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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?

48

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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    "There have been endless atempts to sell stylish machinery thru all times, but looking back will reveal that the most stylish are usually also the least successful." Err, I can think of dozens of counterexamples. The iMac G3 in this very room for example... – Muzer Apr 7 at 10:58
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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 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 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 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 at 10:27
34

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. – Darrel Hoffman Apr 7 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 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 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 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.. – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Apr 9 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 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 at 16:18
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    Uh boss, I need to take another sick day, the computer case is hurting my eyes again. – Marc Bernier Apr 8 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 at 6:54

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