Haute PC Designs Show Users' True Colors

Now that personal computers work reasonably well, manufacturers are getting around to making them look good

P> Beige. Beige beige beige beige beige.

Worker bees are surrounded by a sea of taupe, cream, bone and putty plastic. Desks. Monitor frames. Shelves. Keyboards. Mice. Even beige metal filing cabinets and beige walls.

"One of the problems today, as I look around my office, is that all this has to match," said Russell Flinchum, guest curator at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Sure, there are practical reasons for this army of beige soldiers trooping into cubicles across the land.

"It's non-intrusive, non-threatening. Beige shows enough of the dirt to know when to clean it, but not enough that every speck shows," said Steven Skov Holt, strategy director at frogdesign inc. -- one of the largest industrial design firms in the world, located in Sunnyvale, Calif.

But more home computers are sold than office machines now. And that seems likely to alter radically the look of computers as consumer preferences for innovative design begin to influence marketing decisions. Even more, computer suppliers mostly have access to more or less the same technology, so increasingly style -- rather than substance -- can be a key differentiator for computer systems.

It's like tennis shoes. Before Nike running shoes, everyone had canvas sneakers -- Converse, Keds -- often solids, with maybe two or three color choices. "I think that's right where we are in the PC world now. The internal pressures are building, and the doors are about to be blown off," Holt said.

Back to the Future

Why should a computer, or a toaster or an iron or any appliance be exciting? It's just supposed to work, right?

Well, it wasn't always that way. In the 1930s, almost every consumer product, from plastic safety razors to cars, and even industrial products such as trains and office buildings, had a common theme. It all was streamlined, shiny, sleek and sophisticated. This style, commonly called art deco, became seen as bourgeois and dishonest by the avant-garde.

"Styling was somehow considered to be dishonest," Flinchum said. And so Bauhaus was born. The most painstakingly crafted individual pieces were made to look blocky and mass-produced. The rallying cry: "Form follows function." Flinchum describes it as "functionalism way past the point of functionality."

Post-modernism, with its retro flights of fancy, tried to be the next big thing, but made more of a mark in architecture than in home products. "Post-modern forms were not designed for kitchen tools," Flinchum said.

There have been breakthroughs in PC design through the last dozen years. Almost all of them have come from the imaginations of designers at frogdesign, which added its Sunnyvale office in California to be near Apple Computer Corp. co-founder Steve Jobs, its first American patron.

With the Apple IIc, frogdesign changed the computer industry forever.

Today, the small, built-in screen seems archaic. But 12 years ago, combining everything into one unit, the friendly, smiley appearance of the machine, and particularly, the graphical user interface complete with colors, were revolutionary. It went into New York's Whitney Museum. It won design of the year from Time magazine.

But the problem with having the ear of the CEO is when he leaves, so do you. So, when Jobs left Apple in Sunnyvale, Calif., and started NeXT Computer Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., NeXT hired frogdesign to create its workstation look.

"It was a profound act of differentiation and revenge," Holt said. Where the Apple was smiley, the NeXT was dark, massive and powerful. Again, both the interface, with its pioneering use of sound and animation, and the design won all the awards.

"I thought the NeXT was the most beautiful computer of its generation. I don't know why nobody had them," Flinchum said.

While introducing a new operating system was a misstep, Holt said that NeXT paved the way for many trends now accepted as givens -- object-oriented programming, a communicator not a calculator, multimedia and sound.

"This [computer] was a real precursor, a visionary precursor of what has come and what has yet to come," Holt said.

While designers admit there's a long way to go before personal computers really become personalized, there are both mass-market and hand-tailored stabs at doing just that.

The firm's design of Acer America's Aspire, a green swoopy home computer -- is a mass-market innovator. (See sidebar).

Kunst Computer, L.L.C., a small start-up in quiet Charlottesville, Va., represents the antithesis of churn-it-out assembly-line pressures. The company, which means "art" in German, was started by a former freelance C programmer fresh out of University of Virginia's law school. Kunst's president, Andrew Sutherland, plans to sell Windows machines with a handcrafted wood casing and a sleek charcoal gray monitor. Even the keyboards have walnut housing.

"Originally, we felt it would be ideal for people who deal with clients, say lawyers. Surprisingly enough, a lot of the people who have been calling are looking for something for their home," Sutherland said.

Flinchum's not surprised at all. Executives would be fairly unlikely to buy such a traditional look, he said.

"First of all, how much do they use their computers?" But home users? "Well, that's brilliant," he said. The market can be "the anti-techies who held out as long as they could."

Blaise Gaston, Kunst's woodworker, has been a professional furniture maker and woodworker in the Blue Ridge Mountains for 20 years. He said the company spent all last summer doing prototypes.

Gaston added sculptural legs made from an exotic African wood to the central processing unit. Definitely postmodern. "The whole process takes 10 hours," he said.

"We would be happy if we sold around 100 or so," Sutherland said. The craftsmanship adds several thousand dollars to the price of the components, which can all be customized.

"We'll increasingly get away from universal design in tools," Flinchum said, and not just for fashion reasons. With computer sharing, designs must be flexible for people with different heights and typing methods.

Professor Hugh Greenlee, chairman of the Cleveland Institute of Art's industrial design department, said, "I wish we were a lot smarter than we are. We tend to learn in steps rather than leaps."

Flinchum also cautioned against too much futurist optimism. "They've predicted a television you could hang on a wall like a picture for 50 years now," he said.

Whatever happens, it's likely frogdesign will be in on it. Holt said, "We've become adept at identifying where the future intersects with the present."

The paradigm will change, designers believe, because people want to make a mark on their surroundings. It's not a large leap from designer mouse pads and screen savers to designer computers.

"We constantly try to make one thing fit all," Greenlee said. "It'd be a pretty stale and boring world if everything was the same." n

Why They're Drab

How did we get the hegemony of putty plastic? After all, plastic was invented around the turn of the century to bring color into the home, said Russell Flinchum, guest curator at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

The possibly apocryphal story goes that the original Apple computer in the late '70s was the color of putty because there were some cheap plastic putty overruns. For whatever reason, the color -- or lack thereof -- has stuck.

"I think so much of the industry is 'me, too.' Probably if the Apple had come out in pink, there'd be a lot of pink machines," said Steven Skov Holt, strategy director at frogdesign inc., Sunnyvale, Calif.

The industry's conservatism is both financial and philosophical. "We've become sort of hostages to this middle management perspective," Flinchum said. "Industrial designers in the 1930s were stars, and had direct access to CEOs." Designers now have to shoot for what they call "MAYA" -- most advanced, yet acceptable.

But Chris Lenart, an industrial designer at frogdesign, has worked on some ground-breaking projects that didn't have the ear of the bigwigs.

Probably more of a restriction is the lack of time. Flinchum said he interviewed a designer with 50 years of experience in the business who said that the elegant 1940s phones took two years to come together. Now companies want a prototype in two weeks.

"Increasingly, we find that PC companies are in a very fundamental and serious race to market. We can't afford to be late a day, much less a week," Holt said.

The Dream Machine

Washington Technology asked a group of industrial designers, interior design professors and design historians to describe their dream computers. Here's what they said.

-"You want your computer to be down to earth and not a joke. I don't think it wants to be funky. Maybe other things do, but I don't think a computer does."

-- Professor Hugh Greenlee, chairman of the Cleveland Institute of Art's industrial design department, who said he'd stick with today's designs.

-"I would go back to the look the Italians were cultivating right at the start of the 1970s, a stretched skin perspective. It was more than streamlining. Beautiful design from Olivetti -- the screen swept out of the table-like computer."

Describing the plaque commemorating his exhibit sitting on top of his monitor, he said he has a tendency to drape something on every flat surface. "What I would really prefer is something that would keep my desk clean."

-- Russell Flinchum, guest curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

-"Oh, it'd be super tiny, the size of my wrist watch, and fold out to a 24-inch screen. I'd like to take it to the mountains." The interface would eliminate keyboards, and instead would use a stylus. I would like to "write on the screen, talk to it." The floppies and CD-ROMs would be coin-sized. And of course, "It'd be all completely wireless."

-- Chris Lenart, industrial designer with frogdesign, Sunnyvale, Calif.

The Birth of Aspire

A year ago, industrial designers at frogdesign inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., were given a mission: Create a home computer.

This is not your boss' desktop PC. With an emerald green chassis, swoops on the monitor, wrist rest, Swiss cheese holes for ventilation and half-moon indentions sprinkled on several components, it looks like nothing that has come before.

And all this was designed for Acer America in San Jose, Calif., in three weeks. First, they made sketches for the project, code-named Jetsons. From the sketch, it went into a foam model, then a painted foam model, then an appearance model, complete with ventilation and connectors in the plastic shell. They dubbed it the Aspire.

The swoop on the monitor came from a quick pencil sketch from one team member. "One of the tricks is to use shapes that break up the mass and make it look lighter," said Chris Lenart, an industrial designer who worked on the project. "Everybody was jazzed about it."

Because the swoop was asymmetrical, the ventilation pattern needed to be, too. "It's just a fun detail," Lenart said. "I can't say, 'Well, we did it because we were inspired by Swiss cheese. I was eating a sandwich that day....'"

The half moons, like something you'd see on an old outhouse door, were just a retro shape to go along with the cloudlike billows and the Jetsons theme. The swoop of the wrist rest was practical -- few people need a wrist rest for the number key pad.

"All these quirks came from our imagination, I guess -- and from Star Trek," Lenart said.

And yet the quirks are practical. The Aspire "doesn't cost more than manufacturing another PC. You would think that it does, but it doesn't."

So far, the customers seem to be eager for the next-generation machines. Lenart said, "I know they're selling more than they can ship."

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