Villordsutch interviews Rick Dickinson about his the moment he started working with Sinclair Research Ltd, how he got there and how do you design a new “retro” machine…
Rick Dickinson is one the most recognisable British designers to anyone involved in 1980’s home computing boom or the rather huge current retrogaming circuit. It was his talents that gave us the award winning look of the Sinclair ZX81, and the ZX Spectrum and still today he’s called upon to design today’s “Retro” machines like the ZX Spectrum Next and he also credited for the concept design of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+. Along with this his Dickinson Associates www.productdesigners.com have already won numerous awards including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ‘Grand Challenges’ and the Archimedes award for engineering excellence.
Villordsutch: Clearly when you were growing up personal computers, especially Sinclair home computers, were not on your horizon for job prospects so what were you original doodling before 1979 and what were you aiming for as a career, before you stepped across the Sinclair Research doorstep?
Rick Dickinson: Certainly mainstream computers did not exist when I was growing up, although I knew they existed, it was a mysterious sophistication that existed within the likes of the MOD or NASA. I was mad keen on inventing and making things. This started with Lego bricks, and as my Grandparents lived in Germany I was able to access Lego many years before it was marketed in the UK. Building Lego houses was okay, but I also built things from my imagination or TV shows like Thunderbirds (thank you Gerry and Silvia Anderson for inspiring so many young minds) – suspension bridges, space ships, submarines, rockets, tower blocks up to the ceiling, castles, James Bond Cable cars which I’d run on my mother’s washing line, or ships I’d try to sail on our garden pond, and so on – it was a fantastically educational product covering many aspects of the creative process in terms of how you would achieve an end product, and from very limited resources. So you had to be inventive and grasp the essence of whatever it was that made something work and look the way it should.
After Lego it was Airfix kits, and then I discovered radio controlled aircraft and boats. My Father was an aeronautical engineer working on the Blackburn Buccaneer and TSR2 at the time, and we drew up on his drawing board a scale model of a Hawker Hurricane which we then scratch built from Balsa spars and tissue, fitted an engine, and flew it. So that was a great first lesson in the design process from start to finish. I always wanted to be involved with Civil Engineering – roads, bridges, tunnels, but struggled with the Maths, started to look at Architecture, and at the last moment – just about to leave home to start an Architectural degree I discovered Industrial Design, and that was that. Industrial design covers anything from forks and knives to fork lift trucks (as my Art teacher put it). Anything that requires manufacturing for mass output needs an industrial designer – tooth brush, smart phone, 13 Amp plug, medical appliance – anything and almost everything. Sinclair was my first job in the industry after graduating, I didn’t know about Clive Sinclairs plans for a home computer, I was simply attracted to a great design icon of ‘World firsts’ such as the pocket calculator, digital wrist watch, pocket TV and so on..
V: Do you remember how friends and family reacted when you told them you were taking your First Class Bachelor of Arts Honours degree off to design home computers, for the man that made the digital watch and the electronic calculator?
RD: Like me they were very excited. Clive had already forged a remarkable reputation for innovative products for mass consumption. Interestingly though, no one, including myself, really knew what a home computer was or would be!
V: While the ZX81 was my first computer, I personally feel that the ZX Spectrum was your greatest looking Sinclair machine followed by the ZX80 (I’m looking at all three whilst typing this by the way). You won the British Design Council award in 1981 for the ZX81 and later another for the Sinclair QL at the Smau Industrial Design Award. Out of your classic Sinclair designed devices which in truth would you say you is your favourite design and of course why?
RD: The Spectrum seems to be the one most people fall in love with. I rack my brains to understand the relationship between aesthetics and the various stages of desirability and even ultimately affection towards a product. However, I struggle to be distanced and objective about judging my own work after the event, and what I may choose as a preference may well be based on different criteria, and for me it’s the ZX81. Why, I’m not sure. The creative process is a Quagmire of various and excessive levels of coffee, chocolate, pacing up and down, and sheer torture at times, especially when there is no other product about from which to gain a reference. Maybe it was my first, and I felt it was a completed design – I could not take it further and I felt that was it. By contrast I never got the Spectrum to a similar state, and even more recently I have revisited the Spectrum as some of you may have seen. The QL could have been better, although I did like it and it also represented some brave breakthroughs in Industrial Design at the time, I had subtle alternatives for the final design that we did not have time to develop.
V: You’ve gone on to design the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+ and the ZX Spectrum Next – how does it feel knowing that, “design by Rick Dickinson” can hold so much weight for the fans out there?
RD) Well, mildly embarrassing in the sense I’m not especially egocentric and generally have a default mechanism to steer away from publicity and just get on with things quietly. However, it is very nice, and I’m thrilled that it would appear I’ve brought such strong and fond memories into people’s lives as they grew up, in the same way as the Andersons did for me.
V: How did you go about drafting up the concepts for both the Vega+ and the ZX Spectrum Next? Do the creators come to you with a basic idea on a napkin and you draw in the fine lines, or do they leave you within a comfortable room with a lot tea & sandwiches, plus reams of paper and a large number pencils?
RD: The respective creators for the two ideas did not have concept sketch designs, but an understanding in their minds of what they wanted to achieve. Experience has shown me that often what is in my mind or those of others frequently lacks critically important information and is full of unchallenged assumptions, and therefore vulnerable to the catastrophic changes required by the deeper levels of the design process. As such I had to be absolutely certain of what was in their minds and how that related to logical design, technology choices and manufacturing aspects and significantly of course – marketing factors. For instance, what is a ‘retro’ product and why would you want to re-create something that has already happened? A fair question I believe and like all or most products needed to be market driven. So it was a case initially of finding out what the questions might be before embarking on design ideas. I needed to know if I was re-creating a product of today but with some visual reference to the original Spectrum, as though Sinclair Research was still in existence and had decided to embark say on a handheld version of the Spectrum. But then if that was so, what would the reference be as the old Spectrum would have evolved into something different to what it was.
The other approach would be to create a design that Sinclair would have developed at the time of the original Spectrum – I discussed both approaches and for the Vega Plus we agreed on the latter, but for the Spectrum Next the approach was the opposite – design a product of today as if Sinclair still existed. For the Vega Plus we discussed the number of button functions required and their logical positioning, battery life, screen size, PCB area connectors etc, and off I went. I simply immersed my mind back into my Kings Parade offices of the early 80’s and imagined what I would have done. The hardest part was to come up with the right shape. The original Spectrum was designed as a desktop computer, the Vega Plus is a hand held games console – very different demands on how the product would be used and therefore how it should be ergonomically, and ultimately therefore how it would look. How could a hand held device look and feel like a Spectrum? It was a curious feeling examining the Spectrum, my own work, to dig out the essence of what makes it look that way, to then apply those visual characteristics to something quite different and in the hope that it would look right. It was actually a very enjoyable process and great fun working with the team, we went through many shape options at the start, settled on one and then developed the control surfaces and general detailing and ran many variants until the final design came about. The Spectrum Next was very different, a totally different product in many respects and with an equally different array of possible outcomes, but we applied similar thinking. The process covering both products would make an interesting review.
V: Off the shelf computers have become somewhat beige over the past few decades, with only consoles taking the chance at looking slightly different. Has anything impressed you in its design or are you yet to see something to make you nod your head in admiration?
RD: As with most product categories, what is on offer in my eyes is usually pretty dull and uninspiring, however, from time to time someone hits the market with a truly exciting and game changing design and really pushes forward the evolution of that product category. In the games category I recall it was the Sony PSP. In the 80’s I admired Olivetti, Apple, Grid, and Apricot for their ‘desk top/portable’’ products, in a more general electronic consumer product arena I have always favoured the likes of Braun. Today, despite the overwhelming choice of products, fantastic design and manufacturing tools, most products I find in terms of their industrial design pretty disappointing. Apple are the real trail blazers and have shifted the bar so high and so quickly and so consistently, and of course to then have their ideas and methods closely followed and even copied by others is also disappointing as they can’t figure it out for themselves. Bling seems to have crept in as manufacturers think the Magpie approach is what will attract punters, which is sadly true to an extent but I think all people can still recognise a piece of ‘good design’ when they see it.
V: Looking on your website The Product Designers – the look of the devices designed by all in Dickinson Associates look both fantastic and futuristic. Initially I took the Wireless Fetal Monitor to be a conceptual piece but following the link there it was in practice. Checking out your awards I noticed names like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ‘Grand Challenges’ and also Archimedes award for engineering excellence which I’ll be honest is mighty impressive. Does it ever frustrate you that some people will only see you as the chap who designed the Speccy, or do you embrace this as a badge of honour?
RD: It is a great honour to be associated with the Spectrum, and to such a level, despite the fact that other products I have worked on might be better or more useful in some way – I am very happy that I ‘did’ the Spectrum.
Flickering Myth and Villordsutch would like to thank Rick Dickinson for taking the time out of his day for this interview. You can take a look at Ricks current projects over at his website – http://www.theproductdesigners.com/ .