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Objects of Desire

Famous industrial designers talk about iconic pieces of technology.

We asked prominent designers featured in this issue to help us see, through their eyes, pieces of technology that have influenced the way they think about their work. View these pieces of technology on the following pages or in this photo essay.

1972, Polaroid SX-70
Polaroid’s first fully automatic, motorized camera was an instant design classic, even starring in a documentary the year it was introduced by company cofounder Edwin Land. The camera is detailed with tan leather and folds into a rectangle the size of a paperback book. Andrew Logan, principal designer at Frog Design, admires it for the “immediacy of a favorable output.” He explains: “Instead of waiting days to see if you took a good photo, you could take it again right away.”

1977, Atari 2600
The Atari “almost predates the Mac in making computers friendly,” says Mark Rolston, vice president of creative at Frog Design. “It was sitting on the floor, being used by 10-year-old kids. It’s burned like a brand in the brains of people my age, because that was our childhood.” Rolston’s colleague Logan says, “Games were played either on big and bulky arcade machines or on a computer. The Atari did a great job of scaling. It sold at a price point average families could afford.”

1979, Sony Walkman
“It has simplicity of use,” says Logan. “You could give it to someone who’s never used one before and they can use it. You can only get that with reduction of features.” Though the early Walkman had two headphone jacks to let users share their audio experiences with friends, the device was a good way to annoy your parents by being present but absent, says Rolston. “The social phenomenon of people walking around immersed in their own private world was kicked off by the Walkman. I remember the response when you put on your headphones. Your parents would look at you like you killed someone.”

1981, HP 12c Calculator
“It is the calculator. The way it looks is what you think of when you think of a calculator,” says Rolston. Logan adds that it “took an existing technology and improved on it through design and manufacturing.” This classic financial calculator uses reverse Polish notation, a system from the 1920s that, once learned, saves the user the trouble of using parentheses and brackets to write out mathematical expressions. Logan admires the 12c’s staying power. “It has a great quality of build. It’s still used by people. It’s an example of how to build a product if you want it to stay around.”

1983, Motorola DynaTAC 8000X
“Old things are precious, aren’t they?” muses the MIT Media Lab’s John Maeda. “First objects are always daring.” The 8000X, the first commercially available cell phone, took Motorola more than a decade and $100 million to develop. Today, with the heft of a dumbbell, it is an object of nostalgia.

“I have a collection of old Motorola phones,” says Maeda. “I like looking at these things. But I don’t miss them, because they’re large and clunky. You look at old TV shows and they pull out these shoe-size things. They make a better phone, because they’re just phones. Now phones are GPS and Web enabled with a heart-­monitoring system just in case. I keep old cell phones on my windowsill to look at. I should probably throw them away.”

1988, NeXT OS
“In college I went out of my way to go to workstations with the NeXT OS. I was able to take mundane Unix tasks and do them with a good graphical user interface,” says Matias Duarte, vice president of experience design at L.A. mobile-communications firm Helio. “That type of OS as a category is iconic, but the whole windowing and pointing paradigm is really old. I expected better by the 21st century. It’s about time we started to break through the constraints of that paradigm.” Shown here is a mid-1990s version of the NeXT OS, NeXTSTEP.

1994, Netscape
“If you look at a modern browser like Internet Explorer or Safari, you see the URL bar, the Back and Forward buttons, Home, and Refresh,” says Rolston. “We’ve added things, we’ve made it prettier, but the browser hasn’t been re­invented. The original Netscape design deserves the credit. Outside the browser and the shape of computers, this space [PC-era design] has yet to produce lasting icons in a grander sense, an iconic form that is reproduced over and over.”

1995, Amazon
“Amazon is iconic, but not neces­sarily good design,” says Rolston. “A Jeep is iconic, but if you’ve ever ridden in a Jeep, it’s crap. Amazon represents a basic approach to e-­commerce. It’s balanced cacophony: there’s search, reviews, and comments swirling around these pages. With these tools, you almost serendipitously end up with a basket of things to buy. It’s iconic because it nailed early on the basic approach of a vast catalogue.”

1999, Palm V
“If I had to pick one product as the best of the last 20 years, it would be the Palm V,” says Duarte. “It has the three essential attributes of design: substance, style, and sim­plicity. It set the essential feature set for a PDA. Its metallic case had no exposed screws or fasteners. The hardware and software set were part of one experience. Its leather cover and metallic body really made it a fashionable accessory item you could create an emotional relationship with. Before the Palm V, you were happy if you could get a device with the right feature set. If it was always easy to use, you were ecstatic. Style was unusual. Once an object reaches technological maturity, it becomes about an aesthetic feature set. In the consumer electronics industry, we’re constantly riding that wave.”

2006, MacBook Pro 17”
Bill Moggridge, who designed the first laptop, the GRiD Compass, in 1979, calls this Mac “the nearest to the ultimate laptop that has been achieved to date, for its huge and delicious display as well as for its elegant and refined appearance and proportions.”

More design articles: Take an inside look at the making of the Ocean, a new phone from a company called Helio (see “Soul of a New Machine”). Take a decidedly non-inside look at how Apple approaches design (see “Different”), and read a review of how Apple remains deeply committed to being a computer company (see “The ‘New’ Apple”). Get insights on the state of Web design from print-design legend Roger Black (see “Help Me Redesign the Web”), and find out what Bill Moggridge, a cofounder of Ideo and designer of the GRiD Compass, thinks makes good design (see Q&A). Finally, hear from Technology Review’s Editor in Chief, Jason Pontin, on the well-designed technologies that are “beautiful machines” in this video.

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