It was very clear right from my first day at NeXT Computer that design standards were high. Our office, a small two story building in the hills above Palo Alto, was finished with unusual attention to detail. Steve (known to us as “SJ”) would stop by my desk at least once a day, and weigh in on every detail of the final mechanical design of our first product, the NeXT Cube. It was our first product and had to be “perfect”. I understood this, but was surprised to learn for instance that my metal stiffener design for supporting the PCBs had to meet aesthetic as well as functional standards. The PCB layout itself was evaluated for visual impression. The internal ribbon cables were special ordered in black. These were components that few would ever see, yet it was critical to him that the external design aesthetic be carried through into the product internals.
The NeXT Cube was a work of art, but the magnesium housing proved difficult and expensive to manufacture. The witness lines created by joints between sliding sections of the casting die had to be manually filled with auto body putty and sanded smooth, followed by several coats of paint to get the desired finely textured surface. The manufacturing plant floor looked like an auto body shop, totally not what you want for low cost, high volume manufacturing. Our team worked with the metal casting manufacturer on cost reduction, the end result being a proposed one-piece die that would eliminate the witness lines, but would require a slight draft angle to extract the part from the die. We got the supplier to agree to a barely-noticeable ¼ degree draft. We built a visual mockup for evaluation, which confirmed that the draft was barely noticeable. One day SJ stopped by our office, spotted the mockup before he was even fully in the room, and asked what the heck was THAT? I don’t remember his exact words, but he spotted the difference and let us know that it was not going to fly. So, our concept was totally shot down from 10 feet away! If we hadn’t yet gotten the message that we were working to an entirely different standard, that episode made it very clear (I’ll talk more about this in a future blog). SJ set the bar high, far higher than anyone else in the computer industry. And it wasn’t just visual appearance, all aspects of the design had to be solid and refined. The NeXTStep OS graphic interface that ran on the Cube was sophisticated and elegant, and made the Windows OS of the time appear crude and amateurish. To his credit, SJ acknowledged that there was a price for his demands, and made our success possible by giving us nearly carte blanche on how we achieved that goal. He readily signed my 6-figure requisition for high end CAD systems. There were few if any limits on the choice of suppliers worldwide to achieve the results we needed. Unconventional and potentially risky design concepts were embraced, as long as we took full ownership for making them work. Having lived in the world of a design quality bar set high during my five years at NeXT, I can’t imagine working any other way. While these days the parameters are different – we don’t usually have huge budgets, nor a neurotic emphasis on every little design detail – but the elusive goal of clean, simple and elegant design is still waiting out there. Our job as design engineers is to identify that elusive solution, and bring it to life in each new design we complete. SJ’s famous goal was to create products that were “insanely great”, and that goal is still as relevant today as it was back then.
Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.