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Back in the day (especially during the 70's and 80's), it seems that most computers and electronics were colored 'beige'. It seems it would be easy to use different colors, so why didn't they?

Some theories are:

  • Beige was cheaper/easier to produce and use.
  • It was the style at the time. (most likely one according to my research)
  • There was little or no competition, so why try using something different.
  • There was some kind of law or rule against it.

Was there a technical reason that made colors other than beige impractical, or was it a matter of style and preference?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Chenmunka
    Apr 9, 2020 at 17:33
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    I rather dispute the premise, since I'm pretty sure I've never bought any equipment that's anything like beige, which is a brownish colour. Most desktop computers I saw were more like a light grey; see this XT as an example. Though it has to be admitted that as the plastic ages, it gets yellower, so maybe everything tends to beige in the long run.
    – dave
    Jul 22, 2022 at 23:24

6 Answers 6

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Same as today - beige and light gray goes with every style, no matter if a business desk or your living room. They are a simple non-statement, the least offensive colours to most people, thus not keeping anyone from buying.

There have been endless attempts to sell stylish machinery thru all times, but looking back will reveal that the most stylish are usually also the least successful. Style requires a stance on the buyers side - one that may at least as often be negative as positive, thus repelling a number of potential customers due an issue compete unrelated with the desired function.

Neither DELL nor IBM became the giants they are/were by being fancy, but delivering average devices in toned down style.

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    @Muzer Beside that it's sales were rather small, compared to the majority of beige boxes? I'd see it as an outlier. As I said, there was an endless number of attempts all the way from sleak cubist designs like Olivetti (major brand) over Colani designed PCs (VOBIS) all the way to Pyramid shaped 486 PCs (a startup in the early 90s trying to hit a design conscious market) - heck, think MAD computers. They made it into the MOMA and still went belly up. There were thousends of great designs that went into production and failed - a dozend mildly successful rather provees the rule, doesn't it?
    – Raffzahn
    Apr 7, 2020 at 11:12
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    I feel like the difference is more between office and home use. I can definitely name loads of home computer examples that were stylish (or at least considered stylish for their time). Anything by Sinclair for the home market for instance were immensely successful and stylish. Machines designed for business on the other hand, there are much fewer examples (I guess NeXT is probably the best one).
    – Muzer
    Apr 7, 2020 at 13:07
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    +1: Just look at "gaming" cases today. What's cool and appealing to one person may be a huge turn-off for someone else. Whereas a neutral-looking case is at least not a turn-off for the vast majority.
    – MechMK1
    Apr 7, 2020 at 14:08
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    Still, beige is almost never used in new products (maybe because of the association of beige = old?). now most computers and related products are either completely black or completely white. Maybe with some chrome added in if they want to be fancy.
    – vsz
    Apr 9, 2020 at 10:27
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    "black is the new beige" Apr 11, 2020 at 8:30
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The choice of beige for the plastic cases used on popular 1980s retrocomputers was not arbitrary. As a color for a popular, mass-market, personal computer, it originated with the Apple ][, where it was specifically chosen by the designer, Jerry Manock.

In 1977, Steve Jobs hired Manock, a professional designer, to create the Apple II around Wozniak's electronic design. All choices, aside from the electronics, were made by Manock. This included the choice of a neutral beige color scheme - specifically Pantone #453.

The Apple ][ was the first and only personal computer of its time to be given this level of design attention by a professional designer, who would go on to design the Macintosh. It was the case then, as now, that Apple's great commercial successes became trend setters for the computer industry. The color of the original Apple II is the earliest example of this.

The major brands that followed Apple, such as Commodore and Atari, desperately needed to capture whatever "halo-effect" they could from Apple's early success. It's not any different than Samsung's following of Apple's smartphone design trend in the 2010's.

Some will imagine that this history ascribes too much credit to Apple for their contributions to personal computer design. After all, a color choice can seem pretty arbitrary, to a non-designer. To Jerry Manock, it is anything but arbitrary, and he deserves recognition for his contributions. You can read more about his contribution to early computers here.

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    Beige (though maybe not that exact shade) was commonly used on computers long before the Apple II. A quick Google image search for "1960s computers" shows predominately beige cases on everything. (It was likely common before that, but when I look for "1950s computers", the photos are all black and white.) Other electronic hardware, such as printers, copiers, even oscilloscopes, etc. also tended to be made in beige. Apr 7, 2020 at 18:42
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    hmm, Tektronix didn't use the same beige, but rather a whiter off-white and green, iirc.
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 7, 2020 at 19:41
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    @DarrelHoffman I take the OP's question to be about personal computers, since that is what they reference in the question.
    – Brian H
    Apr 7, 2020 at 19:47
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    One more item among the usual many that attributes things to Apple that have been existing waaay before... :-)
    – Gábor
    Apr 7, 2020 at 19:55
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    @BrianH: Yes, but if a similar beige was common on other hardware before personal computers went big, then Apple were pretty clearly following that tradition rather than introducing the colour themselves. Fine-tuning and standardising it more carefully than had been done before, perhaps, which is certainly significant, but not fundamentally introducing the colour themselves.. Apr 9, 2020 at 18:31
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According to the "Beige box" entry of Wikipedia,

many early personal computers and dedicated word processors [...] were usually beige or similar colors like off white or ecru. These colors were presumably chosen to allow the machines to blend inconspicuously into a variety of settings, especially among similarly colored cubicles and office equipment.

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  • the claim on the page is currently uncited.
    – qwr
    Apr 9, 2020 at 20:32
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Nostalgia Nerd produced a video on this very subject very recently. Most of the reasons he cites are already answered here. But one interesting find was that Germany and some other European countries went as far as to write it into their health and safety workplace laws that 'light-value' colors must be used in office computing equipment (7:00 into the video). As to whether this is a distinct cause is difficult to determine as it was so long ago. However, he's got a picture (at 14:17) of an IBM ThinkPad manual with "This product not for office use", apparently used as a way to skirt the workplace laws.

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    Leave it to the germans to make things ugly and efficient
    – xyious
    Apr 8, 2020 at 16:18
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    Uh boss, I need to take another sick day, the computer case is hurting my eyes again. Apr 8, 2020 at 20:27
  • Supposedly the Atari ST's case was the specific shade of grey it is due to expectations of big sales figures in germany.
    – Kamilion
    Apr 9, 2020 at 6:54
  • Related: deskthority.net/viewtopic.php?f=62&t=23694
    – JRN
    Apr 15, 2020 at 3:35
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There was no technical reason that early electronics had to be beige. It was purely a design decision originally.

Beige was a very common color before the 1990s and 2000s. Most walls were painted beige, for example. A lot of the time this coincided with wood furniture and the popularity of wood grain textures and veneers. Beige went well with wood. Also consider that all lightbulbs before maybe 20 years ago or so made yellow-ish warm light, which kind of made all interiors look beige-y no matter what color the walls were.

Most office equipment was also beige. I think this is really where electronics got their inspiration. Computers were originally seen as a type of office equipment. So if they wanted to blend in (and be more likely to be purchased by companies) beige was the way to go. Some companies really put a lot of thought into the exact shade of beige like Apple and Commodore. But these were outliers. “Dark gray beige” was just so common back in the day.

I think the biggest contributor though was probably on the manufacturing side. When you go to a manufacturer, they usually have a list a “default” or “standard” options that are always available because they use them frequently for other companies. You can usually get these “default” options for cheaper than going with something custom. I’m guessing the beige color was one of these “default” options because it became so commonly used and manufacturers probably ordered the materials necessary in bulk. You can see this trend today with silver and black. They are usually the cheapest color options you can go with because manufacturers always have them on hand and use them every day.

At some point though around the 1990s, painting walls beige and using wood textures on literally everything went out of style and was seen as old fashioned. White became the new beige for wall colors because it was brighter and was considered to make a room a “happier” place to be. Black equipment became a lot more common, and over the years beige computers didn’t really fit in anymore. Then Apple came along and started making everything out of aluminum and a lot of companies followed, and so black and aluminum kind of became the new standard. I don’t want to attribute design decisions made by Apple to every industry standard, but I do think they really popularized the use of aluminum over plastic.

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    Most walls were painted beige, for example. What?
    – dave
    Jul 22, 2022 at 23:26
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    I remember white painted walls that n every room that didn’t have wallpaper or wood veneer. That was the 1970s and 1980s.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 23, 2022 at 3:36
  • And I have painted many such walls, in varying degrees of not-quite-white. I've never painted anything beige, though.
    – dave
    Jul 23, 2022 at 14:25
  • Back in the day, I think all walls were actually painted white, its just that so many people smoked inside that they turned beige! :)
    – Glen Yates
    Jul 25, 2022 at 16:16
-3

The answer is the smoking rate.

Cigarette smoking stains everything, especially plastic. If you look further back to the 70s, and in appliances in general, the gradual progress from avocado/gold-yellow/brown, to tan, to off white, and finally white tracks lower levels of smoking in homes and at the workplace.

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    While it is possible to yellow plastic with tobacco smoke, it takes a lot of tobacco smoke, and is not necessary to the process. Yellowing over time is primarily caused by the syneresis of bromine (added as a fire retardant) from the plastic.
    – Sneftel
    Sep 21, 2023 at 8:31
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    This doesn't answer the question of why were appliances initially beige. Appliances clearly didn't come out of the factory beige, because people had been smoking profusely over the cases prior to shipping. Plus, I am sorry but the notion that manufacturers slowly modified the colour of the casings of appliances (towards white) as the prevalence of smoking has decreased is utter fantasy. Sep 21, 2023 at 16:26
  • @Sneftel Well, those smokers exist. Friend of mine was capable to turn any computer into a brownish something within a year :)) Any job at his machine started with an hour of cleaning before one could get to the parts :))
    – Raffzahn
    Sep 23, 2023 at 10:21
  • in the late 70s german workplace laws required light color value office equipment, privious to that they were often brown black etc. when they were required to use light value colors in germany, the industry did in fack switch to lighter grys and beiges world wide specifically because of white's tendency to stain, particularly from common office smoking. Sep 24, 2023 at 3:52

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