Industrial design guru Hartmut Esslinger; Amsterdam’s Joe Merino shop
For Harmut Esslinger, emotional appeal is an essential ingredient of the well-designed product
FORM follows function, the design mantra goes, but not in Hartmut Esslinger’s design world. For him, form follows emotion. “In modern products, there’s a lack of emotion and emotional appeal is really missing right now,” says the German-born designer, who divides his time between there and the US.
And don’t get him started on the design mantra of functional simplicity. “That’s not beautiful. That’s boring. At one point in Germany, design sank into this mania of simplicity and I said, ‘Nobody feels anything about this stuff any more, you need more emotion.’ It was considered emotion wouldn’t work in Germany but I said ‘it sells better’.”
Before Jonathan Ive there was Esslinger. His Frog design group was called in by Steve Jobs in the 1980s to help shape Apple’s transformation. That started with the Apple IIc, which was launched in 1984, the same year as the Macintosh, but the simpler home computer outsold its more sophisticated stablemate for years.
In 1983 Esslinger pitched up at Apple as a design con- sultant, urging Jobs to revamp processes that placed designers at the mercy of engineers. Esslinger wanted one design leader at Apple, involved years ahead of any actual product development. He got it.
Thus, the Apple IIc, the first to encapsulate Esslinger’s “Snow White” design scheme for Apple: horizontal and vertical stripes to give the illusion of a reduction in the machine’s volume, a three-dimensional Apple logo inlaid on the product case and an off-white colour scheme. More than 400,000 units sold that first year.
Esslinger says now of the Apple IIc: “That was a little bit like a little friend; computers had been hostile before.”
It was designed to impart a particular message to consumers: “I am an intelligent being, I am not a stupid radio just playing music.”
Esslinger is on the phone from Germany’s Black Forest, a passionate and exuberant advocate expounding his unique worldview. While many of his famous designs are now museum pieces, he looks resolutely to the future. Esslinger is talking in anticipation of the exhibition In
terface: People, Machines, Design at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. It is a world of iconic products, of Olivetti electric typewriters, Braun radios and Apple computers, telling the story of how a handful of industrial visionaries transformed clunky machines, elevating the industry in the process.
Other designers featured include Dieter Rams, the German industrial designer for Braun who was such a strong advocate for functional simplicity; Jobs and Steve Wozniak, co-founders of Apple; Doug Engelbart, a seminal figure in computer interface design; and Olivetti designers Marcello Nizzoli, Ettore Sottsass and Mario Bellini.
“There’s crazy stuff in there that I forgot existed — the old typewriters I like,” Esslinger says.
The exhibition contains a rare Apple I computer and the Xerox Alto computer that transformed Jobs’s vision of personal computing. When Jobs was shown the Xerox Alto, he immediately realised it was the future, even if Xerox didn’t. “It was the combustion engine of the information age, it accelerated it,” says Esslinger of the device. “How blind executives were not to recognise what they had in their hand.”
“The Mac, it was stolen from Xerox but we converted it into an experience that was not about the office — it was about writing poetry or whatever.” Indeed, an early Apple II advertisement featured the computer on a kitchen table, and Jobs was inspired to model the Apple II case on a Cuisinart electric mixer he saw while wandering through the kitchen appliance section of Macy’s department store.
“It’s important to understand as a designer you have to create a platform and invite people into it and they discover stuff they never thought of before. That is the emotional stuff that design has to do,” Esslinger says. “Each innova-
Harmut Esslinger, left; Braun radio and record player combo from 1963, below; Blickensderfer 6 typewriter from 1906, bottom left