Design Time

Dear J-

There’s a few things that are universally recognizeable — the McDonald’s arches, Snoopy, Mickey Mouse (I would also add Hello Kitty but that may be an artifact of my upbringing).  Product design, handled well, sells merchandise; the prospect of the Golden Arches on the horizon signals filling, if not particularly nutritious, fare.  With the advent of digital image capture, cameras which were once constrained by film cartridge size to a certain shape are now free to play with form; I’d say that we have the shapes we have because of product perception.  A camera should look like a camera — protruding cylindrical lens, body roughly in 3:5 proportions.

In the 80s and 90s camera designers started moving away from the brick school of design (Luigi Colani, with Canon’s T90; Giugiaro with Nikon’s F4) and those willing to go out on a real limb (Olympus ECRU and O-Product, which were the Twentieth-Anniversary Mac of their day;  high style and collectability) — there were cameras with retro features and “classical” lines (Leica Minilux, Nikon 35/28Ti, Minolta TC-1), but save for the hard points dictated by functionality (prism/porro viewfinder, film plane, takeup and rewind), cameras were starting to look interesting.  What’s happened?  Where’s my digital high-style camera?

I suppose that some designs are dictated by useability (handgrip and a body big enough to wrap two hands around), and others, by legacy requirements (again, that prism/porro viewfinder).  Panasonic and Olympus present two interesting contrasts — the first two 4/3rds system cameras were the E-1 (intriguing because there is no traditional “left side” — camera body left of the viewfinder), which was needed for the film chamber in 35mm cameras) and the E-300 (complicated light path and side-swinging mirror allowing for a flat top, faithful in concept and execution to the pioneering Pen F), both from Olympus.  On the other hand, freed from the mirror box and its mandate of a prism/viewfinder hump, the Panasonic micro-4/3rds G1 and GH1 resemble nothing so much as shrunken SLRs, even though there’s nothing but tradition (and that huge articulated LCD on the back) dictating the camera’s design.  You would think that a consumer electronics company wouldn’t skew conservative with camera design, but perhaps it’s just in comparison with one of the innovators in the camera world.

Mike

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