“Sexy” is the worst word to use regarding industrial design, but it’s had staying power for a reason: Sexy has a guttural appeal that you can always explain but never fully quantify. It’s why large breasts don’t make a woman sexy, much like a six pack doesn’t make a man sexy. Even objectively perfect proportions and facial symmetry don’t make someone sexy. (They might be attractive, but they aren’t sexy.)
Sexy is attraction coupled with the risk of getting hurt.
That’s why high heels are sexy and Keds aren’t, or why sports car seats are and La-Z-Boys aren’t. It’s also why ergonomic electronics definitely aren’t sexy, and why the iPhone 5, which feels like it could cut your hand in half, is.
For Microsoft, designers of some of the objectively greatest ergonomic keyboards of all time—with each angle and key positioned for minimal strain during an eight-hour-a-day desk job—the sexy quotient has begun to grind. So for their latest flagship keyboard, the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop, their only goal was to give it a "sexy" makeover; Microsoft wants to redefine sexy as healthy.
“I never buy into any ergonomic products myself because they never look sexy enough,” confesses Microsoft designer James I. Tsai. “When I think of ergonomics, my first instinct would tell me something related to medical products, and I don’t want medical products on my tabletop because I don’t think anything’s wrong with me! I want something that looks nice but is good for me, too.”
So Tsia and a small team began rethinking Microsoft’s approach to ergonomics, with one catch: The ergonomics themselves couldn’t really change, since Microsoft’s own research in their "Natural line" of products had already developed what they believe to be, scientifically, the way you make an ergonomic keyboard. That means the angles and space between the keys had very little wiggle room. So the project progressed like a check-and-balance system. Tsia would reimagine the aesthetics, and a dedicated ergonomics Microsoft researcher on the project would review the work.
“Sometimes I push the envelope too much, and then they pull me back,” Tsia says. “But without pushing the envelope, you’re not going to get a new and better-looking product.”
The team eventually settled on a fresh approach, to make the keyboard appear to be floating on air. So they carved a chasm right down its middle and hollowed out the undercarriage. Through more than 50 printed prototypes, they also condensed the layout as much as possible, to tighten up the peripheral’s footprint, and streamlined the keys themselves with the sleek finish of a laptop keyboard.
Is the result sexy as Microsoft hopes? That’s in the eyes of the beholder. (I’d say it’s getting there, but not quite—I’ve never found black plastic all that sexy.) But as soon as you put your hands on the thing, well, it certainly feels sexy, in the way that yoga pants and cuddling and knowing someone will be there when you wake up to make you breakfast can be sexy.
Sexy isn’t danger, nor is it comfort, but sexy can be either. Sexy is the great intangible. Sexy is just sexy.