Spray-on computer design

Some people use spray-on hair.  Likely they are worried that their authentic hair is inadequate.  However, the look achieved tends to confirm and reinforce the shortcomings of the underlying thatch.


I was reminded of this by the new fashionable laptops from Dell.  Here is one of 110 options (the match to the shirt above is pure coincidence…or is it?).


This is like a Dell competitive strategy presentation in a single image.  Paraphrasing:  “We’ve lost the #1 spot to HP, which is dominating retail.  Note: HP puts graphics on their laptops. Acer is coming up our tailpipe like Speed Racer, with low priced products.  Note:  Acer likes to paint products to look like cars, and so does Asus, not to mention bamboo, etc. So we’re cutting costs at every turn, including through product compromises.  We got into retail at the low end (even Wal-Mart).  But good news: we’re covering those shortcomings with a vast array of low cost graphics options.  Customers can choose.  We’re going to out-personal HP!  Summary: we’re challenging HP on personalization, and we’re holding off Acer on cost.”

This is product differentiation through spray-on design, and I’m afraid it has mesmerized leaders across the PC business, not just at Dell.  How many car themed laptops have we seen?  I’ve counted four.  And HP has a new graphic pattern every month (I will admit, their taste in graphics is better than competition).  Concurrently, average build quality is not improving.

image image

I question the wisdom of this trend.  Look at other durable goods categories, and electronics categories:  appliances, cars, TVs.  Do they use loud graphical patterns to drive brand choice?  No.  Because most people don’t want it.  [OK, Mini has an angle on this.  Keep reading, please.]


“But computers are personal!  Look, it’s even in the name.”  Even cell phones, the most personal of products, have gotten away from loud graphics and skins, in favor of materials that reinforce brand choice.  Shiny surfaces and metal = high tech, high quality.   Rubber paint and leather = user focused.  Do people put stickers on their favorite products?  Sure.  But the manufacturers don’t do it for them.

Please refer again to the picture above of the Dell Pastel Carpet Series.  Note the merits:

1)  The Dell brand is completely obscured.  2) The underlying product’s design is incongruous with the top surface.  3) The product is unrecognizable, unless they sell enough such graphics to cement an association with Garish.

PC makers are faced with a very difficult design challenge:  make it really desirable for no money.  Margins are tiny, and prices are falling.  So, I feel for them, and understand why they are trying this stuff.

But frankly, it is further commoditizing the PC space.  There is a lot of cheap plastic stuff in Wal-Mart with loud graphics, since the underlying design has no differentiating merit.  This is what I fear PCs are devolving to.

A few computers get a premium, with appreciable share and loyalty: Apple Macs and Lenovo ThinkPads are good examples (Sony used to be).  Their designs are recognizable, unified (the tops and bottoms look like they came from the same company), and authentic.  Authentic, meaning the materials, colors, shapes, usability elements, sounds, etc. are all based in the brand intent of the product – they are designed to earn an image consistent with the promise of value.

image image

I hope the PC makers turn from this surface level design and attend to what really drives desire:  user experience.  If they firmly believe customers want expressive graphics, I suggest they turn to Mini for inspiration.  Customization of a Mini is part of a holistic personal experience.  And everything Mini lets you do to the car enhances its Mini-ness, rather than obscuring it.  They are firmly in control of the image of the car, while enabling the buyer’s self expression.  Very different.


3 Responses to “Spray-on computer design”

  1. 1 David Churbuck May 5, 2009 at 11:58 am

    We’ve discussed this phenomenon in the past, and obviously it is a trend that is here to stay, driven perhaps by frustration among PC vendors of a form factor and underlying technology that has stalled in terms of the limits of human factor engineering, usability, and competitive differentiation due to the bland, tyranny of the mean inposed by standards.

    People put stickers on high cost products — e.g. cars and laptops to mark them as their own. Look at ThinkPad and Sticker on Flickr and you’ll see what I mean.

    People mod cases of towers to look like WWII field radios, R2D2 or mannequins in bikinis. The human urge to humanize boring products is as old as the hills. The problem is when vendors like Dell and Hp, Acer and Lenovo try to do it for them — like pre-painting graffiti or tearing holes in $400 jeans.

    • 2 Craig Merrigan May 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm

      David, agreed.
      I once told a sales leader (who wanted to make ThinkPads with all manner of custom graphics) that Mercedes would sell a fleet of S class sedans to Terminix, but they wouldn’t put giant bugs on the roof for them. I see a lot of stickers on Macs — and it isn’t because they are boring — but Apple didn’t put them there. Post sale personalization can be a sign of affection. Manufacturers offering every type of graphic brand obfuscation is more a sign of design insecurity.
      BTW, the sales leader’s response: “Great idea. I’m calling Terminix today.”

  2. 3 George April 13, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Let’s not also forget that Apple has positioned itself to be a fashion accessory. However, I couldn’t care less about the glossy screen (please kill it!), pretentious logo, or aluminum case (Have you seen my desk lately? It looks like the set of Blade Runner). I buy apple for the same reason I hate apple: Control.

    I hate the level of control they exert over their hardware and software, but when it comes down to it, that level of predictability allows software developers (including apple) to write software that they can expect to “just work,” and I, in turn, don’t have to spend the better part of my day trying to get graphics app x to play nice with video card y and processor z.

    What does this have to do with design and branding? The level of control Apple has over their computers has, in my opinion, been the #1 factor in getting their computers into the hands of technically illiterate masses who were willing to pay a premium for something they didn’t have to fuss with. Their brand was built on simplicity, and their minimalist design enforces that.

    HP, Dell, Acer…trying to sell pre-fab customization is like trying to sell cool. They saw the PC Mod scene, and how passionate people are about tricking out their hardware and the monetary potential in that space, that they lost sight of A) the fact that customization is a very personal experience, reflecting your own specific tastes and B) PC Modders typically spend money on hardware first, aesthetics second.

    PCs aren’t fashionable. Lenovo took the high road.

    (Unrelated: my last notebook was a Lenovo. Ubuntu absolutely screamed on that thing. And I stickered the crap out of it, for what it’s worth. I don’t use PCs much anymore, but I miss Lenny the Lenovo- he never ceased to impress me)

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