Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 4 (April 2000)

USER FOCUS: Modern Makeover

By Karen Moltenbrey

The design philosophy of Studio Sowden Design As sociates of Milan, Italy, and its US sister company, Milan-Pacific (San Francisco), reflects that of their founder, George Sowden: To reflect the "sentiment" of the product through its design.

The company recently put that design credo through its paces to create a unique, inviting look for a new type of product: Internet service provider Get2Net's (Denver) line of NetStations. The newly styled terminals, which offer free away-from-home Internet and e-mail access (the service is supported by advertising revenue), will be available soon at various US airport locales, beginning with United Airlines Shuttle gates.
Using digital design tools, Milan-Pacific and Studio Sowden Design sculpted a highly stylized look for Get2Net's line of away-from-home Internet terminals. The terminals will soon be appearing in airport terminals across the US.

"The client wanted a design that reflected the product's sophisticated technology, yet was soft and approachable," says Morgan Sowden, CEO of Milan-Pacific, "and the only way we could achieve that was through the use of digital design tools." Using Parametric Technology Corp.'s (PTC; Waltham, MA) Pro/Engineer and PTC subsidiary ICEM Technologies' (Frankfurt, Germany) CDRS software, the designers crafted the product with freeform surfaces, ergonomic curves, and plenty of style.

When Get2Net stepped into this market about two years ago, the company treaded lightly by designing the stations around standard but boxy off-the-shelf components. As a result, the original 200 terminals that were deployed in airport terminals throughout the US resemble a clunky, square computer mounted inside a telephone cubical, rather than an innovative, high-tech device. "Our primary objective in redesigning our terminals was to make them friendlier and more inviting to travelers, and to communicate our vision of public Internet terminals as pay phones for the 21st century," says Mark Greenstein, Get2Net's CEO. "And Milan-Pacific [which assumed the project lead] understood that goal."
The terminals feature smooth, vandal-resistant parts that can be easily cleaned or replaced.

Milan-Pacific's mission was to create a design for the Internet station that was modern and forward-looking-without being intimidating or appearing too extravagant. "Get2Net has to contract with typically conservative airport directors and managers to secure real estate for the product, and they wouldn't get the space for something too garish," says M. Sowden, George Sowden's son.

The company's solution to the design conundrum-make it modern, but not too modern-was a curvaceous, smooth-sweeping freestanding model that was elegant and sophisticated, as well as vandal-resistant, easy to manufacture and maintain, economical to produce, and able to withstand public use (and abuse). "It is a very soft design with compound curves everywhere that expresses the dignity, gentleness, and poetics of the product," muses G. Sowden.
Numerous curves helped designers meet their goal of making the credit card slot (for additional services) inconspicuous, so that users would not think they had to pay to use the free terminals.

While the designers could have used any number of graphics packages, the Pro/E and CDRS combination provided an efficient work process, as the NetStation's surfacing and mechanical design were created concurrently. Once a team member created an accurate surface model in CDRS, the design data was integrated with 3D product data created by another member in Pro/E. Because CDRS (one of PTC's surfacing tools for the Pro/Engineer suite) interfaces directly with Pro/E using native geometry, no surface data was lost in the process.

"Dividing design from engineering is artificial. Engineering is the execution of the artistry, like the quality of the cut in clothes or the sensitivity of touch in music," says G. Sowden. "Even at the early stages, we were already thinking about things like screw-mount placement and splitting the product into different molds for assembly. So we use CDRS and Pro/Engineer almost as though they are one piece of software, shifting design and engineering teams from task to task and having them review each other's work."
The boxy, off-the-shelf components used in the first generation of Get2Net terminals were mounted inside a telephone cubical.

According to M. Sowden, the project's most difficult design challenges revolved around size restrictions (the finished product has a 16-inch diameter base, which conserves valuable airport-terminal real estate). This re quired Milan-Pacific to optimize the limited product envelope for the necessary hardware and peripheral devices, including an infrared port, speakers, full-size screen and CPU, keyboard, video camera, and microphone. Additionally, the designers had to consider the location of the external power source and the cable for the Internet connection, as well as the placement of the keyboard for comfort and the angle of the station's screen to minimize reflection.

While Studio Sowden has two decades of experience in creating stylish consumer and commercial electronic products such as printers and calculators, the Get2Net terminal "contained more technology in such a limited space than we usually contend with," M. Sowden says. "Although it was difficult to make all these things fit together, I think some of the most beautiful objects are those with functional limitations, like an airplane, which has very strict parameters. Without limitations, you often end up with a completely over-designed product."

CDRS, ICEM Technologies (
Pro/Engineer, PTC (