By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
July 16, 2001, 4:00 a.m. PT
Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the IBM personal computer, a seminal event that helped speed the widespread adoption of the PC by businesses and consumers.
That product debut also helped establish design standards that other PC makers would later adopt and modify. Even though IBM's name is not immediately associated with the concepts of elegance in design, David Hill, director of design in the company's Personal Computing division, points out that Big Blue has actually been on the forefront of computing style for decades.
Design became a core corporate function in 1956, and aesthetic ideals have percolated through the company's products ever since. Remember the Selectric typewriter? It came in multiple colors when most other competitors stuck to black or beige. It also differed by coming in a chassis that featured no straight lines.
Along with winning numerous awards, IBM's designers have seen their products turned into art. The ThinkPad is now part of the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the NetVista X40, an all-in-one computer, was recently exhibited at the museum as well.
Hill spoke with CNET News.com about Big Blue's style do's and don'ts, changes coming to the desktop, and why some designs seem to last forever.
Q: What is IBM's philosophy when it comes to product design?
We are designing business tools, but hopefully through the design we are creating an interesting user experience, whether that experience be in terms of how the machine looks or what benefits it provides you because of its design.
You're one of the main designers on the ThinkPad lines. How have these ideas been incorporated in your products?
The original concept was created by Richard Sapper, a noted European designer. He is probably one of the most significant designers of the last century, and his idea for it was that it should appear like a very, very simple black box with absolutely no indication that it even in fact was a computer. And when you opened it, it had this sense of surprise.
The original also had the red TrackPoint signature, and it had the jaunty three-colored logo on the outside. It was a very striking idea, and it remained relatively unchanged in root concept.
That's interesting. I never thought of the surprise element, but it's there.
There have been other versions. For instance, I think it was the 755CDG. The back came off and you could actually put it on an overhead projector. We've always tried to put these kinds of innovations into the product: making the product thinner, introducing innovative materials like the titanium composite.
The way that we have treated the ThinkPad from a design perspective is similar in the way that Porsche treats the 911.
I remember when the Butterfly keyboard came out. It was visually striking, but commercially it was a tough sell. Was it a balance issue?
Lately, IBM has been marketing all-in-one, flat-panel computers with the NetVista X40. It's interesting looking, but historically, these have always been a tough sell. How do you get around that?
What is unique about the X40, and particularly about the follow-on product, is that it is made 100 percent from desktop components. So you are not paying a premium for the way it looks, and you're giving up no performance.
What was the aesthetic idea behind it?
How do you come up with the ideas? Do you give people items and study to see what they do? Or does it start with trying to come up with something aesthetically striking?
In fact, the one you saw which is arm-enabled (the unit floats on an articulating mechanical arm) isn't even a desktop computer. You don't need a desk to use it.
How does the focus-group testing work. When do you start marrying your ideas with the average person's behavior?
A good example of that is the ThinkLight. That whole idea came out between collaboration between human-factors engineering, industrial designers and marketing. We were trying to figure out what user benefit we could link to our product. It was along the lines of making a better dashboard rather than a better engine.
One of the things we came up with was that often people were trying to use these things in places you wouldn't ordinarily think of, in a dark lecture hall, or maybe in the back seat of a car on a trip in the middle of the night, and you are trying to write a report. Everybody talked about, "Well, you can tilt the screen down and light your keyboard and lift it back up again." But then we thought, "Wouldn't it be great if there was a light that would illuminate the keyboard?"
How does IBM judge when a design has been successful? How do you quantify whether design contributed to sales?
But if you have the right mix, you can make a huge difference.
Are there some products in IBM's history that weren't so successful in terms of design?
One thing IBM hasn't done is got into the whole multiple-color issue, making computers in all sorts of zany colors. Is that a one-company phenomenon?
Fewer scuff marks, too.
What sort of design innovations will come with wireless?
Do wearable computers have the possibility of being big, or will they be used by somebody on a shop floor?
Yep. I have yet to meet anyone who had anything positive to say about cables.