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Sexy Machines -- Yeah Baby!

You'd be surprised where some of those serious designs come from

March 27, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Automaker BMW schooled Hewlett-Packard Co. in IT system design. Sun Microsystems Inc.'s co-founder and chief architect designs server boxes largely based on the stereo systems of his youth and wants his company to be more like Apple Inc. when it comes design innovation.

So, if you think it's all for technology's sake and there's no fluff when it comes to enterprise-class IT, think again. Vendors know that when it comes to big-ticket sales, basic psychology still applies.

You might even be surprised where the ideas for those LED-lit, honeycomb-vented, stylized aluminum boxes came from and just how much impact those slick designs have on your decision to fork out thousands of dollars on even the most expensive mainframes, servers and PCs. Even those flashy exterior lights on your hard disk drives have a measure of psychology behind them because manufacturers know certain bright colors evoke succinct messages in the mind of a techie.

Vendors call the ability to speak through shape and color "design language," which is a visual cue used in all the enterprise products.

George Daniels, the group manager at HP's Enterprise Design and Usability Center, learned just how important design language can be when, not long ago, he chose to design a blue universal latch hood for a server line. The color blue erroneously screamed to corporate IT workers "turn this off before opening" even though the cover had nothing to do with the operation of the machine. After receiving user complaints from IT admins who'd been shutting down servers to open the hood, Daniels and his team of eight engineers quickly changed the color to HP's standard port (purple), which tells a user, "I'm hot-swappable." The example shows how critical computer design, right down to the color, is in providing IT workers visual signals to do their jobs.

Vendors are even working on standardizing IT color schemes.

Design language can be used to tell engineers what cable goes where, or it can be used to alert administrators to a problem, or indicate that the proper button has been pushed. Design language is also used differentiate manufactures. "In the computer industry, there's a large amount of effort put into design only because it's one of the few things that will differentiate the products," says Bob Steinbugler, an IBM distinguished engineer.

As Daniels puts it, "If you see any product of ours, you should know it's HP. That's something that's hard to achieve, but important. If you see a BMW … no matter what model, you know it's a BMW."

A little more than two years ago, HP asked automaker BMW to help it with computer design. BMW's designers told HP that they never develop a new car body as if it's standing still but always as if it's in motion. That way, when the car is finished, it always looks like it's motion whether it's moving or not. HP took the lesson to heart and began giving its servers and storage arrays a more asymmetrical look so that when an IT manager looked down a row of systems, they gave off a "piano keyboard" effect -- always in play, says Daniels.

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