Hartmut Esslinger and Apple design
In a room at a Cupertino office building in 1982, German designer Hartmut Esslinger decided that Apple computers had to be white. The last computer, the Apple III, had been a flop and Esslinger thought he knew partly why - it was a color the designers called greige. Dud, Esslinger called it.
A celebrity designer in Germany, Esslinger had modernized Sony TVs (bigger screens, cleaner lines) in the 70s and even made a showerhead (15 million of them were produced the year he sketched it). When he moved to Cupertino to work at a fledgling Apple in 1982, his advisers told him it would be a mistake. Americans, they said, wanted their electronics like they wanted their homes: covered in wood paneling and brass.
In his pen-and-highlighter sketches, now reprinted in a book, Keep It Simple: The Early Years of Apple (Arnoldsche Art Publishers), Esslinger gives a history of Apple through its early design. Next to drawings of keyboards and cables, he includes the back-and-forth hed have with Steve Jobs - a sort of arm wrestling between two perfectionists.
When Esslinger, now 69 and founder of Frog Design Inc., made prototypes of his first line of computers for Apple, he did it in a single afternoon; Jobs liked that the models smelled of fresh glue. And when the Esslinger-designed Apple IIc was released, it was a success, and most important for him, a lovely off-white.
Q: Whyd you leave Sony?
A: I was a bit famous back then, in 72 after Sony bought my company. But when I was there, they said to me, Our business is solid, and youre this crazy guy. So thats how I ended up with Steve Jobs. Its funny, isnt it? When I arrived, everyone was in bowties and suits. They did not look like revolutionaries.
Q: What was it like when you arrived in Cupertino?
A: Its not a kiss and tell, but the big thing at Apple at that time was that it had produced some really bad stuff - Apple III was a complete flop. I had worked with Sony and had experienced this whole industrial model. I was a bit older than Steve at the time. I helped explain that he could outsource some of the engineering and production in Asia. I helped explain how something should look in the house.
Q: The language you use throughout the book is pretty dramatic - even the chapter titles are grand: A Family Perspective on the Revolution, Eden in the Valley, A Heros Journey. Did you know how important the work was while you were doing it?
A: If youre not an optimist, youre in the wrong place here.
Being a designer, we could leapfrog technology. We could define how the future would look. We made projections - one day you will put this computer in the pocket! People thought we were crazy. You need a big projection, and a lot of fantasy and imagination and optimism.
You have to improve life, thats the mission. Its a big mission. I wasnt a poet. I wasnt an artist. My talent was in designing stuff.
Q: Whered you get your design talent from?
A: I dont know. My mother broke my sketchbooks and my teachers kicked me out of class when I drew. Then I started trying to get kicked out of class so I could sketch outside.
I always wanted to do electronics. All the machines we had in university were ugly beyond belief. The other option was automotive, but automotive is not a real career. Its very conservative, and you dont get a car until youre 40 years old.
And I wasnt interested in office furniture.
Q: Is design today as interesting?
A: Well, everyone is designing software, and software is an excuse for poor design. A physical product goes through a physical process. It has a filter of usability. It has to be touched. Now its so easy to program something, and its not programmed to be enjoyable. You go online, and they try to keep you on the website as long as possible so they can get your data. I dont want to get exploited. I dont want design to exploit.
The problem is software is two-dimensional right now. Its like looking at paper instead of looking at space. It has to become three-dimensional. It has to become cultural - not to make humans adapt to stupid movements and stupid ways of clicking on screens. All those dialogue boxes? Insane.
Q. So next is software? Will dialogue boxes go the way of greige?
A. When I look at my career, it was always good enough just to fix things. Now we have to create the next level of industrial revolution, something which is less polluting and less intrusive. Its important to find a philosophy that is humanistic. Ultimately, we have to create happiness. Its a human right.
Nellie Bowles is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @NellieBowles