hartmut esslinger's early apple computer and tablet designs
hartmut esslinger's early apple computer and tablet designs hartmut esslinger's early apple computer and tablet designs
dec 18, 2012

hartmut esslinger's early apple computer and tablet designs

hartmut esslinger’s early apple computer and tablet designs ‘apple macphone’image courtesy of hartmut esslinger



in german designer hartmut esslinger’s new book ‘design forward‘, the founder of frog design overviews ‘strategic design’, and how innovative progression has sparked creative change in the consumer market, especially for one of the most successful american companies ever built: apple. the official book launch happened at the opening event of an exhibition ‘german design standards – from bauhaus to globalisation’ on german design classics, during the BODW 2012 business of design week in hong kong. the exhibition has been a collaboration between the hong kong design institute (HKDI), the neue sammlung – the international design museum munich – and the red dot design museum in essen, germany.


designboom met hartmut esslinger shortly before his presentation in hong kong and in that occasion we were given the first book copy. he introduced us into the strategic planning of apple and his personal friendship with steven jobs. in this article, designboom takes a look back at esslinger’s designs of the early 80’s, where the images document prototypes, concepts and explorations of apple’s computers, laptops and tablets.

apple snow white 3 ‘macphone’, 1984image courtesy of hartmut esslinger



‘ I want apple’s design not just to be the best in the computer industry, but to be the very best in the entire world.’ – steve jobs


(…) in 1982, apple was in its sixth year of existence, and steve jobs, apple’s cofounder and chairman, was twenty-eight years old. steve, intuitive and fanatical about great design, realized that the company was in crisis. with the exception of the aging apple, IIe, the company’s products were failing against IBM’s pc’s. and they were all ugly, especially the apple III and soon to be released apple lisa. the company’s precious CEO, michael scott, had created different business divisions for each product line, including accessories such as monitors and memory drives. each division had its own head of design and developed its products the way it wanted to.


as a result, apple’s products shared little in the way of a common design language or overall synthesis. in essence, bad design was both the symptom and a contributing cause of apple’s corporate disease. steve’s desire to end the disjoined approach gave birth to a strategic design project that would revolutionize apple’s brand and product lines, change the trajectory of the company’s future, and eventually redefine the way the world thinks about and uses consumer electronics and communication technologies.

apple snow white 1  ‘tablet mac’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger



the idea for the project was inspired by the work of richardson smith design agency (later acquired by fitch) for xerox, in which the designers collaborated with multiple divisions within xerox to create a single high-level ‘design language’ that the company could implement throughout its organization. jerry manock, the designer of the apple II and head of design in apples’s macintosh division, and rob gemmell, head of the apple II division  created a plan in which they would invite global designers to apple headquarters and, after interviewing all of them , stage a competition between the two candidates.


apple would choose a final winner and then use that design as the framework for its new design language. no one knew at that time however, that we were in the process of transforming apple into a company whose design-based strategy and innovation-over-money approach would make it a global success. (…) – text excerpt from the book ‘design forward

apple snow white 1 ‘sony style’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger


 (…) after many talks with steve (jobs) and other apple excecutives, we determined three different directions for further exploration


concept 1 was defined by ‘what sony would do if it built computers’. I didn’t like this idea, as it could create conflicts with sony, but steve insisted. he felt that sony’s simple cool design language should be a good benchmark, and sony was the current pacesetter in making high-tech consumer products smarter, smaller and more portable. – text excerpt from the book ‘design forward

apple snow white 2 ‘americana’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger


 concept 2 would express ‘americana,’ reconnecting high-tech design with classical american design statements, especially raymond loewy’s streamlined designs for studebaker and other automotive clients, the electrolux line of household appliances, gestetner’s office products, and (naturally), the coke bottle. – text excerpt from the book ‘design forward

apple ‘baby mac’, 1985image courtesy of hartmut esslinger



concept 3 was left to me. it could be as radical as possible – and that nade it the best kind of challenge. concept A and B were well founded in proven statements, so concept C was my ticket for a voyage toward a mysterious destination. it would also become the winner. (…) – text excerpt from the book ‘design forward

apple ‘baby mac’, 1985image courtesy of hartmut esslinger

apple IIC, 1983image courtesy of hartmut esslinger

apple snow white ‘macintosh studies’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger

apple snow white 2 ‘macintosh studies’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger

apple snow white 1 ‘lisa workstation’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger

apple snow white 2 ‘macbook’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger

apple snow white 2 ‘flat screen workstation’, 1982image courtesy of hartmut esslinger

hartmut esslingerimage © designboom



hartmut esslinger (1944)in the mid 1970s, he first worked with sony on its trinitron and wega ranges. in the early 1980s, he began working with apple. during that time their common design strategy transformed apple from a ‘silicon valley start-up’ into a global brand. he helped creating the ‘snow white’ design language, which began with the legendary apple IIc including the legendary macintosh computer, and reigned in cupertino from 1984 to 1990. soon after steve jobs’ departure, esslinger broke his own contract with apple and followed jobs to NeXT. other major client engagements include lufthansa’s global design and brand strategy, SAP’s corporate identity and software user interface, microsoft windows branding and user interface design, siemens, NEC, olympus, HP, motorola and general electric. in december 1990 esslinger was featured on the cover of businessweek the only living designer thus honored since raymond loewy in 1934. esslinger is a founding professor of the hochschule fuer gestaltung in karlsruhe, germany and since 2006 he is a professor for convergent industrial design at the university of applied arts in vienna, austria. today prof. hartmut esslinger is a master of strategic design with the beijing detao masters academy (DTMA), a multi-disciplined, application-oriented higher education institution in shanghai, china.

  • Ha-ha! Pat Sharp in the contact list (pic on top). Apple have always been well connected! Gt

    Gaute says:
  • Outstanding work.

    Deocliciano says:
  • freshness

    jp walker says:
  • The appearance of fashion, will be more and more people love, the present level of science and technology more and more developed.

    zhanzhan Zhang says:
  • This design has the imagination, let a person shine at the moment, very good,

    tinghua Zhang says:
  • He must be Jonny Ive’s dad. 🙂

    Mick says:
  • The “macbook” concept from 1982 looks surprisingly modern

    Kai says:
  • Very good work! One thing though, Electrolux is a Swedish brand, not American.

    Willy Bergsnov says:
  • That Baby Mac looks like the iMac’s dad, 13 years ahead of its time. Incredible!

    Dalton says:
  • …”Steve Hobs…?”

    Mike says:
  • Apple Newton?!?

    name (required) says:
  • Nice concepts. BTW there’s a ‘Steve Hobs’ mention up there hehe

    Z7 says:
  • They say John Ive is Senior VICE of design. So who is the top dog of design at Apple?
    A well guarded secret I assume. Nonetheless, IVE is flipping awesome!!!!

    terry says:
  • There was so much going on at apple. The keyboard and the laptop were nice.

    ess_anon says:
  • Why did they always put the keyboard where the palm rests should be in the early laptops? I knew laptops would be coming and was so disappointed that they all had this flaw. Didn’t anyone notice this at the time? Not even Steve Jobs?

    Marnix says:
  • @Marnix – the idea for palm rests on the keyboard was not an obvious solution. I assume as all other keyboards of that era did not have them (think of how thick the commodore 64, atari 800 XL, IBM PC keyboards were… .625″ or thicker – none with a palm rest either) – the initial concepts were trying to mimic the presence of a normal keyboard and also keep the hands out of the viewing area of the screen.

    I think it is obvious to us now that the thickness and unsteadiness of the laptop on your lap without your hands resting on its base is a huge omission. I think also the pride of “We’re doing it right” was a part of it as PC counterparts came out. It wasn’t until touch pads invaded the bottom of the space that apple had palm resting space.

    Brian Greenwood says:
  • Seeing the Apple logo on a notebook without a palm rest and centered pointing device is very, very odd.

    It’s amazing how conservative these designs look, and also how outrageously large they look. But I know that at the time, they would have looked very futuristic and very small and compact.

    Great stuff.

    Hamranhansenhansen says:
  • Its so good to see how far Apple was ahead of the rest and if i look true the design stages u see modern aspects back in the productline now. And who would have thought Apple already had Flatscreen computers!!!!! WOW

    Ramon says:
  • I’ve always loved babymac and cassie.

    Sandra says:
  • @ terry
    Jony Ive is a Senior VP of APPLE, not of Design. As a Senior
    VP of Apple, he is the particular VP of the company that is the head of
    Design, as opposed to Finances or Software Development or Retail, etc.

    Macbram says:
  • Some of these designs are fantastic! Loving the MacPhone. Too bad Apple isn’t this innovative or creative anymore.

    Justin M. Salvato says:
  • None of the early, “Portables” (osborne, compaq, etc) or “Notebook” computers had wrist rests. Most of the early notebook designs seemed very odd. For example some of Compaq’s notebooks had a small trackball on the right side of the screen. Apple was the first one to make a notebook that had a wrist rest in front of the keyboard and the trackball in middle (the PowerBook 100), later they introduced the trackpad to the world on subsequent models. It was also one of the lighter ones available at under 6 pounds. Their previous Mac Portable was over 15 pounds and over 4 inches tall, and that was small with its thin LCD screen in comparison to the other portables that had CRT displays.

    Parr says:
  • Ha ha almost all this stuff was rejected. Good thing this stuff got the boot when jobs came back.

    Gordon says:
  • With the exception of the MacPhone and Apple IIc, those are some hideous designs!

    Joe Cassara says:
  • I am not ashamed to admit the Americana style is my favorite.
    It reminds me of 70’s and 80’s era sci-fi.

    Calaverasgrande says:
  • “innovation-over-money approach” Now Apple has gone to a lawsuit AND money approach.

    Gregg E. says:
  • @ Parr

    One of the reasons why many PC laptops at the time did not include built in trackball was because Windows wasn’t a big success until Win 3.11 and Win 95. Most PC folks were still using DOS which didn’t require a mouse. It made sense to allow for an option trackpad that usually fitted to the side of the case. Macs, on the other hand depended on a mouse.

    As for other portables having CRT displays. The Mac Portable came out in late 1998. PC were using LCD for some time. Some of them were using color while Apple was stili using B&W and grey-scale. A few other things the PC Laptops beat Powerbooks to was built-in CD-Rom drives and PC Card slots.

    Lex says:
  • I really like the dual-screen workstation, despite the upright one looking so much like Roy Orbison

    Eli Sowash says:
  • Design flaws: 1.) No capitalization is obnoxious. 2.) No margin padding on the main body of the article or the comments looks undisciplined in website design.

    Other than this, I enjoyed the article and look forward to some day buying Mr. Esslinger’s book.

    Kilorad says:
  • SAP’s software user interface. Anyone who has ever worked in this system hates it for ever and ever.

    Lots of other great stuff though.

    Lill says:

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