The year is 1998. Steve Jobs enters the stage and announces the release of the iMac G3. Jobs is proud of this simple, elegant computing solution – his little all-in-one computer. It’s curvy and translucent, but most importantly: it’s colourful.
With its iridescent bondi blue, it is a stark contrast to other computer models at the time. Suddenly, a mainly practical device becomes a design piece. One year after its initial release, the iMac G3 was available in five more colours – the “five flavours”: tangerine, lime, strawberry, blueberry and grape. As the names already suggest, the colours made the G3 look bold, fresh and modern.
The launch of the iMac, which was designed by Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive, set the tone for Apple products of its era. Technological devices were, in former times, solely functional – it didn’t really matter what they looked like, as long as they served their purpose. Then, with the introduction of new technologies over the years, came the opportunity to improve and redesign these devices.
The idea of introducing more colour into product design arose an awful lot sooner, however.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18thand 19thCentury showed a shift towards mass production of everyday objects. During that time, colourful product design was not widely common yet.
Just think of Henry Ford, who once stated:
“A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black”
The needs of a large population had to be met, which also meant that functionality was at the core of product design.
Yet the aesthetic was beginning to matter more and more. Soon, for the first time, the design and visual of simple commercial products was taken into account.
This feels like the beginning of when well-designed, mass-produced goods almost constituted a new art form – not the kind of art displayed in a museum, but instead applied art that’s part of our everyday life.
By 1940, simple objects like radios were redesigned, they were made aesthetically pleasing and, really, for the first time included colour, mainly because of materials available. In that year, Emerson brought out the Aristocrat and Patriot radio models that came in various colour combinations.
Especially during the 1950s, in the post-World War II period, when people felt a new wave of optimism and hope and wartime utility restraints were lifted, everyday objects were rethought and made more colourful. Life seemed a lot brighter, so the use of vivid, vibrant colours and patterns in the home exploded – it was the beginning of a new consumer age.
The home was redesigned to psychologically influence those living within. Nowhere did this change become as apparent as in the kitchen, the “heart of the home”.
Especially the revolutionary introduction of coloured plastic transformed even the simplest kitchen utensils. Freezers, mixers, blenders and coffee machines were not only technologically advanced, but also produced in bright colours.
Arguably the best and most fascinating example of the evolution of design is the telephone.
The first phone, patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, was a bulky, heavy device, looking very different from the characteristic iPhone we all know today. Throughout the decades, the telephone was redesigned multiple times, adding more and more colour and making it look increasingly chic.
The Bakelite phone, brought on the market in 1931, was a collaborative project between Scandinavian companies Elektrisk Bureau of Oslo, LM Ericcson, and Televerket. It is often thought of influencing the next generation of telephones, since the switch from metal plate to Bakelite significantly reduced production time. But not only that – with its stylish look and its colour variations including red and green, it definitely laid the foundation of a new era of telephone design.
The phone transformed from a merely functional object to a mass-produced, multi-purpose design icon. Its evolution reflects the changes of product design throughout history as well as the role of communication technology in our lives.
Nowadays, the design of our phone seems to be more important than back in the day. With a growing demand for the newest version of a product and the everchanging trends, we expect a much bigger variety of products than some years ago. We often identify ourselves with the things we own – we therefore want to have the choice between many different versions of one product.
Thinking again of Apple, this company might actually be the best example of the shift in product design towards more colour and variety. Apple is one of the biggest technology companies in the world, with products that seem to never go out of fashion. Apple is also known for issuing new products seemingly all the time and for constantly changing their product’s designs.
It is more than possible that the use of such a wide variety of colours might actually be part of Apple’s big success. In fact, by being so diverse and by often following current colour trends, the company manages to appeal to almost everyone and to stay relevant throughout the years.
Apple’s successful strategy seems to be taken as an example for present-day design, since more and more companies are launching colourful, stylish-looking products in many different versions. Just recently, Kodak introduced a range of new cameras, including the Kodak Smile Instant Digital Printer and the Kodak Printomatic Instant Print Camera.
What makes these cameras especially charming is that with their clever, simple design, they are also bursting with nostalgia. Though having improved technology, they are still reminiscent of the cameras back in the day, putting a nice little twist on modern product design and reminding us of how much simple objects have evolved throughout the years.
Colours affect the psyche and stimulate the senses more than most people might think. They can evoke powerful emotions within seconds, which often has a huge impact on our behaviour. The importance of colour in product design should therefore not be underestimated.
Technology allows for change but what we now know is that it’s not just the materials that count, but the colours and texture of a product are just as important. What’s for sure is that with the shift towards more colour and style, our whole conception towards design and its possibilities as well as our relationship with simple everyday objects have forever changed.