Microsoft’s Celebration of Pride Embraces Diversity and Inclusivity Through Design

A few weeks back upon firing up Microsoft Edge, I noticed an invitation and option to add a slew of new browser backgrounds – a polychromatic explosion of designs inspired by the many flags of the LGBTQI+ community and in observance of Pride, the annual celebration spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary and queer social and self acceptance and history. Aware of the Redmond-based tech giant’s previous efforts in years prior promoting inclusivity, both within their own team and extending beyond to the millions of users who use Microsoft products daily, we became curious not only about this year’s portfolio of Pride-centered works, but more importantly about the history and impact of the initiative itself.

Aleksey Fedorov, Microsoft Pride co-lead, GLEAM // Sr. Creative producer at the Microsoft brand team spoke with us about this colorful celebration spanning Microsoft’s products and services, including the Xbox platform, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft 365, Surface, Windows, and numerous other extensions of the Microsoft portfolio, alongside the design challenges associated with designing a Pride-themed campaign intended to encompass and weave together 19 different Pride flags and identities.

Let’s start from the beginning. When did Microsoft first make a concerted effort to celebrate Pride and use product customization as an extension of this celebration?

Microsoft started advocating for the LGBTQI+ community back in 1989 when we added sexual orientation into non-discrimination policy. In 1993, we began offering employee benefits for same-sex domestic partnerships –making us one of the first companies in the world to do so. We’ve gotten the perfect 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index for the past 16 years.

We’ve always celebrated Pride internally, and over the past few years started expanding messages of LGBTQI+ equity and inclusion into our products. Satya [Nadella, executive chairman and CEO of Microsoft] encourages us to use Microsoft as a platform for good, and that’s what we are attempting to do at Pride.

“Pride is a global and grass-roots effort. It’s led by Global LGBTQI+ Employees and Allies at Microsoft employee group (GLEAM), that’s present in over 40 countries around the world. It’s a global effort across engineering, marketing, and sales team, where GLEAM members and allies create products to give visibility to the LGBTQI+ communities.”

Did the impetus to celebrate Pride originate internally amongst LGBTQI+ employees? 

Pride celebrations have always been orchestrated by the GLEAM community. In fact, the group has an elected role on the GLEAM Board of Directors, focused specifically on the Pride celebrations. Over the past 4 years the team turned Pride into a grass-roots movement inside the company, creating wide-scale product and marketing support. Now the entire Microsoft rallies around Pride – and many teams have Pride celebrations as part of their daily jobs.

It’s always about employees and people from the community sharing their stories, and talking about things that are important for the community at the moment. In 2018 the community spotlighted different issues that it faced at the time, in 2019 it encouraged everyone to take actions for equity, in 2020 the campaign focused on addressing misconceptions and creating dialogue even with people who might disagree with us, and in 2021 it’s centered on intersectionality, and the idea that to make progress on racial equity, environmental equity, Indigenous rights, LGBTQI+ rights we need to come together across communities and groups and create collective change.

Last year’s 2020 Microsoft Surface Pride Skins drew from the same inspiration as 2021’s efforts, a colorful amalgamation of the numerous flags of the LGBTQI+ community.

Can you tell us when Microsoft begin integrating this effort in relation to products and services?

A few years back we started using our products as a way to drive conversations about Pride. In 2019 we released Surface Pride Type Cover, in the following years we’ve expanded the reach of the campaign. This year it’s our largest and most inclusive product release to date. We always make a corresponding donation to honor the Pride campaign and note on the release of these products. This year, we donated $150,000 to LGBTQI+ nonprofits around the world. That’s on top of over two million dollars that Microsoft together with employees donated to LGBTQI+ nonprofits since last year alone.

Pride has grown from a small initiative to a large-scale cross-company moment. It’s likely the largest product release that we do as a company.

The 2021 limited-edition Pride Skin for Surface Laptop weaves together 19 different Pride flags and identities, representing the interconnectivity of communities from different angles and perspectives.

What were some of the challenges in trying to weave together 19 different Pride flags and identities into a cohesive themed line of products/accessories? 

Our goal for the campaign is to center on the intersections, and talk how unities across and within communities can lead to societal change. Our ambition was to share that in the design, too. Quite often when we talk about LGBTQI+ communities, people tend to group everything into one monolith, but LGBTQI+ community is anything but a monolith. Embracing flags of different gender identities and sexual orientations was a way for us to drive attention to the groups and identities that are often neglected today.
The hero graphic look that we created together with our partners at Blk-ops and Sterling is energetic, showing different flags, intersecting each other at vibrant angles. The sense of unity resulting from this take is exactly a message we tried to communicate.

The challenge was finding the balance, proportions, and creating a sense of uniquely differentiated identities, while also articulating the sense of togetherness and unity. We feel our graphics really land this quite well.
We then worked with different product and design teams across Microsoft to find unique ways to bring this graphic and idea to life. Surface Skins, Windows wallpapers, Teams backgrounds, Edge themes all do this in different ways. Xbox logo was indeed the trickiest execution on this creative approach – as it has a very condensed footprint, and we still want to showcase the different flags together.

I especially love that Xbox Pride logo, as it almost seems like one of those balls made of different color of rubber bands, which to me communicates the strength, flexibility and stronger together mentality of the LGBTQI+ community!

Love your observation of the rubber bands, we haven’t thought about it that way, but it certainly has the reference, too.

“We also work with different teams to create unique takes on the 19 different flags. Nando Costa and the Microsoft 365 Design team took this to the next level with stunning CGI images (one for each flag) that are available in Teams and Edge.”

Could you tell me a little more about the designers who were involved with designing the Pride Skins? What do they normally work on? 

We work with the very same product and design teams who work day and day on our products. Many of the designers and engineers volunteer their support for Pride, as an additional part to their day jobs. And some have advocated their teams to embrace Pride and other value moments in their products, as a part of standard product life-cycle [including] Microsoft 365 Studio and designers across Microsoft 365 apps, Windows, Surface, Store, Microsoft brand – almost every design team across the company contributes to the effort. Each team takes our campaign creative strategy and finds unique ways to bring it to their products.

For example, a designer on Outlook team helped this year inspire our overall approach to Pride across a family of Microsoft 365 apps. An industrial designer, who’s been a part of the campaign in the past few years has expanded his support from Surface to Xbox controllers, too. Designers on the Microsoft 365 Studio team reflected on the unique Pride flags and brought them to life in Teams, and then worked with the Microsoft Edge team to expand their approach.

And how much time are they given to work on Microsoft’s Pride initiative?

Depending on the team, Pride work can be a 1-3 month sprint, depending on product requirements and processes. With some hardware teams we plan a year out – like Surface and Xbox teams.

How has Microsoft’s effort celebrating Pride through design been received, both internally and externally?

We’ve seen overwhelmingly positive responses – both internally and externally. Internally it’s really a moment of pride for the GLEAM community and Microsoft all-up. The sensibility and focus on the campaign this year truly resonates, and many note how they see themselves part of the movement, and contributing more.

Externally, we also see positive reactions. There’s examples of tweets below. What really stands out is a few themes: 1. people complimenting different LGBTQI+ flags and visibility they create; 2. surprise and happy reactions to see Pride embraced by different products they use; 3. excitement about certain designs and approaches. There’s always a push-back on any Pride efforts. It’s a part of a life cycle. Last year we built a campaign around this specifically, reflecting on the common misconceptions we’ve seen among the reactions to LGBTQI+ messages. This year, it feels there’s a wider support.

That said, we are doing Pride exactly for this reason – reaching more people with messages of support. We know that proximity drives empathy, and empathy drives change, and that’s what we’d love to see in the world.

To learn more about how Microsoft is celebrating Pride through design, visit microsoft.com.