Design elevates experience

— 10:27 AM on August 24, 2009

A lot of people ask me, "Jason, how do you stay so OMG sexy?" And while I usually just demurely deflect such comments with a sheepish "pshaw" or "phhttp," I must admit to you loyal readers that maintaining the sensual allure of an Oscar Mayer Gherkin does present certain challenges. Like the bi-annual pec implant rotations or finding a laser hair removal clinic that uses 100% frickin' laser sharks, looking this good is no mean feat. Which reminds me that I'm due for a mani/pedi.

Face it. It's hard to stay hot, even when you're haute. How many celebrities truly age gracefully? Sophia Loren and Jack Klugman, sure. But others? Simmer down, Mickey Rooney. Even my plan to continue buying whatever the Gap mannequins are wearing each season will undoubtedly start failing me around 2003.

Oh. Bummer.

Anyway, promoting a consistently stylish image is difficult enough for humans, let alone products. But I was recently (as in this morning) reminded of design's impact on products by a T-shirt. Worn by a young hipster of an art director on my creative team, it simply stated, "Design elevates experience." You may have heard this phrase before. Like in this post's title.

Design does indeed make experience better. Even (most) people who value form over function would, given items of equal functionality, chose the one with the better form. Granted, in the case of products, form is often part of the functionality. How much a thing weighs, how smoothly its buttons/keys/drawers operate, how thin/wide/bright/matte, etc. are all functional design elements. I know this. You know this. Some manufactures know this. But even when you know it, executing it is a different matter entirely.

Apple has always had a penchant for good design. Many of their machines, even from the early days, displayed an aesthetic most other PC makers either ignored, scoffed at or tried in vain to copy. Leaving aside the user interface-designs through the years, I'd like to highlight some of my favorite (and one less-so) bits of Apple hardware through the years. Presented in chronological order.

The Original Macintosh (1984) – Small footprint, built-in display, internal floppy drive, external keyboard and mouse. Cool. Kept the IIe's "Ode to a 1974 Frigidaire" beige awesomeness. Not so cool. Then again, an attractive color may have pushed it too far into the "cute" range. And we all know how well that worked out for Brian Bonsall. An icon version of this machine used to be the startup image on every Mac until yahoo decided that OS X 10.2 was just too rad to keep it around. So I use BootXChanger to put my Happy Mac back cuz I likes to keeps it realz the Susan Kare way. Peace.

Apple IIc (1984) – Introduced in early 1984 as a portable version of the Apple IIe, the IIc was the first computer I remember seeing that seemed small without also appearing cheap (I'm looking at you, Timex Sinclair). Weighing in a svelte 7.5 pounds, the IIc was Apple's first attempt at creating a portable computer. I can only assume Apple thought people kept a quiver of monitors strewn about town so they wouldn't have to tote along a two-ton, 80-column display. Or maybe they meant "portable" as in "easier to move for dusting." I cannot say, and everyone who worked on the IIc is now dead, so I can't ask them. The IIc also marked Apple's first move away from the II and IIe's poo-based color scheme and into the world of honky-based design motifs. There is no truth to the rumor that David Duke used the IIc to promote his white power philosophy. He used an Atari ST.

20th Anniversary Mac (1997) – Okay, the Twentieth Anniversary Mac (TAM) is almost exclusively about design. Sure, the LCD screen was cool for a desktop in 97 (even though it was lifted from a PowerBook), and the custom Bose speakers pretty trick if you didn't encounter the dreaded buzz that afflicted more than a few units. Leather palm rests on the keyboard? Very comfy, I'm sure. Granted, the thing cost $7,499 while spec'ing out about the same as a $2,999 Power Mac 6500. Still, the TAM looks like what Bang & Olufsen would produce if they jumped into the computer biz and decided to junk their own speakers for Bose. Which they would not.

PowerBook G3 "Wallstreet" (1998) – With a big-honkin' screen (14.1") and a chassis that was more APC than Bradley Fighting Vehicle, this PowerBook used its mildly curvy goodness to stand out from the pack despite wearing the standard-issue laptop shade of black.

Original iMac (1998) – Some would argue that Apple really moved to the forefront of functional design since the introduction of the original "Bondi blue" iMac. With all due respect to Jonathan Ive, blech. I didn't like the translucent plastic at 11 years ago. I didn't like all the copycat products it inspired—especially in non-tech areas (sadly, the intertubes have apparently been expunged of iEpilators). Sure, they looked better than PCs, but how hard was that to pull off? I realize this model "saved Apple" and I should be grateful for that, but the fact that I can still find a few hockey-puck mice in the Random Cables drawer at work just keeps picking at that design scab. Also, I blame Jeff Goldblum.

Power Mac G4 Cube (2000) – Still infinitely cooler than the Mini, even with the bothersome mold lines in the plastic case. Too expensive to be a sales champ, the Cube at least showed that power could come in a tidy package (simmer down again, Mickey Rooney). A cult following still exists for this model, for which numerous upgrades have been released. Of course, many cults still follow the Dark Lord Englebert Humperdink, so let's not use that as a argument for the model's worth.

PowerBook G4 / MacBook Pro (2001) – While this model has evolved through various materials, processors, hinge designs, port placement schemes, etc., its overall aesthetic has remained the same. And that aesthetic is instantly recognizable and desirable eight years after its introduction. Minimalist without being boring. Strong (at last) without adding weight. Now powerful enough to truly act as a desktop replacement. It could survive on looks alone, but the subtle touches like a thin bezel, magnetic latch, built-in iSight camera and glass trackpad (how I long for one) help make it a pleasure to use. If Ferris Bueller had a laptop, it would be this, for it is both so choice and highly fitting for the Sausage King of Chicago.

iMac G4 (2002) – Pixar's Luxo, Jr. come to life. If they sold this today with quad-core Xeon, eight gigs of RAM and a 24-inch screen, I'd buy one. Elegant. Friendly. Simple. Ahhhh.

Power Mac G5 / Mac Pro (2003) – Another design that should feel long in the tooth by now, the G5/Mac Pro case still looks contemporary, billet-like and, let's be honest, ginormous. Open the case up, and be amazed at the logical layout and ease with which one can upgrade hard drives, video cards and other things. We won't mention the failed liquid-cooling experiment.

There you go. A walk down design memory lane. I'm sure you have your favorites, too. And I'm pretty sure the LC 520 isn't one of them.



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