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Bill Flora

Microsoft and great design haven’t exactly been synonymous over the years, but the company has been changing its reputation with the rollout of the straightforward, clean and functional Metro user interface across its product line — culminating with the release of Windows 8 later this year.

“I feel great about it,” says Bill Flora, the former Microsoft design director, when asked for his thoughts on the company’s progress. “I’ve been fighting that fight for a long time.”

Nineteen years, to be exact. Flora went to Microsoft straight from design school, and worked on products such as the Encarta encyclopedia, Windows Media Center and Zune music player — early initiatives that demonstrated the benefits of the design approach since adopted more broadly by Microsoft products including Xbox, Windows Phone and Windows itself.

With the Metro initiative taking hold, Flora last year decided it was time to leave and begin a new chapter of his own. He has started a technology design firm called Tectonic, based in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, with two business partners.

Windows 8's Start screen is an example of Microsoft's Metro user interface, with clean fonts and a modular design surfacing essential information.

Flora will be our guest next week at the GeekWire Meetup, April 11 at the Zillow headquarters in Seattle, talking about technology design in a fireside chat with GeekWire chairman Jonathan Sposato, the former Picnik CEO and a Microsoft veteran himself.

Many of the trends in tech design are driven these days by mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets. Metro was no exception, with the Zune HD getting credit for influencing the user interface of Windows Phone and other Microsoft products.

“Mobile has been a vehicle for design and engineering,” Flora says. “It forces them to simplify, and at the end of the day that’s what people want — something where all the hard work is below the surface, and above the surface it’s just delightful and simple.”

That can be hard in an engineering-focused company, where different groups want their work to be as visible as possible. Microsoft has taken a while to learn that lesson as a company, and it’s not finished yet, he said.

Mobile is also a focus of Flora’s post-Microsoft career. He’s exploring areas including next-generation publishing, as traditional publishers look to make the transition into the new era of tablets and phones. In addition to working with clients, Flora says, Tectonic may also end up developing its own intellectual property at some point.

Flora made headlines for another reason earlier this year, when he was pictured in a CNet News article with a Mac on his desktop, causing some sites to say that Windows 8 was designed on a Mac. Flora laughs as he explains that the photo was taken after he left Microsoft. Macs are the tool of choice in the design world.

And for the record, he says with a chuckle, that Mac theoretically could have been running Windows.

The GeekWire Spring Meetup runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11, in downtown Seattle. Space is limited. Tickets and more information available here.

Sponsors of the event are Zillow, Microsoft HotmailAlexandria Nicole Cellars, and Odin Brewing.

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