Have you ever considered the importance of design in our lives? I ask this because I was idly musing about things yesterday when it struck me just how important design was.
Consider the netbook computer I’m using to write this post. It has one truly jarring element that drives me nuts, and that’s the fact that the one thing on this entire machine that is “chromed” is the bar below the touchpad. It’s just entirely out of place. (OK, one other thing—that entire touchpad is unnecessary. You can just tap on the surface of the touchpad to have it do your bidding. And you can configure regions of the pad as well. In my case, the upper left-hand corner is set to be the “secondary” click—the equivalent of a right click on a mouse.)
I know what got me started on this! The other day I was killing some time with my youngest son and we wandered over to Best Buy, where he was captivated by tablets and I was captivated by the latest-issue MacBook Air 13. It’s a lovely machine–skinny as all get-out, and after you’ve been using a 10.1″ screen for a while (like I have) the 13″ screen is freaking enormous. The touchpad is huge and smooth. The frame doesn’t bend at all (sorry, nice little netbook, but you do). Solid.
But–and this is where a lack of knowledge comes in–you have to push down, hard, on the touchpad to register a click. Maybe you don’t need to, if you set it up right, but on the one I was trying, you needed to actually click it down. Dealbreaker, I think, even had I the money.
So I started to think about design. Most of us assume that design is a property of something that emerges from what that thing does–the old form follows function idea. But form follows function only at the margins. Form is amazingly fluid when you get down to it (compare: 1964 or so VW Beetle and Cadillac). Laptops are a little more constrained, but there’s a fair bit of variation even there. But let’s drop back a few decades (around the time of the cars mentioned above).
Let’s think about typewriters. Yeah, we all know what they do (did). But take a moment and do an image search on “typewriter.” There is an astonishing variety of ways that this functionality was packaged (and remember that since (1) typewriters were never glamorous (I don’t think there was ever a typewriter user-group or TYPEWRITER magazine) and (2) typewriters went the way of the dodo before digital cameras sent film cameras in that same general direction what you see in an image search necessarily understates the variety). But I remember typewriters, and I want to talk about one of them.
When I was a kid (and until well after I was an adult) my dad had an Underwood portable. Small, solid, metallic, gray/black–it was all business. A good solid manual, I even remember its “hard-shell” case with its interesting texture and little shield-shaped latch. Our house was, in fact, full of typewriters…my dad brought home from somewhere an old upright, with round keys. But when I was 12 or so, I wanted one of my very, very own. And I found it.
It was a slate-blue Olivetti portable–I think it was called a Lettera-some-number, but I’m not certain. Anyway, I’ve been unable to find a photo of one on the web, but it had a housing essentially identical to these two, apart from color:
Just imagine it, if you will, as being that shade of slate blue that we associate with storage bins or plastic thing-a-ma-jigs that you purchase at a grocery store. What I will always think of as Olivetti Blue.
Now, the innards of this typewriter weren’t all that different from many other typewriters (the major variation was whether they had a pica font [10 characters per inch] or elite [12 cpi] ). It did have one thing that I thought was cool, and that was a “1” key (in those days, most typewriters got by with a lower-case “l” for the number one). And I liked the shape of the font, which seemed to me kind of European: The number 2, for example, on most typewriters had a curve to the line at the bottom. On my machine, the 2 was a simple curve and a clean line. Modern.
The carriage was uniquely low (as it is in the examples above), which later would cause problems when I acquired an old office desk which had a typing platform with a rail at the left side. Funny, I never thought to remove the rail–but whatever, it blocked the carriage from properly moving to the left as I typed, and I seem to recall switching back to my dad’s typewriter at that point, since the carriage was high enough to clear the rail.
These typewriters, created in the mid-1960s, scream modernity. They’re pared down, powered up (well, relatively speaking, of course–they’re manuals). They are the MacBook Airs of their period. Not as powerful as the desktop IBM Selectric machines (and these, for multiple reasons, were the typewriters for a long time), the Olivetti portable could be popped in a case and carried to the park or a remote cabin for some serious work on holiday.
A few years ago I bought a typewriter that I saw for $5 at a flea market. It was the same model Underwood that my dad owned. I thought I might try writing with it. I was wrong. It was heavy, clunky, and elegant as it was in its way, it felt old. I wonder what would have happened had I come across my blue Olivetti?