If you've seen pictures of Apple's new iMac, you probably didn't start talking about its G3 processor or USB ports. No, conversations about the new consumer Mac sound more like: "It's an X-Wing pilot's helmet." "It's a half-melted blue gumdrop on its side." "A big lozenge?" "You know, a roundy-looking, marshmallowish, translucent glob for the rest of us."
Although it's been only a short time since the iMac's introduction, the machine is already on people's minds - without the benefit of hands-on experience, application-specific benchmarks, or formal product reviews; the little computer isn't even shipping for another 90 days. Macintosh retailers have even reported increased traffic from customers asking about the iMac. Why the excitement? Good, unique industrial design.
Look Different -- For the most part, the computer industry has put little effort into industrial design. Most computers are boring, beige boxes that emphasize specifications over appearance. As long as the job gets done, who cares what it looks like? Is it any wonder that many PCs get stuck beneath desks?
In 1984, the original Macintosh captured people's imagination partly because of its friendly, all-in-one design. With its rounded edges, slightly angled front, and built-in handle, the Mac became an information-age device you wanted to touch and weren't afraid to use. Time Magazine named it 1984's "Design of the Year." (For a visual history of Apple industrial design, both shipping and conceptual works, check out the book AppleDesign, by Paul Kunkel and Rick English.)<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ ISBN=1888001259/tidbitselectro00A>
Good design invariably makes a product stand apart from the crowd. Although the new PowerBook G3 series was also introduced on the same day as the iMac - featuring a downright beautiful design that laughs at rectilinear PC laptops - it was the iMac's completely different, almost organic (if you consider translucent blue to be organic) form factor that appeared in headlines and around water coolers the next day.
Work Different -- Striking design prompts discussion (how many people do you know who have asked, "What do you think of the blob?"), and generates valuable word-of-mouth, the best marketing in existence. But good design is also its own communication between company and consumer; it demonstrates that a company is interested in how its customer uses and feels about the product, and that it is willing to expend the resources necessary to improve that experience. This is apparent not only in how sleek, or eye-catching, or creative something appears, but in how it's used.
Steve Jobs said at his Worldwide Developer Conference keynote that he "found the best industrial design group in the world at Apple," and their attention to detail is apparent in the new designs. The new PowerBooks, for example, are more than attractive: they're the easiest PowerBooks to open to perform RAM or hard drive upgrades; the expansion bay modules employ levers to eject batteries and storage devices; the rear door is spring loaded and feels more durable than previous models (it just might stay attached for the long run). Similarly, the desktop G3 models, like the Power Mac 7500 design, open easily for user-installable upgrades. If you've ever had to install a modem or hard drive into most PCs, you'll appreciate the lack of hand-gymnastics required to connect such devices.
This kind of detail doesn't go unnoticed, and no doubt contributes to owners' allegiance to their Macintoshes. It used to be that a rectangular metal box was perfectly acceptable for a computer, but no more. Apple is demonstrating that design counts, and I'm willing to bet that buyers will agree in volume.