Below is a guest post by Gordon Bruce, IDSA, author of the definitive biography of Eliot Noyes.
I began working for Eliot Noyes as an industrial designer about 10 years after the original Selectric was announced. As such, I witnessed the long term effect that the first Selectric had on the models that followed, on IBM’s design program, and on the entire industry.
The Selectric demonstrated a contemporary, inventive, spirited design that embraced groundbreaking engineering — all of which evolved valuable attributes that began to define the IBM “designed experience.”
Recently, I spoke with a well-known and accomplished writer and she told me, “I still use my Selectric because I LOVE the tactile experience. It is so high-quality!” Indeed, it was the visual, tactile and auditory experience that conveyed a sense of joy among people who used the Selectric. That, together with the typewriter’s durability and convenience, inspired trust and loyalty in both the idea and the company. Even today, feelings expressed for the Selectric stand as a remarkable testimony for a 50 year old product.
Moreover, the Selectric became the major “experience point” for IBM customers. People who wanted to do their work well and in a professional manner depended on the Selectric — offices were filled with them! The feelings that the Selectric elicited from masses of people back then remind me of the reaction to design values that continue today in IBM products and services, which contribute to IBM’s brand reputation. As Noyes once said with regard to IBM’s design program, “The word ‘human’ is the real clue to this business.”
Jim Ladue, one of the first industrial designers at IBM, recalled the impact of the Noyes typewriter design. When asked if other companies in the U.S. were designing in a similar way, Ladue said, “Not at all. There were some sorts of 1930’s style still going on. He had designed a typewriter that was a knockout . . . a very good-looking one and it still is. It was the best designed typewriter ever.”
The Selectric became the design icon of its time, connecting users to pleasantly designed experiences which raised the bar of expectation for product design performance across all industries. The Selectric also reflected an attitude at IBM that coupled forward-thinking with engineering and design excellence in order to evolve the modeling of ideas around what users really needed. The goal was to create a meaningful experience rather than making users contort to the short- comings of design solutions that were typically based on fashionable aesthetics or yearly design changes solely for marketing purposes.
Allan McCroskery, who was the main industrial designer who worked with Noyes designing typewriters over the years, recalled the inventive days that eventually led up to the Selectric. “And then came along a study of the typewriter, “McCroskery said. “So, we did a quick study. I remember I made some half-scale models and that kind of fizzled out.
“One day Eliot came in and said that there was a Dr. Hickerson, in Poughkeepsie, who has got an idea for a typewriter and the development engineers need some kind of model to sell the program to [IBM Chairman] Tom Watson and his executive group. This was based on a whole series of older models.” IBM bought the rights to a machine called the Blickensderfer but its typing element had problems due to its cylindrical shape.
McCroskery continued, “They were going nuts how to work this thing out. There was a guy by the name of Bud Beattie who was a development engineer and it was his job to get this thing to work. He went home and his wife was complaining about a light bulb that had blown. He screwed the light bulb and like in the cartoon, the light went on. He quickly got a grease pencil, drew circles, and divided it up. This is it!” Changing the typing element from a cylinder to a ball was the solution.
“We worked it up,” said McCroskery. “I gave Eliot a few lessons on how it worked. He took it with him to New York City to Tom Watson’s office; went through the whole rigmarole. Watson was all excited about it. He called his secretary in and said to Eliot, ‘Give them the demonstration again.’
As the typewriter project heated up, there was something special about the design expression since the Selectric did not have a return carriage like other typewriters of the time. It was self-contained. The Selectric was approached as a piece of sculpture, and Noyes was keen on the idea.
According to McCroskery, “Eliot said, ‘That’s the way to go; that’s the kind of look that says it is a new machine.’ It is the kind of look that says it is going to be around for a long time.” Thus, the unique design and the light bulb that inspired the famous Selectric typing element helped IBM to make many millions of dollars in sales, which was a lot in those days.
In this sense, the Selectric was—by far—more than just another product. The Selectric became a mechanism that sparked the design program and was consistent with management’s acknowledgement regarding the value of good design. It would continue to add to IBM’s reputation, and the company became the main model of an excellent US design program. Indeed, it was a design program that others started to emulate, and which other successful companies continue to follow even to this day.