The unexplored history of translucent Apple design
The arrival of the iMac in 1998 signaled more than a renaissance for Apple; it sparked a widespread industrial design revolution. Apple’s teardrop-shaped machine gained a large part of its appeal from its translucent Bondi blue plastic housing, which dramatically set the iMac apart from a sea of beige-boxed PCs.
Not long after the iMac’s launch, the rest of the world hitched a ride on Apple’s design coattails. A horde of translucent multicolored plastic goods flooded nearly every consumer market to the extent that, not just computers, but staplers, paper towel dispensers, and kitchen appliances assumed the mantle of transparency for the sake of coolness.
What few realize about the birth of Apple’s translucent industrial design is that it didn’t start with the iMac. At least five Apple products prior to the iMac incorporated translucent plastics. In fact, the trend originated within Apple some two years before the launch of the iMac and almost a year before Steve Jobs returned to the company.
Considering the seismic impact of the iMac on the rest of the industrial design world, it’s worth investigating the origins of this distinctive design feature within Apple itself. There’s no better way to do that than by examining the first Apple products to incorporate translucent design elements.
Apple didn’t invent translucent enclosures, but they made it cool.
(By the way, Apple had produced limited runs of certain early prototype Macs in translucent plastics for testing purposes. But those machines never reached the market.)
Power Macintosh 9600 and 8600 (introduced February 17, 1997)
Early in 1997, Apple fans got their first taste of translucent plastics with the Power Macintosh 9600 and 8600 computers. Released simultaneously, these two machines also shared the same beige tower design.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think there were any exciting design elements tucked away in the conventional, boxy design of the 9600 tower. But take a closer look, and you’ll notice a translucent pale green latch button that opens the side of the case. Once inside, one can also find two matching green internal locking levers, which fasten down a hinged, fold-out portion of the machine’s internal chassis.
To this author’s eye, it seems as if the jade-like color of the translucent plastic in the 9600 matches the plastic used in the LaserWriter 8500’s paper cassette (see below). Perhaps the two products were intended to marry together in Apple’s final extension of the traditional beige design language.
The first Power Macintosh G3, a beige model released in 1997, shared the same case as the 9600—translucent green button included. In January 1999, Apple replaced its boxy beige desktops once and for all with the very translucent blue and white Power Macintosh G3.
Apple eMate 300 (introduced March 7, 1997)
Development on the eMate 300 began in 1996—prior to Steve Jobs’ return to Apple—as an extension of Apple’s Newton PDA platform. Unlike the Newton MessagePad products before it, the eMate shipped in a laptop-like clamshell form factor with an integrated keyboard.
Apple intended the eMate as a rugged, low-cost portable computer for students. Accordingly, Apple kept the eMate’s technical capabilities low and retained the user-friendly touch screen features common to the Newton line.
The eMate immediately stood apart from Apple’s usual products due to its translucent dark green enclosure, which resembled no other desktop PC or laptop at the time. It was Apple’s first product with prominent and purposeful translucent design features—especially in colored plastics—and it would set the stage for later translucent products like the iMac.
I spoke with Thomas Meyerhoffer, a former Apple Senior Designer who led the design of the eMate 300. Citing his desire not to rock the boat with Apple or to steal glory away from the Apple Industrial Design Group (which, with the exception of Jonathan Ive, uniformly shares achievements as part of company policy) he would not take credit for the introduction of translucent plastics at Apple (although this author thinks, due to certain patents, that Meyerhoffer is likely the originator of the trend).
Meyerhoffer did, however, mention that the transparency found in the eMate was meant to invoke a sense of accessibility and to differentiate the product from the uniformly drab laptops and beige desktop PCs of the day. He also confirmed that the use of translucent plastics originated in Apple’s Design Group before Steve Jobs returned to the company.
The end of the Newton line in 1998 spelled an early end for the eMate 300 as a product. But its impact lasted much longer: aside from inspiring an all-translucent desktop machine like the iMac, many feel that the eMate also foreshadowed the colorful clamshell iBook released in 1999.
Apple LaserWriter 8500 (introduced August 5, 1997)
After 17 years in the printer business, Apple launched its last printer model in late 1997. The LaserWriter 8500, the last member of the much-heralded LaserWriter bloodline, stood out as a massive workhorse of a machine, integrating networking capabilities, multiple page size support, and fast page output.
It also stood out, in retrospect, for its early use of translucent plastics. With its frosty jade-green top cover flap and paper cassette, one could conceivably (if fancifully) nickname the LaserWriter 8500 the iPrinter. In conjunction with the eMate, the 8500’s design hinted subtly at greater things to come.
While Apple killed off the majority of its printer line shortly after Jobs returned to power, the company curiously kept selling the 8500 until 1999. Was it a coincidence that it was also the only Apple printer which featured translucent colored plastic design elements? Probably.
Apple Studio Display 15-inch Flat Panel (introduced March 17, 1998)
Apple’s march toward total translucency took a bold step forward in early 1998 with the release of its first modular desktop LCD monitor for the Mac. (Apple trivia fans take note: its first-ever modular LCD display landed way back in 1984 for the Apple IIc.) This time, Steve Jobs was firmly at the helm of Apple, nurturing whatever preference toward translucent plastics the Design Group already possessed.
In its first incarnation, the 15-inch Apple Studio Display sported a translucent dark gray and blue enclosure. It launched prior to the blue and white Power Macintosh G3 tower, so Apple positioned it in the marketplace alongside the beige G3 tower mentioned above.
The new flat panel display looked amazingly sleek, but it stuck out like a sore thumb alongside the beige beasts of olde; little did we know what kind of radical designs the Studio Display would presage.
In 1999, Apple changed the enclosure colors of the flat panel Apple Studio Display to match the blue Power Mac G3 tower, and later again to graphite (gray) to match the Power Mac G4.
Power Mac G3 All-In-One (introduced March 31, 1998)
Just prior to the iMac design onslaught, Apple released yet another product that tucked see-through plastics into its design. The Power Macintosh G3 All-In-One (G3 AIO for short) looked like an iMac on paper due to its technical configuration, and it even slightly resembled an iMac in person due to the translucent paneling on the top and rear of its enclosure.
But the translucent plastic in G3 AIO isn’t colored, and Apple frosted it in such a way that it yields only a vague, blurry glimpse of the insides of the machine if you catch it at the right angle. Apple’s designers used translucency in the G3 AIO as more of a design accent than a primary design feature.
Apple targeted the G3 AIO “Molar Mac” at the education market, so it threw in everything (including the kitchen sink, just behind the CPU) without any particular regard for the minimalism that would be the defining characteristic of the iMac. Apple announced the iMac only two months after the G3 AIO launch, and it immediately made the G3 AIO look terrible in comparison.
To get a better look at the G3 AIO’s translucency, check out this amazing gallery of photos created by the Shrine of Apple website.
Then cometh the iMac
Apple announced the original iMac on May 6, 1998. It shocked the consumer electronics world with its colorful translucent design, bold minimalism, and its lack of a floppy drive (oh, the audacity, the horror), which Windows-centric folks simply could not get over.
You probably know the story.
Apple continued to use translucent (and eventually crystal clear) plastics in its products over the next few years as it experimented with bright candy colors at first, then more minimal colors in its iMac line, and finally a monochrome approach in its Power Macintosh machines.
The end of translucency
By 2000, Apple’s use of multicolored translucent plastics had been so widely imitated in almost every consumer industry that the feature lost its cutting-edge design cachet. For a time it seemed like every gadget shipped in an array of translucent colors.
Apple knew it was time to move on. In 2002, the firm signaled a drastic design shift away from translucency with the frosty white iMac G4. While mostly opaque, the flexible white machine featured the very minimal use of translucent plastic accents around its display—thus reducing translucency back to a design accent rather than a primary feature.
The Power Mac G5 (2002) decisively moved Apple even further away from translucency with its anodized aluminum enclosure. At that moment, Apple’s love affair with translucent plastics effectively ended, although there were some minor holdovers.
Apple continued to sell its existing transparent-bodied flat panel displays until an all-aluminum display rollout in 2004. That same year, the iMac G5 featured only the slightest hint of translucent edges in its design, and the first Intel iMac model in 2006 continued that trend before being replaced by its own aluminum doppelganger.
As Apple moved on to opaque white plastics, then to aluminum, magnesium, and beyond (strontium?), the rest of the consumer electronics industry dutifully continued to mirror Apple’s every design move.