Saturday, December 29, 2007

Luigi Colani, Twisted by Design

CNET columnist Rich Trenholm recently wrote a short history of digital photography titled "Photos: The history of the digital camera."

This is composed of 14 short pages (short but cute pages, and page flipping keeps us distracted from all the ads). Each page has one image of equipment from digital photography's short history, along with some appropriate text. Sadly for me it wasn't always clear where the information or the images originated. It would have been fun to dig a bit deeper, though it was certainly a good read overall, and I did manage to dig up some more info.

The opening page shows Kodak's original prototype digital camera from 1975. It was the size of a counter top kitchen appliance, said to have weighed around nine pounds, and had an image resolution in the range of 10 kilopixels. The image was recorded on tape after capture.

But for me the most interesting information came later in the piece, accompanying photos of a bunch of mocked-up Canon canons from 1984. They came from Luigi Colani, who had earlier had a hand in designing the ground breaking Canon T-90 camera. Fortunately or otherwise, the designs he mocked up never made it to market.

Mr. Colani describes himself as "the unabashed agent provocateur of the design world." Which seems about right. He also seems to like letting his prose off the leash: "He thinks in terms of grand utopias, creating ingenious drafts for designs that preempt much of what is not yet technically feasible."

Etcetera. Anyway, it's his specialty, designing is. He has more words at "The official Website of Colani Trading AG."

The Colani story starts with the Canon T-90 camera. You can see it at Canon's very own online camera museum. Canon seemed to like Colani's contribution to the T-90 design. They say that "Canon's unique 'bio-form,' which is now widely recognized, was created in the design work for the T90," so that must be why they asked Mr. Colani back for round two after this was done.

In fact, in the T-90 process, he even changed their way of designing cameras. Originally he had approached the company with an idea for an optional hand grip for the F1 body. They apparently passed on that but instead sucked him into the design process for the T-90, putting him in charge of a team. But they also kept their own team, and then had the two complete.

Colani didn't win. But neither did Canon's original team.

The better parts of the two designs were eventually melded into a single semi-organic design that led to the smooth curves of the EOS 1 series. It isn't surprising that Colani's T-90 design wasn't used outright. You should see it. His original design looked something but not quite like a demented black gourd.

On the other hand the Canon engineers' design looked like something would look if designed by engineers, and if you see that sort of thing once you remember it. First the engineers designed the guts of the camera and then wrapped some plastic around it and sprinkled a few control buttons here and there.

Colani's influence helped a lot. As a designer he thinks first about how to hold and control something, in this case a camera, and then goes on from there, leaving the internals undefined, for the people with scary degrees to deal with. He doesn't know that end of it anyway. He just does the wrapper, so to speak, but that is his area of expertise.

As with most pure designers though he seems to have the occasional uncontrollable fit of fancy. Almost seems like he may need a hovering assistant or two to hold him down if he gets too frantic, but his car designs look good. Some other things not quite so, like these cameras maybe.

Neither Colani's nor the engineers' approach could have worked as well as their synthesis, which resulted in the distinctive, usable canonical look that we have seen in every Canon SLR since then.

That was 1984, and Canon wanted to play with some ideas from the "near future" (the 1990s), so it asked Colani to come by again and poke at the future for them. The result was his "5 Systems" mockups, which when done were exhibited at the 1984 Photokina exposition.

These were the:

Super C. Bio:
An SLR camera with a 35-70 mm power operated zoom lens, and a couple of stray horns, one of which looks like a hand grip. The other looks like a stalk hiding a built-in flash tube.

Lady: A small white camera intended to fit the hand, and resembling a soft bar of soap that someone has squeezed into shape with his fingers.

Hy-Pro: A professional SLR system camera. Has "different combinations of bumps and hollows" to facilitate holding it at either eye or waist level, though you could say that it looks a little like it has too many horns.

Frog: An underwater camera with two horns on the back, ostensibly hand grips, but which could give you a really good poke in the eye if need be. Two flash units are built in. And the lens shade covers the sides of the lens but not the top, where most of the glare would be from (i.e., the "surface", where day light is, and so on).

HOMIC (HOrizontal Memorychip Integral storobo Camera): Well, Canon ought to know, and if they say "storobo" they may mean it, but then again maybe not. Canon says its "A still video camera. It uses solid-state memory. It is characterized by the objective lens and viewfinder being on the same axis. The flash unit fires through the objective lens." This could have been fun to play with, flash on a video camera and all, firing through the taking lens, giving you intermittent, blinding lightning flashes all over your scene, instead of a nice, even flood light (not bouncing around inside the taking lens). Then again, they know more about making cameras than I do. Then again, what the hell is a "still video camera?"

Anyway, good piece by Rich Trenholm, and interesting work by Canon (still in business) and Luigi Colani, also still in business, at work on lots of fancifully twisted things, some of which are good-looking cars, and some others of which are fancifully twisted things.