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It's Personal

When Henry Ford uttered that immortal phrase about customers buying his Model T in any color they wanted – as long as it was black – the concept of personalization was virtually alien. Times changed, however, and individual expression gradually started to have more influence on how people lived their lives. Today, laptops no longer have to be that dull slab of tombstone grey. Your computer can become an extension of your personality.

It was the 1920s, a time when being an individual and expressing your personality was hardly the rage. One glimpse at photographs of the time proves the point, because it wasn’t just Ford’s fabulous automobiles that all looked strikingly similar. People also looked alike, mainly due to the fact that there was almost no difference in their clothes, hats, or even their facial hair come to think of it.

Times changed, however, and individual expression gradually started to have more influence on how people lived their lives. The 1950s, for example, saw popular music begin to heavily impact fashion and youth culture, a trend which has continued every decade since. So for more than half a century, it’s been hairstyles (beehives, Mohicans, quiffs, bubble perms), shoes (platforms, Doc Martins, beetle crushers) and clothes (hotpants, flared trousers, mini skirts) that have mostly allowed people to really give an outward sign about who they are on the inside. While considered too extreme for most, the ancient art of tattooing also warrants a mention, along with body piercing, which is a more recent – yet often just as outrageous – form of self-expression.

Other industries were also quick to catch on, realizing that personalization wasn’t restricted to outlandish clothes, hair and make-up. Cars are a classic case in point. Manufacturers were soon offering customers new models, different colors and optional extras, so Ford’s mantra didn’t last long. This more customer-oriented approach to selling and marketing goods rippled rather than snowballed, with some industries being more suited to embracing various degrees of customization and finding it far easier to introduce than others.

Fast forward to the 21st century and one sector which has lagged behind somewhat where personalization is concerned is finally starting to shift into overdrive. The market for personal electronic equipment has exploded over recent years, with sales of mobile phones, handheld devices and laptops reaching unprecedented levels. But while the technology behind them has also been accelerating at a frightening rate, the focus on certain aspects of their design has been less intense. For example, you don’t have to think back too far to remember when all mobiles were black (Ford would have been pleased) and all PCs were that incredibly bland cream color.

Then a spark was ignited and suddenly mobiles were available in different colors. “Skins” started to appear and the possibilities for pimping your phone became endless. Now, the age of the fully customized computer has dawned. The plug has well and truly been pulled on all things vaguely magnolia colored.

Laptops no longer have to be that dull slab of tombstone grey. Your computer can become an extension of your personality.

It was Michael Dell who broke the technical mould when he started building PCs to order from his dorm room. He soon dropped out from university as a teenager and went on to set up his own company, which is now the mighty Dell Inc – the number one PC provider in the US and the number two worldwide.

Following their CEO’s lead for offering groundbreaking personalization, Dell recently entered the customized design arena with a bang, a transformation which has been led by a man specifically hired to make Dell’s computers look irresistibly cool and desirable.

“Our industry has gone over a tipping point whereby for most people the days of the utilitarian PC are dead,” explains Ed Boyd, who is Vice-President of Design at Dell’s Consumer Products business. “If you think about it, ten years ago, to have a PC in the home was something special. It was almost a luxury if a family could afford to buy a PC and use it. The products have now evolved from that utilitarian phase of ownership to a level where they are devices that you use frequently every day.

The new day has dawned – the birth of the truly personal device that people take with them wherever they go. And it’s not just a nice to have, it’s become a necessity. There’s this need to make it fit your style, to tailor it to your needs, because it’s with you everywhere you go. If you look at related markets, such as the automobile, cell phone and fashion industries, you see this trend as well, so it only makes sense that it’s happening now in the PC industry.”

The customization of Dell’s portfolio has been evolving ever since the company was established – last year their consumer group doubled the number of products it offers. But the real evolution is taking place in the area of design, specifically the ease with which customers can now stamp their own mark on new personal equipment, such as having a design printed on the lid of your laptop. “We’ve spent a lot of time redesigning our products so that they are more hip and relevant and are more directed towards different consumer groups,” continues Boyd, an industrial designer who used to conjure up ideas for new sunglasses and shoes for Nike.

“Carrying on Michael’s tradition, we’ve also added a high degree of personalization into each of our platforms so that you can truly customize the products to suit your liking. Whether that is color, software or content, all laspects of the product are being considered. We feel that it’s a natural extension from our inception as a company and we’re pretty excited about it.”

Dell isn’t the first manufacturer to offer a personalized design service for laptops. The desire to be different has fueled a huge surge in demand, so much so that it has now gone mainstream and is no longer the preserve of the young and streetwise. But even though Dell wasn’t the quickest out of the blocks, what it does offer is unique within the industry. Via their jazzy online Design Studio, customers can select customized artwork from a dizzying gallery featuring exclusive work created by some of the world’s most renowned artists, including Mike Ming, Bruce Mau and Tristan Eaton.

Orders are then processed individually, remaining faithful to Dell’s philosophy of creating truly personalized products.

What’s also special about the design service offered by Dell is the method used to apply the artwork to the laptop. Many companies use stickers, transfers or supply predesigned computers which are decorated and manufactured in huge batches. Dell however, takes a different approach.

Using pioneering technology and products supplied by AkzoNobel, their on-demand service employs a hi-tech diffusion process which is easy to use, allows laptops to be customized to order and produces stunning results.

“The finish and quality we are achieving is amazing,” says Boyd. “The strong collaboration we have with AkzoNobel has enabled us to make great strides and build the on-demand customization that we now offer. When the artists see the results and the level of quality we are producing they’re absolutely thrilled. It took a long time for us to build the on-demand capability from an operational perspective, but now we’re ramping that up, things are getting very exciting.”

Alex Maaghul, head of AkzoNobel’s Specialty Plastics business – which supplies Dell with the products and technology used to apply the personalized designs – agrees that customization is gathering momentum. “Personalization is getting stronger,” he notes. “In the world of consumer electronics, everything is getting smaller and more personalized. Everyone is coming out with personalization per region, per gender, per culture. With the pace of technology slowing down, appearance and how products make people feel is becoming increasingly important.”

The first customized laptop Dell produced using the AkzoNobel technology was an ultra-cool World of Warcraft special edition. But now any laptop in any of Dell’s consumer groups can be personalized via their Design Studio, which offered more than 100 unique pieces of spectacular art in its first incarnation.

The second generation version will offer considerably more, with artists from all over the world now keen to get involved. “Artists are discovering that this is a great way to get global exposure, because obviously we sell products all over the world,” adds Boyd. “So they are regularly approaching us and the level of creativity we’re seeing is overwhelming. We’re realizing that the possibilities are infinite, particularly when we unleash the talent that we are now working with.”

Such has been the success of Dell’s move to personalized design – they customize more than 20 million laptops a year – that laptops are only just the beginning. “Why stop at laptops?” Boyd goes on. “You will see personalization on our desktops in the very near future, as well as on our smaller, more mobile devices. So the level of customization we currently offer will also be available on a much broader array of products. Ultimately you’ll be able to do pretty much whatever you want to do.”

It makes you wonder though. If he’d been alive today, what color would Henry Ford have chosen?

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