Mon. Sep 25th, 2023

My family’s first computer was a beige IBM-compatible 80286, and for decades after, every computer I owned was beige. Then seemingly overnight, the beige wave was over. But why was this the ubiquitous color of computing in the first place?

Computers Were About Serious Business

Beige was definitely the color of serious business, when I visited my dad’s open-plan cubicle office in the 90s, this was the predominant color. Not just the computers and their peripherals, even the very walls, the photocopiers, the fax machines, and the cubicle dividers themselves were beige.

Related: VR Should Take Us to Fantastical Places, Not a Beige Office

It’s no accident that this color scheme became associated with serious business. IBM’s early desktop computers, such as the IBM Personal Computer and IBM PC/AT, were distinctly box-shaped and beige. This design soon became the de facto standard as IBM and its imitators dominated the industry.

Related: Why I Still Use a 34-Year-Old IBM Model M Keyboard

Over at Apple, early Macintosh models sported a specific shade of beige (Pantone 453, or maybe not). Interestingly, even after Apple made a switch to a desaturated gray they called “Platinum” in 1987, users kept referring to the machines as “beige,” especially after the introduction of the vibrantly colored iMac and Blue and White G3. The term “beige” stuck around to identify any previous Macintosh, such as the “Beige G3“.

In these early years of personal computing, these devices weren’t the lifestyle products they are now. They were for more serious purposes, with some recreation thrown in as an incidental bonus. So if the typical office IBM was beige, you could bet anyone else trying to make a credible business PC would have to follow suit.

Beige is Cheap (Maybe)

While researching the beige wave for this article, we repeatedly came across the idea that beige was the dominant computer color because it was cheaper. On the surface of it, this seems like a reasonable idea.

Plastic is usually naturally colorless and clear, or at least a milky semi-opaque color if left unchanged. To make it opaque and colored, additional materials known as pigments are added to the plastic during production. These pigments come in a wide range of colors, but not all colors are created equal in cost.

The cost difference between different pigments can be quite significant. Some colors, such as bright reds and blues, require more expensive pigments and can be more challenging to produce. On the other hand, earth tones like beige are generally cheaper and easier to manufacture.

However, when talking about a mass-produced product like a computer, would any difference in paint or pigment cost have mattered in the greater scheme of things? It may simply have been the case that beige stuff was cheaper because it was made in larger quantities, and cost savings didn’t drive the reasons for making larger quantities of beige in the first place.

Related: How to Clean Old, Yellowed Plastic on Retro Computers and Game Systems

The idea is a little like another claim we came across, suggesting that beige was popular because it hid dust and dirt better than, for example, pure white, but that’s probably another post-fact rationalization since plenty of other shades, such as brown or gray, would have done the same job. Making PCs in the 1980s a sort of brownish tobacco-stain color would have been perfect for hiding both smudges, dust, and the effects of the nearly ubiquitous smoking of the day, but nobody opted to do that, after all.

There Might Have Been Psychological Benefits

So why was beige the color of choice for these tech giants? Well, one reason might be the psychological associations of color. Beige is often linked with feelings of calmness, simplicity, and security. It can evoke a sense of comfort and coziness, adding a warm touch to a room. Symbolically, beige is often associated with the earth and nature, simplicity, purity, and naturalness.

However, these positive associations don’t come without some drawbacks. Beige can also convey feelings of blandness or boredom when used as a primary color. While useful for blending into various settings, its unobtrusive nature could lead to a composition that lacks energy or vibrancy. The early 2020s design trend to use only beige and grays in baby nurseries, for example, has been frequently criticized as so dull and uninteresting as to be an affront to the poor babies that have to stare at the beige walls and toys every day.

But honestly, this might be another example of cause and effect being mixed up. It’s not necessarily that humans perceive beige as inherently boring, but that using that color for things we think of as boring has rubbed off on the color scheme. We’ll never know for sure!

Beige Was Premium in the 80s and 90s

Fair warning, we’re entering the realm of personal opinion here, but I’d argue that while it may be the butt of jokes today, beige was seen as a premium color in the 80s and 90s. In the 70s wood paneling (think Atari 2600) was the in thing, but look at 1968’s 2001 a Space Odyssey. This was the vision of the future people saw in the 70s, and that film is filled with beige plastics and a white aesthetic.

Whether a computer had beige-painted metal or plastic enclosure, it looked like cutting-edge technology. This is pretty hard to see using modern eyes, but I distinctly remember how snazzy I thought my Pentium II 400 looked in beige. Then suddenly, the only computer cases I could buy were black with a big window on the side, and the rest is history.

But why not white, if the goal was a super space age look? It’s a combination of some of the things mentioned above. Pure white plastics came with their own cost increases. UV-stabilizers still weren’t very good and white plastics tended to yellow. And that ubiquitous smoking? That made white plastics look very yellow, very quickly. Beige was a good compromise: the effects of UV exposure and tobacco smoke did yellow beige, but the change wasn’t as stark as it would be if the computer case had started out pure white.

Could Beige Make a Nostalgic Comeback?

The reign of the beige box didn’t last forever. Computer manufacturers began experimenting with more diverse and eye-catching designs as we moved into the late 1990s and early 2000s. Apple, for instance, broke the mold with its colorful iMac range, signaling the end of the beige era. Computers became not just tools, but a way to express personal style and taste.

Related: Consider a Retro PC Build for a Fun Nostalgic Project

That doesn’t mean we’ve seen the end of beige computers. Retro computing seems to wax and wane, but never really die. This might actually be the most popular its been in modern computing history.

There’s also clearly a desire for retro-style electronics if you look at how quickly throwback products such as the PlayStation 4 anniversary system decked out in the classic PS gray, which sold out rapidly. Maybe the best example is the current line of ThinkPad laptops, which look like they’ve been plucked directly from the 90s, and have undergone less design changes over the years than the Porsche 911 series.

Related: Why Is a Computer Mouse Called a Mouse?

And let’s not discount the phenomenon of the “sleeper” PC, which is essentially a high-performance computer stuffed into a beige box chassis, done for much the same reason that “sleeper” cars exist.

So while it’s unlikely that beige will make a comeback as a mainstream design choice, we wouldn’t bet real money against this retro aesthetic carving out some niche between all the other wacky options available for PCs these days. We may never see a whole aisle of only beige and light gray PCs at Best Buy again, but don’t be surprised if, one day, the wheel of PC fashion turns back to muted colors once again.

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By John P.

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