`Your Friend And Playmate'

Bob Brunner, Apple Computer Inc.'s manager of industrial design, likes to describe his computers in fond, emotional terms. By his reckoning, the Macintosh LC, introduced in late 1990, is "cuddly." This year's award-winning Macintosh Color Classic is "like a very friendly little gnome," he says. "It's the creature that is your friend and playmate." O.K., it's not quite Barney. But Apple's new design look is, well, cute. And the $1,389 Color Classic, introduced last February, is the latest example of that.

The designers say the Color Classic is "animated," that it has a warm and fuzzy personality. There is almost an ET look to it: a big head with looming eyes (the computer screen), a curling lip (the floppy-disk slot), a dent in the forehead (the microphone), and feet that demand attention (the stand that props it up). "It becomes a variety of characters, depending on who's looking at it," says Classic designer Larry Barbera. He notes that colleagues once dressed the Classic in miniature Nike tennis shoes.

The irony is that Brunner's team never set out to create a cuddly creature. Their objective: to redesign the popular, three-year-old Classic at the same time as it was getting a technology update. The new version would have a faster microprocessor, a built-in microphone, speakers, a bigger screen, and a rear door for easy access to circuit boards.

The question then became: Keep the Classic's well-known look or go for a makeover? The answer: Go for the makeover. "We were terrified," says Brunner, who joined Apple in January, 1990--ten months before the original Classic made its appearance. "The Classic was such an icon. To mess with it was terrifying."

It was also exhilarating. Brunner's 19-person design team was trying to put into words the new Apple look--animated and lively. Hunched over cups of espresso and cappuccino, they tried to describe what they could easily visualize. Then, it hit them: Espresso was a good metaphor to express the energy and vitality they wanted the product to have. With that in mind, they launched into designing the Color Classic.

One of their design goals was that the computer's features should give some indication of what they're for. They should speak to the computer user--as the designers would say. The microphone that you speak into, for example, is dented inward. The stereo speaker, where sound emerges, is curved outward. The air vents, where air flows away from you, are slanted away like fish gills.

Combine such techniques, along with the new curves and rounded look of the Color Classic, and you have a design hit. Says IDEA juror Lou Lenzi, manager of industrial design at Thomson Consumer Electronics: "The designers enhanced an existing product line, one of the most challenging design problems facing a mature business. They went beyond the easy answer--a superficial surface solution--with the right mix of user-sensitive features, clever design details, and a fresh aesthetic."

Or, in Apple-speak, they went espresso.

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