The prolific industrial designer Richard Sapper had already designed for everyone from Alessi to Knoll to FIAT when he received a call from his friend Paul Rand asking if he wanted to be chief industrial design consultant at IBM. It was 1979. Rand was leading the graphic design department, and Eliot Noyes, the previous industrial design consultant, had died a few years prior. But Sapper wasn’t immediately won over.
“Before joining IBM, I worked for Brionvega for 20 years designing television sets, which are more or less the same, and as ugly, as computers,” Sapper tells designer and author Jonathan Olivares in his new book on the designer. At the time, computers were large, bulky machines, rendered mostly in a “hideous beige” as Sapper puts it. IBM was flooded with money from its mainframe computer business, but had grown too fast for its organizational structure to keep up. Bureaucracy often got in the way of good design–something Sapper would strive to change.
Ultimately, Sapper did agree to the job at IBM, starting a relationship that would last over two decades. He was bullish about enacting a high design standard, and worked around protocol to design the first ThinkPad laptop in 1992, the boxy, black computer that would become the company’s icon. In 1996, he was behind the svelte ThinkPad 701, and created IBM’s X1 Carbon laptop in 2012.
Sapper’s contributions paved the way for the laptop design we’re familiar with today, yet his name is relatively unknown outside design circles. As he revealed to Dezeen in a 2013 interview, Steve Jobs once asked him to design for Apple, but Sapper turned him down. He didn’t want to move from his home in Milan to California, so the job ultimately went to frog founder Hartmut Esslinger, who went on to create Apple’s Snow White design language.
Working for IBM, Sapper was making the computers that became prominent–almost ubiquitous–in the workplace. But in a time when consumer technology reigns supreme, and PCs designed specifically for business have largely gone the way of Blackberry work phones, Sapper’s role in computer history has received less attention than his peers like Esslinger. Here are some of the highlights.
Sapper started working for the watch manufacturer Heuer in the late 1970s, where he developed many of the ideas that he later applied to designing computers at IBM. For example, the hinged box he designed to house the Microsplit 520 stopwatch later became the inspiration for the “box” concept that informed the ThinkPad design. For both the computer and the watch box, the idea was for the outer shell to look like a typical box–for the ThinkPad, it was a cigar box–that when opened contained a “surprise:” a complex digital product hidden within an ordinary shell.
Even the ultra-thin ThinkPad laptops of today owe their shape to the first ThinkPad’s cigar-box inspiration. “The latest models are so thin and so flat that they shock you,” Sapper tells Olivares. “Yet at the same time these models maintain the ThinkPad philosophy of a square black box, albeit a version that has an extremely thin proportion and a striking appearance.”
That IBM’s laptops are their trademark black is also thanks to Sapper. The designer preferred the color black for most of his designs: As he told Olivares, he designed the Tizio lamp in black so that it would fit in with any environment. He also designed a black version of the Sapper chair because he thought the dark color looked sharp and wouldn’t show dirt. When he started at IBM, he immediately went about convincing the higher-ups that the computers should be changed to black from their “hideous beige.” This time, the rationale was to distinguish them from the competition.
The only part of the ThinkPad that is not black is the TrackPoint, the still beloved nub nestled within the keyboard to control the mouse. Sapper made the TrackPoint a bright red, something he did often to highlight important controls in his products (his Tizio lamp, Sapper Chair and Sapper Monitor arms all have red elements). Due to a rule within IBM that restricted the use of red besides in emergency power switches, however, Sapper had to call the button a “magenta” to fly under the radar.
Convincing management at IBM that business equipment like computers should be beautiful was a major feat. For one, communication across IBM’s sprawling network of offices was poor. And like in many major companies, Sapper had to get around people who were concerned with keeping costs low and increasing profits. “I paid no heed to the style of this large company,” Sapper says in the book. “Instead I tried to design it myself–with success.” Eventually he convinced IBM that business products deserved a distinct aesthetic and set the standard for using the color black in workplace computers.
In 1997, Sapper began envisioning what he considered the next wave of computing–a product he called the Wearable PC. He and his team developed a prototype to demonstrate the concept, though it never made it to the market. Sapper’s description of one of the prototypes reads like a crude version of another, more recent, product that also didn’t take off in the way its makers had hoped:
We imagined a portable object, and instead of having an object on the desk–whether it be a beautiful box or an awful one–we wanted to position it in various locations about the body: we had a small screen with a microphone and an earphone that were both mounted on a pair of glasses, and then we placed a central unit in your pocket and the remote control in your hand. One problem was that people wearing such a device were going to look like monsters. This was the challenge we faced: trying not to look like monsters while using new computers. It was a very difficult yet exciting task.
Sapper imagined that the Wearable PC would be revolutionary in its capabilities: it would create a new way to watch films on a tiny screen placed right in front of your eye, and it could have a major impact on medicine. “Surgeons would be able to check X-rays during operations without taking their eyes off the patient,” he says in the book. Meanwhile, mechanics and engineers could use it to place a diagram in front of them while they work–another example of Sapper’s business-facing designs. The upper management at IBM, however, were much less visionary. Deeming it too costly for the potential return, they decided not to take it to market.
Judging by his conversations with Olivares, Sapper had little patience for upper management and business people who “do not have a lot of imagination or ideas, because people with imagination or ideas seldom choose [that] trade.” Sapper did prove to have a pretty good business sense himself, however. He designed many of IBM’s bestsellers and set a precedent for the PCs that were most commonplace in offices up until very recently.
So why, despite all of his achievements in computer technology, isn’t Sapper more recognized today? One could reason it’s because that he stuck with IBM, and later Lenovo, instead of going with Apple, the company that came out of the computer wars on top. Another possible explanation is that for all of his creativity and his frustration with Kafka-esque business operations, Sapper was ultimately business-minded. As he told Olivares in the book, he didn’t entertain notions of being an artist; he was concerned with industrial production and economies of scale. “I’ve always been interested in relationships with companies where I could make millions of pieces, because I think design can only work when it’s in big numbers,” he says. “When I say ‘work’ I mean that, for a design to function it has to have an effect on our lives. And this only happens if it is bought in big numbers.”
Sapper’s designs for IBM were all about business technology. They were powerful, sleek professional objects that look handsome on a desk. Yet when the consumer technology revolution came around, computers needed to be marketed toward the individual consumer–something Apple’s friendly, colorful products excelled at. IBM cornered the business market for some time, but now workplaces are just as full of Macs. As business technology has become less vital to businesses, Sapper’s contributions to computer design history have often been overshadowed, too.
[All Photos: courtesy Phaidon]