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Elements of Design

Museum Exhibit Examines Evolution of Computer Box


That rectangular box that sits below your monitor and behind your keyboard houses the central processing unit of your desktop computer. And the form and function of this seemingly simple container pose special challenges to industrial designers: How can the delicate equipment inside best be protected? How can controls for users be made most effective? Should the form express the importance of the CPU in modern computing, or should the box remain essentially invisible?

An exhibit currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art--"The Dumb Box: Designing the Desktop CPU"--the emergence, variations and dissolution of the "box" since its first appearance a decade ago. SFMOMA Architecture and Design Curator Aaron Betsky, who has managed a number of major projects for Frank O. Gehry & Associates, organized the exhibit.

Q. How did you get the idea for the "dumb box" exhibit?

A. What interests me about the dumb box is that one of the central ideas of modern design has always been that something--an object or a building--should look like what it does: Form follows function. When you get to the computer, that gets real difficult because what goes on inside the computer has nothing to do with what it looks like. And it raises for me a much bigger issue: Given the fact that, in our society, so many things happen electronically or in such miniaturized fashion, how can we, in general, give shape to the forces that control our lives? I think it's one of the central dilemmas that designers face.

So I decided to zero in on what I felt was the very heart of the matter--the thing that actually does the computing in our everyday life, which is the 'box," the "pizza box," the "dumb box" that sits on your desk. Not the computer screen where you see it. Not the keyboard, which is where your hands have to touch it and where it molds itself to the shape of your body. But actually the box that, as far as my mother is concerned, still contains a little guy doing all the work. I tried to show the difference between the outside and the inside.

Q. What are the challenges that a designer faces in designing the dumb box?

A. Well, there's a big, fundamental problem, which is, What do you make a dumb box look like? How do you give shape to a whole landscape of silicon that's inside of this thing? There are also more mundane concerns that have to do with the fact that there is a power source, a fan, and a series of cable ports at one end of the machine, and at the other end are things that the hand has to touch or the eye has to see--the on/off button, and the light that shows you it's on, and the slots for disks or CD-ROMs.

Q. How have these problems been addressed since the introduction of the PC?

A. The first stand-alone CPU, not attached to a monitor or keyboard, was the IBM PC. And that particular box is not a horrible machine, but it's a pretty bland machine. And I think the history for 10 years after that was to try and figure out how to refine that basic form, which is a more or less rectangular, flat object that also serves, often, for the monitor to sit on; that presents a rather slim front to the viewer that still has all the controls on it; and that is meant to fit into a kind of neutral office environment.

Designers have done everything from try to refine that and mold it and sculpt it and just make it a little sexier, to try and come up with a radical alternative to it, such as the Next black cube, the kind of monolith of all dumb boxes. [Some designers] have worked with vivid colors or have tried to create completely different shapes, like the so-called ergo box.

Q. Is the box problem changing?

A. Two things are happening. The first is that the CPU is actually becoming something that is part of a much wider landscape of everyday life, so that the CPU is something that comes embedded in your desk or in your television or in your stereo or, sometimes, even in your wall. In other words, the dumb box is dissolving into just the silicon that it takes to run a whole host of other applications.

On the other hand, the dumb box has become so miniaturized that it's being turned into either a laptop or a navigator or a whole series of gadgets that are now being designed the way gadgets are designed, which are to appeal to much more segmented markets and to be a much more active part of your life. So CPUs are being designed [in this way]--if you can still call them CPUs.

I think designers are realizing that computers are . . . part of infrastructure, which means they're . . . inherently invisible. Or computers are gadgets. They're extensions of your body and they therefore take on the shape of your body and maybe someday they'll even be part of your body.

Q. Let's talk about the exhibit. What's important for a viewer to note?

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