system, and the final case design, according to Lyles, delivered the optimal thermal performance. Designers jokingly refer to engineers as the thermal compliance lab because of how involved they are in the design process in order to get the right visual identity that everyone wanted and the airflow required for optimal thermal management.

“That part of the process can become really tedious,” Probst said. “We spent a lot of time on Area-51m, and Aurora R9, really working on fractions of millimeters on patterns and watching the way that air trickle in and it affects the flow through the system.” With the Legend design, airflow was of significant importance to the team, because they wanted to drive higher levels of performance. On the latest Alienware desktops and laptops, part of the work with thermal design is using the honeycomb hexagonal pattern to help drive air while creating a product without large holes or gaps.

“It actually is a culmination of 22 years of learning and evolution and building on solution on top of solution and coming to the exact right answer.”

“We want to make sure that the design of the system works in unison with the function,” Probst added, noting that designers and engineers work closely together to integrate the advanced technology to create a common solution.

While reusing the same internal chassis from the R8 allowed Alienware to speed up development for the R9, it also presented designers with challenges. For starters, because the swing arm that houses the power supply unit is so prominent in the system, adding a transparent glass door was not even considered, because very little visual interest would have been gained with such a design. Still, recycling the same internal chassis was the right decision for Dell because it provided the Aurora R9 with as much internal space as needed for the system.

“Now, could we have gone and done an entire new chassis from the ground up?” Lyles hypothetically asked. “Absolutely, but it would take more time.” Alienware wanted to have the system ready for Gamescom this year, so that was not an option. In the future though, Alienware’s team isn’t ruling out a transparent glass window on a future case design, or even designing an entirely new chassis from the ground up where they can apply their own innovation and iconic touches.

Though in reality designing for Legend took nearly three years of passionate work, it was more of a 22-year journey. “It actually is a culmination of 22 years of learning and evolution and building on solution on top of solution and coming to the exact right answer,” Lyles gushed.

To infinity and beyond

Competitors like Asus and HP have been leading the discourse with its dual-screened gaming notebooks, and Intel’s partners are beginning the public conversation about foldable displays. Alienware appears to be taking a more restrained approach when it comes to form factors. That, however, doesn’t mean that designers aren’t innovating in new ways.

“First, when we design the legend, language over the course of a year, we look at many more form factors beyond what we just have announced, and we’re going to be shipping across legend ecosystem,” Lyles said. “We explored other things in the desktop space, other things in the mobile space.”

“Sometimes designers have an idea, sometimes the engineers generate an idea and bring it to us. We’re always looking to radically innovate.”

One of those ideas that Alienware explored was a set of VR goggles with the Legend design language that to date has not been announced.

“Also, we are constantly thinking about new things and challenging ourselves,” he added. “Sometimes designers have an idea, sometimes the engineers generate an idea and bring it to us. We’re always looking to radically innovate in industry and find new things.”

Given Dell’s size, designers and engineers are fortunately able innovate freely without worry about the economics of the business. “We have a free area of innovation, where we just generate crazy, innovative ideas,” Lyles said. “I would say we innovate without constraints.” Once the ideas are flushed out, then Dell’s business teams comes in and evaluates market opportunities, brand building ideas, and the value of the idea to the overall business.

Right now, the designers that I spoke with have at least four ideas that they’re working on that could lead to Alienware’s next great thing in gaming. Given that these ideas are still in the early stages, it’s unclear if they’ll pass Dell’s business test. But by fully understanding the market and realizing what gamers really want, Alienware will be able to drive lasting support for its products rather than create one-offs with short lifespans that will be neglected by gamers in a few months and abandoned by developers in a year. Regardless of what new products actually get launched, one thing is for sure: The Legend design aesthetic will welcome them into the Alienware family with open arms.

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