Well Worth The Wait


On paper, Apple Computer Inc.'s industrial design group numbers 16. But in practice, it exceeds 10,000. "Everybody around here has an opinion on design," says Bob Brunner, Apple's manager of industrial design. "It can be beneficial--and it can drive you crazy."

It can also result in one heck of a design hit, such as Apple's PowerBook series of notebook computers. Apple introduced its PowerBooks last October, nearly three years after competitors shipped the first notebooks and in the wake of its own belly flop, the Macintosh Portable. In short order, PowerBook's special design has made it a standout in a dizzying field of 300-plus notebook machines.

PowerBook's success is actually tied to its late entry. Apple was able to use that time to analyze how people interacted with existing notebook computers and then draw up its plans for a much better mousetrap. "We're the last ones to get into the notebook computers," says Brunner, "but we built a product that blows people's socks off."

Apple refined the existing rectangular shape of notebooks to give PowerBook a distinctive minimalist appearance. Most important, however, it set priorities for the notebook's functions, giving prominence to those that people use most frequently.

PLUM ASSIGNMENT. "You have to think about how people work," says Brunner. "It's just using common sense." Brunner, 34, co-founded Lunar Design Inc., a respected Silicon Valley company. He came to Apple in January, 1990, when CEO John Sculley asked him to build a world-class corporate design team. By then, Brunner had worked as a consultant to Apple for two years and had helped design one of Apple's hits, the Macintosh LC. Brunner couldn't pass up Sculley's invitation. "I just think of coming here as getting an MBA in design management," he says. "If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere."

Brunner and his team spent four weeks getting the basic notebook design down. The biggest head-scratcher was where to place the large trackball, a pointing device that works like a mouse. The trackball is the most frequently handled part of the computer, and it's essential for the sweeping gestures used to operate Mac's graphical software.

In most portables, a trackball or mouse is treated asan afterthought, attached to the side like an appendage. Brunner's designers wanted to change that. But they were stumped. Then, typical of Apple's free-for-all culture, an engineer chimed in with a suggestion: Why not create a flat space just below the keyboard? The trackball could be planted in the middle, and the remaining space would make a convenient palm rest. That would make the trackball easier to use--and make PowerBook a winner for both lefties and righties.

FLIP-DOWN FEET. Then there's the hotdog-shaped screen hinge instead of the usual double hinges. Window-dressing? Not at all. Apple found that the design would make it easier for people to tilt the lid and adjust the screen's angle. Ditto on the flip-down back feet. They set the computer's base at a slant for easier viewing and typing. And the ribs on the outside of the case that give the PowerBook its distinctive look also keep the portable from getting scuffed or dinged in its travels. Says James Bleck, an IDEA juror: "The product doesn't have an extraneous detail. Everything there has some functional purpose. There are no gewgaws."

Before going into production, Apple used six different studies involving 68 people to get reactions to the design. Did they like the placement of the trackball? What about where the on-off and brightness buttons were placed? Was the whole package easy to use? Even coming up with the computer's color--slate gray--was no snap decision. Apple employees went to Atlanta's airport and quizzed travelers they saw lugging laptop PCs. Their findings: Dark colors were seen as more important, more valuable, powerful.

The bottom line: a design that's practical but playful--an Apple trademark. Brunner describes the PowerBooks as being "mildly irreverent," by which he means that the machine is serious yet appealing and fun to use. "You don't want something that looks like it's going to shoot off your desk, but you don't want another boring box, either."

Boring it's not, and that's why the PowerBook is the computer of choice within the industrial-design community. "I work on it everywhere," says Tucker Viemeister, a partner at New York-based Smart Design Inc. "On airplanes, in the office, at home. I write on it, design on it, do bills. Whatever I need to do, I can do on the PowerBook."

The PowerBook experience showed Brunner that having 10,000 self-styled design experts around may be crazy all right. Just call it inspired insanity.

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