When the design of the Playstation 5 console went public in June, the internet roasted it, comparing the design to everything from a Wi-Fi router to a mitre (aka pope hat). It’s easy to understand why. Competitor Microsoft had revealed its sleek, spartan black box Xbox Series X, and a Dieter Rams-inspired Series S would follow. These were bastions of what so much of America and Europe have deemed “good design.”
And here was Sony, ignoring that whole philosophy. Geometric simplicity? Nah. Form follows function? Nope. As the PS5 launches November 12 starting at $399, think of it this way: The PS5 has no flat surfaces to rest upon. It requires a bundled stand just to sit there, sideways or vertically, in or on a media cabinet. And while the Xbox has been designed to disappear, the PS5 has been designed to be a work of art. In that sense, it’s just as divisive as any viral sculpture out of Art Basel.
Sony and Microsoft have long been fierce competitors in the world of game consoles, which is expected to grow to a $51 billion industry by 2027. But consoles aren’t their sole source of gaming revenue, and smartphone gaming is booming. That’s why Microsoft is diversifying its revenue into a subscription gaming service and testing games that play directly from the cloud, and Sony has partnered with Microsoft to share and collaborate on technology to stream games and media. These days, it might be more accurate to view Sony and Microsoft as a friendly rivalry: Each is a necessary player to keeping console gaming alive and well, while Google tries to cut them both out with its cloud gaming service, Stadia. Their console designs represent different visions that create needed diversity in the marketplace.
But the PS5’s real selling point is its DualSense controller: This is not just a perfectly honed, ergonomic collection of buttons and thumb sticks. Instead, it’s functionally maximalist, with all the normal controls you’d expect, plus a touchpad like what is on your laptop, triggers that can alter their resistance to mimic the sensation of a bow tightening or spring coiling, an accelerometer so you can steer by tilting, a microphone to talk, and most impressively, a speaker/motor setup that pushes haptic vibrations to new heights. With the DualSense, you both hear and feel the splash of water, or your footfalls in sand. The DualSense can even make it feel like there are dozens of tiny people, rolling and bouncing, inside your hands.
Talking to the lead designer of the PS5, Yujin Morisawa, it’s clear that Sony’s approach to the next generation of console gaming may be the antithesis of Microsoft’s, but it is just as considered. In our 30-minute conversation, Morisawa reveals he was trained as a college student in the Bauhaus style beloved by Rams zealots. But he’s more philosophical than pragmatic, and aspirational than practical. And understanding his intent has made me appreciate Sony’s approach more.
Let’s start with that amorphous shape. Where did it come from? “I tried to break a boundary of [any] certain object because I wanted to express the experience we have in Playstation,” says Morisawa.
Morisawa is no stranger to breaking conventional forms. The Sony Rolly he designed, released in 2007, reimagined an MP3 player like the iPod as as a flashing, dancing buddy player—something closer to a virtual pet like the Aibo robotic dog than the Bluetooth speaker you’ve got today for your iPhone. Morisawa was considering how the PS5 would work—that its new internal architecture could load and hop between different games almost instantly, turning the player into someone else at any given moment.
“The concept of PS5 is five dimensions,” says Morisawa. “It’s becoming a reality where . . . you feel like you’re a champion of the world . . . you could be a warrior, a racer, at the same time.” Your identity while playing is literally shaped by this box, and so the box had to capture the fluid nature of gaming.
Morisawa approached the PS5 much like a sculpture, starting with the box, full of processors and cooling mandated by engineers, and cutting into it as deeply as he could.
“Every day, I was talking to engineers, [asking] how many millimeters I could go inside to sculpt out what’s not needed,” he says.
With no flat edges, the PS5 is a perfect articulation of defensive architecture, at the electronic scale. You cannot stack anything on top of it—even balancing a single controller on it is about impossible—which will help the machine run cool. This shape is a functional design decision because stacking electronics can lead to their overheating.
Was he worried about making a console with no flat edges? “A little,” he admits. But he’s happy with his solution, a small, circular stand that hooks onto the PS5. Its core rotates into two different modes, like a 3D puzzle piece that can perfectly conform to the console. On one hand, it’s a little unwieldy, and an extra piece of plastic necessary simply to put the PS5 on a table. (Multiply that plastic by 100 million times, and it’s a significant ecological impact, too.) On the other, it does add a sense of weightlessness to the otherwise gargantuan machine. If you squint, the PS5 almost looks like it’s floating, by design.
As for the new DualSense controller, Morisawa admits that redesigning Sony’s existing controller was intimidating. “I think the DualShock 4 [on the PS4] is almost the perfect controller,” he says. That might sound like bragging, but it’s not. Sony has refined the ergonomics of its controllers over the course of decades, over which time players have spent thousands of hours gaining muscle memory in highly precise controls. To tweak a single millimeter here or there comes with a real risk of ostracizing a loyal fanbase.
Aesthetically, Morisawa wanted the DualSense to feel “like it came from the same planet” as the PS5—not to be matchy-matchy, but related. It’s notably grippier than the DualShock 4 thanks to its almost invisible texture, with the Playstation’s core symbols (a square, circle, X, and O, creating its texture). “You could imagine them as micromachines or microorganisms . . . stuck together to form a white surface to hold what’s inside,” says Morisawa.
Functionally, he planted a more powerful idea about the DualSense. “I told designers, it should be your partner. It should feel like your partner,” says Morisawa. “When you’re playing a game, this is the only device you’re holding. This is helping you. This kind of emotional feeling is expressed on the controller.”
And that’s what the DualSense is. It’s not just a controller, there to do what you command. If you think about it, the DualSense is almost like a Sony Rolly in your hands, adding sensations to games that are beyond pixels on the screen. It’s your interpreter.