A seed of the iMac G4 design

Through the libraries of the local Polytechnic University, I fortunately have access to a seminal book: AppleDesign — The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group, by Paul Kunkel with photos by Rick English (1997). The book went out of print not long after being published, and it’s an amazing treasure trove of information on Apple’s design approaches and investigations from the early Apple II days until 1997. And that means not only a lot of details about several projects which never saw the light of day, but also a lot of photographs of prototypes and mockups illustrating the various ideas and explorations within the projects — whether they led to a known Apple product or not. Needless to say, I find this to be incredibly fascinating, and I return to this book on a regular basis even though I know it quite well by now.

Since I’ve just talked about the most recent addition to my collection, a 17-inch iMac G4, I’ll share a brief extract from that book showing a design idea that, while considered many years before, and for a different project, might be viewed as a first seed of the iMac G4 design.

The Pomona design investigation

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(Image source: KCG Computer Museum)

The final design of the iconic Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (codename: Spartacus) was the result of a long investigation that had started a few years before, in the autumn of 1992. The investigation was internally code-named Pomona. From the AppleDesign book:

“For years, I’d wondered how the computer would evolve from a box into something more physically compelling that would fit better in the home,” says Bob Brunner [the Director of Apple’s Industrial Design Group at the time]. “In survey after survey, customers told us they want ‘power systems’ with expansion slots and extra drive bays that allow them to add to their system at a later date. That demand forced us to adopt a box-like design to hold the cards and drives. But most home users never add to their system, which leaves them with unused slots, drive bays that remain empty, and a box they don’t really need.”

Eventually, says Brunner, “home users should realise they only need a standard setup with a single expansion slot. When that happens, we can stop thinking of the computer as a plastic box and instead give it a shape that expresses its function, using materials such as wood, metal and leather that are more in tune with the home environment.”

To anticipate this change, Brunner launched the Pomona Design Investigation in October 1992, wrote a two-page design brief, and invited IDG’s designers, as well as consultants from Silicon Valley, Tokyo and New York, to submit concepts in an effort to redefine the home computer, invent shapes to better address user’s needs and employ materials that would function as well in a domestic setting as Apple’s platinum grey plastic works in the office. […]

The Pomona design brief was distributed to IDG’s designers and five outside consultants — Eric Chan of EC Design (New York), Tangerine (London), IDEC (Tokyo), Montgomery & Pfeifer (San Francisco), and IDEO Product Development (San Francisco). Their task was to create a desktop Macintosh with high object value using miniature components, high aesthetic content, and alternative materials. […]

As Brunner expected, the Pomona brief sparked an avalanche of ideas, many of which did away with the traditional computer box or shrunk it to a barely noticeable size. Eric Chan and his staff at Ecco Design generated dozens of sketches showing tabletop, desk-mounted and freestanding concepts.

One of such concepts took inspiration from Richard Sapper’s Tizio lamp, with the motherboard and drives housed in a desk ‘base’, and a flat panel display mounted on a long, adjustable arm. Sounds familiar?

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(Source: P. Kunkel, AppleDesign — The Work of the Apple Industrial Design Group, page 212)

Above you can see a scan of plates 388-389 from the AppleDesign book. The notes on the sketch should be fairly readable, while for sake of completeness I’ll transcribe the caption printed in small text under the photo:

Pomona Design Investigation: Hard Models. 388 Phase One Sketch for a Desktop Computer, by Eric Chan (Ecco Design, New York, NY), inspired by Richard Sapper’s Tizio Lamp. 389 Tizio Concept. Industrial Design: Apple Computer: Robert Brunner, based on a sketch by Eric Chan. Dates of Design: January-April 1993.

1993 means almost ten years before the introduction of the iMac G4. Now, I don’t know if the iMac’s design was achieved internally through a completely different, independent route, or if the designers went back looking at past ideas and thought about giving this concept a second chance, but it’s a nevertheless intriguing connection.

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