On the inside, today’s electronics equipment is more or less the same, which is why makers are focused more strongly on design than ever, writes Anthony Fordham.

What is the point of style? Okay, stylish furniture can make a house more liveable, stylish clothes can make people think you’re richer than your credit card balance admits. But why bother styling consumer electronics?

Surely, the functionality of these devices is far more important than whether or not they have stainless-steel trim or electric-blue LED strips? And yes, performance is indeed paramount, especially when it comes to audio-visual gear.

But how can you tell, at a glance, that something performs well? Stickers that boast of signal-to-noise ratios and motion-smoothing technology only work at close range, after all. To get the consumer to approach the electronics in question, the device has to grab the eye from across the room.

If a manufacturer can afford to style its products in a way which attracts buyers, and remains attractive enough for people to live with the device for many years, there’s a good chance performance will be pretty good.

Building consumer electronics is now so cheap, companies that use bargain-bin components run on such razor-thin margins that they just don’t have time for style. If your chosen gear is stylish, odds are it has performance to match.

Of course there are plenty of examples of style over substance, but the showcase of the industry’s best design in this area (as judged by the exacting and rarefied standards of Home Entertainment magazine and GadgetGuy.com.au) includes only devices that not only look fantastic, but perform just as well.

In the beginning

The history of design in consumer electronics was born mainly of necessity. Yes, design is something that humans are hardwired to do, but there were also practical reasons for it in the early days. When tubes reigned supreme and circuit boards were bigger than a card table, no one in their right minds would have a big metal box the size of a dresser in their lounge room.

As a result, early ‘wireless’ sets — more than a metre square and weighing upwards of 50 kg – were disguised as dressers. Real wood, woodland scenes, enamelling, and dozens of other tiny style touches turned what was very much a machine into a piece of furniture.

This early necessity set the tone for future devices. Because electronics became a part of modern life, these products needed to be objects with which you could live. As transistors and miniaturisation allowed radios and TVs to be tabletop devices instead of actual tables, the need for design remained.

Wooden panelling, bakelite and veneers were quickly replaced by cheap and flexible plastics and metals. As manufacturing processes for plastic, aluminium and stainless steel became more widespread and – crucially – cheaper, these materials allowed CE design to evolve.

Since TVs, VCRs, AV ephemera, whitegoods and – thanks largely to Apple – computers all but defined the pace of technological change, their designs too came to represent the ‘next wave’ of technology.

So much consumer electronics is designed to look ‘futuristic’, or at the very least like something you haven’t seen before, because they offer functionality you haven’t experienced before. When you live, as we do, in the future, your tech can’t afford to look like gran’s occasional table.