How Apple Drives Good Design

You would think after marrying two designers that some of their design sensibility would rub off on me. No such luck, and it doesn’t help that I am as color blind as you can get. But lately it seems as if good design is rubbing off on quite a few computing manufacturers. They have taken design to heart and actually developing - and selling - products that look good and use their design to work well too. Good design is here to stay in the PC industry, and we should all be thankful.

There are several events and trends that have happened to make this possible. First and foremost is the launch of the Mac Mini. What used to be considered a breakthrough design - a black case - is not enough. The white-and-silver box is compact, quiet, and elegant. It is just the latest and most noticeable example where several vendors have launched an entire product line with similar color schemes. The Sonos wireless speakers actually pre-date the Mini, and there are routers from Netgear that offer up the same white/silver color schemes.

If you want to go back further for design innovation, of course there is the iPod, now a standard accessory for every teenager and hip adults too. Certainly those Apple ads are cute and infectious with everyone bouncing around with their white headphones. But you would have to admit that both Apple products just look good. Even the boxes that they come in are designed well. (I couldn’t bear to throw out my G5’s packing materials, just because the box is so well constructed.)

Most notable with the iPod enhancements is Belkin. They offer various attachments for your iPod in your car, for portable speakers and power, and other add-ons. And these products all look as good as the iPod. Belkin knows what they are doing - the company opened a special industrial design studio in Hollywood to work on its new products, and I was lucky enough to get a tour last month and see exactly how they do it. It was unlike any computer factory tour, or computer office, that I have ever visited. The whole place looked like a movie set for some futuristic office, with interesting uses of metal and glass walls and corkboards all over the place so the designers could pin up examples of product packaging and ideas to examine. They also had cool 3D "printers" that enabled them to produce their models quickly from CAD drawings. If I was a designer I could describe the place better, but I came away thinking how cool was this and what a fun place to work in. They purposely picked the middle of Hollywood as its location to lure the hip and young designers there too.

Belkin isn’t the only one with a far-out industrial design studio. Even staid Intel with all of its miles of cubicals has one, and I was able to meet with their design teams when I visited their Portland campus earlier this week. This team was responsible for designing one of the early Gateway all-in-one PCs, and also worked on a new tablet PC for the Chinese market that looks good and works well for crowded spaces with limited desktop space. The designers clearly have the right tools : in the middle of the shop was sitting perhaps the only Mac on the Intel campus.

This brings up another trend. As these design shops proliferate, computer vendors are hiring more industrial designers and giving them more influence over the ultimate product feature set. This isn’t just because they want good-looking products. Rather, good design has solid bottom-line implications. It gives the vendor a leg up because they need to stand out on the shelves and because the coolness factor translates into good word of mouth and improved sales.

Getting back to the Mac Mini, clearly this machine has had its influence on the small form factor PC vendors. I saw last week a new machine from AOpen that takes its cues from Apple, and they will be selling this month their XC Cube Mini model that is small, powerful, and quiet just like the Mini, and in various colors too. AOpen wants these PCs to be used in living rooms, kitchens, and other places where having a nice-looking machine is an important part of the décor.

Speaking of colors, another trend has to do with the rise of case-modding. As many of you have told me, the custom construction of computer cases has reached beyond the underground overclockers and is now firmly in the mainstream. Companies like Alienware and Falcon Technology have made good businesses selling innovative cases that are more than just good designs and have solid high-performance components inside.

In the old days of automotive design, car companies established design studios here in southern California because this is where the action was for people who made modifications to their cars, not to mention that the local design colleges had great programs to train the industrial designers of the future. Once the students graduated, they wanted to stick around Los Angeles and so an industry was born.

But in the computing world, we have no such geographic nexus of case modders. They can be found in every country. This makes it harder for industrial design shops to incorporate local sensibilities, to be sure. And these designers need to expand their sights beyond the US market to fully understand what the world needs from their PCs. What this all means is that good design makes good sense, and expect to see lots more of it in the near future.

This isn’t "buying into Apple’s cult" as Omid says in his column this week , but just giving credit where credit is due.

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