Thursday, August 30, 2012

STEAMD About Blue Magic

I have always been a proponent of STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education. I don’t suppose every young man or woman in the U.S. should consider STEM as a career, but I hope that we will develop our share of the scientists needed to compete in this modern global society.

With all the issues of public education and the funding of that education there have been cuts in programs. I’ve always wanted to keep the core STEM focus alive, and I think that has probably happened. I suspect many of the cuts to our modern public school curricula have been in other areas such as arts, music, and physical education as well as some liberal arts such as history or geography. Hopefully English and grammar will be kept in focus because communications is as important as STEM … however I’m sure the periphery of language such as speech and drama have suffered too.

I’ve almost always been an engineer, thought like an engineer, respected engineers, and … well … you get the idea. However, as I’ve aged and grown (no fat jokes please), I’ve come to appreciate art and design much more. My focus on quality has led me to focus on design. (If you don’t know my focus has been on quality, then you just haven’t been reading my stuff lately!)

I am delighted that IBM recently launched “Minds of Modern Mathematics,” the free iPad app that recreates the remarkable 50-foot infographic on the history of math designed by Charles and Ray Eames. I could name others who have influenced my mathematical and engineering career with design content such as Edward Tuffle’s books on the graphical display of quantitative information or Frank Lloyd Wright’s wonderful architecture or the beauty of creation itself expressed in fine art and photographs.

Even so, I think it was primarily as I became immersed in Apple culture and Apple design that it really dawned on me how important art and design is to high technology. I have come to appreciate so much Paul Rand’s brilliant design of the IBM logo, Henry Drefuss and phone design, or Eliot Noyes and his design of the IBM Selectric typewriter.

Let me tell the tale of my personal design experience. I was working on a project called “Blue Magic.” It was an early IBM design that combined a full function PC with a scanner and a printer. This device, which we now would call an MFP or Multi-Function Printer, could print, copy, email, fax, and even contained a corporate directory (or phone book) that we called “blue pages” to assist in sending fax or email.

The first prototype was pretty ugly. We just bought a simple cabinet to hide the PC (running Windows NT). The design included a large touch screen, something like 25”, and was very powerful and user friendly. We installed the prototype at many IBM locations and got rave review from users.

But it was pretty ugly. (Isn't "pretty ugly" a weird combination? Which is it, pretty or ugly? Just channeling George Carlin there for a moment.) So we hired an Italian designer to create the integrated cabinet that would combine scanner, printer, computer, and touch screen. Oh the designs were beautiful. Why that southern European country produces so many beautiful designs from the Vatican to the Ferrari is beyond me. I should study the Italian education system for a clue.

Sadly this story ends poorly. Due to lack of investment, we did not produce the “Blue Magic.” Plus, I’m sure the IBM stuffed shirts would have renamed it some lame label. A few years later, IBM lost all interest in printing and sold its printer division to Ricoh. Printing was not strategic, and the plethora of poorly designed MFPs now out there from HP and Lexmark and others shows how it is all engineering and no design. Most MFPs look like printers that someone glued a scanner on top — and no large touch screen, at least not 25".

If I had worked at Apple, then Steve Jobs would have understood Blue Magic and probably would have created it instead of the iPod. But I can’t rewrite history.

But I can correct my personal error. Please, boys and girls, study science, study technology, study math and engineering. But also study art and design. Oh yes, and study English — the grammar I see on Facebook is atrocious. Visit a museum, an art gallery, and read some Shakespeare — alright, his grammar is a bit dated, I agree.

So, from now on you won’t see me pushing STEM … I’ve got a new acronym: STEAMD, and I’m getting steamed. Now, where’s my iPad? I want to run “Minds of Mathematics.” Timelines are cool.

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