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The elements of style

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the IBM personal computer, the company's design director, David Hill, muses on the past, present and future of the PC.


The elements of style
By Michael Kanellos
Staff Writer, CNET
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 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?
A: Design is made up of both form and function. Many times people use the term "form follows function." I think it was a quotation from the architect Louis Sullivan. I don't necessarily subscribe to the concept of form following function. I think great design is typified by a blurring of the boundaries between those two ideas. It's synergistic. You really can't tell where one starts and the other stops. For instance, look at the F-117, the Stealth Fighter plane. Is that about what it looks like or what it does?

The way that we have treated the ThinkPad from a design perspective is similar in the way that Porsche treats the 911. 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?
ThinkPad is an interesting design story because ThinkPad is over eight years old now, maybe nine, but the design of the ThinkPad has remained to some degree relatively unchanged.

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.
The surprise element has appeared in many different ways. Initially, it was the fact that it was a fully featured computer. The punctuation of the red TrackPoint was another. Adding to the surprise element was the Butterfly keyboard version, the 701C.

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.
(Editor's note: IBM introduced the first notebook with a titanium composite case. Later, Apple Computer came out with a notebook with a pure titanium case.)

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?
The problem was that when it came out, the technology that was included with it was passé at the time. It kind of missed the power curve. Shortly thereafter, screens became larger and people became more interested in a thinner package rather than a smaller footprint, so the desire or need to have a Butterfly became irrelevant.

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?
Many of the flat-panel, all-in-one computers that we've seen in the past have been either completely constructed from mobile components or they have been a hybrid. So what you get is some of the space savings and style (of a notebook), but you end up paying more money for less performance.

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.
(Editor's note: A Pentium 4 version of the X40 comes out later this year.)

What was the aesthetic idea behind it?
We felt that it would be better to have a design that was invisible. The whole idea behind the X40 was, let's make it look like it's a flat-panel display and just hide everything else. It changes your whole perception of what a PC looks like.

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?
There are different kinds of projects. With the NetVista X40, nobody came up and said, "Hey, we are going to make a TFT-based, all-in-one computer." We had been studying this because we felt that there was a trend in the market that flat-panel display prices were coming down lower and lower. By combining a flat-panel display with an inexpensive desktop computer, we felt there could be some real advantages to certain markets. You could put it in places where you couldn't put an ordinary computer.

The logical extension of mobile computing is the ability to work while you're mobile, not just being able to move it from point A to point B. 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?
We are mostly interested in where are people using these things, what are the tasks they are trying to accomplish, what are their key frustrations, how much space do they have.

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?
There is a strong track record, especially with ThinkPad. Design has been a major contributor to the success of that product line. I won't go so far as to say design carried the day. There are all kinds of examples historically of beautifully designed products that were tragic failures. A friend of mine one time bought a toilet brush at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a beautiful looking thing but it was impossible to clean a toilet with.

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?
Probably, believe it or not, the PC Junior. It was quite innovative. It had an infrared keyboard. It had these cartridges you could snap to the side that would give it more power. It was quite user friendly, but it missed on a lot of other things. The keyboard was not good from an ease-of-use perspective. It was a little underpowered.

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?
IBM actually pioneered in the early 1950s the idea of colored computers. Our mainframes came in multiple colors. Companies could buy different end panels. They could be red, blue, green, yellow. I think there was even a brown or a gray. As computers shrunk, that kind of disappeared a bit, and computers became more neutral in their coloration. In the last 10 years, IBM has shifted the majority of the product line to black. It's powerful. It looks sort of mysterious. It's a purposeful thing, too, because it tends to make screens brighter and make the computer disappear more.

Fewer scuff marks, too.
Yeah. It's dramatic also. A Steinway piano looks better in black than it does in beige.

What sort of design innovations will come with wireless?
The logical extension of mobile computing is the ability to work while you're mobile, not just being able to move it from point A to point B. You may have seen the prototype wearable computers IBM has created. The whole idea of wireless and being connected in a different way is clearly an emerging opportunity.

Do wearable computers have the possibility of being big, or will they be used by somebody on a shop floor?
It's likely to start vertical, with a surgeon or an airplane mechanic. But over time, could it migrate to people wearing computers or taking them in their pocket? I would have to say yes. There's also a lot of work going on with servers, reducing the size of those to save floor space and simplify connections.

Yep. I have yet to meet anyone who had anything positive to say about cables.