Creative Deconstruction: Why Dell's Designers Tear Apart Their Own Computers

dell goodwill

Most of a designer's time is focused on the pursuit of improvement at the moment of creation—the birth of a product's lifecycle. But it is often important to look at the other end of the lifecycle—the deconstruction of the very products that they create. About once a year, our creative professionals here at Dell get out of the studio and head down the road to the Goodwill Computer Works where we summarily tear apart the same class of products we are designing.

dell goodwill

Goodwill has become a significant recycler of computers which they receive from various recycling programs and from individuals that drop them off as donations. They are sorted first for those that can be re-conditioned, or have parts shared with other systems that can then be re-sold through the Goodwill retail store. This effectively extends the life and makes computer equipment more accessible to more users. Next, they are scavenged for useful spare parts that often need to be replaced on computers. If you have a missing door or hinge from a notebook, this is the place to find a replacement. When there is simply no more usefulness in the computers, they are torn apart to extract their recyclable components—plastics, metals, cables, etc.

dell goodwill

Beyond being a bit therapeutic for our designers, who volunteer their services for the day, it provides an enlightening insight into that part of a product's life that is so often overlooked. I would recommend this experience to all product designers. It often shows that what makes a product easy to manufacture in the age of DFM (design for manufacture) can sometimes have the opposite effect at the end of the product's life. Experiencing this will certainly bring a broader perspective to your work.

dell goodwillIn fact, participating in this activity teaches the designer the most when it comes to the actual design process. It becomes a study in how past designers and engineers solved the same problem in different ways, such as all the various ways components are held in place and how that process has evolved over time. Those methods will be the difference between gentle persuasions and brute force to separate the parts. They can also make a significant difference in the time it takes to tear one apart, from being measured in minutes to hours.

It can also be a lesson in durability when designers see the conditions that some products are subjected to, some of which is very unexpected. At times, we will buy some of these old donated machines to investigate how certain materials and finishes have held up over time, or to understand what abuses they might face. Again, I would encourage other designers to investigate the state of their products at the other end of their lifecycles.

dell goodwillThe regular Goodwill workers have seen it all evolve over the years and have developed some interesting wisdom from their experience. One person shared that they have generally found a pattern that products become more complex as a company's market strength wanes. He showed examples from Packard Bell, Micron, IBM and Compaq—all companies effectively out of the personal computer industry, to make his point. Possible reason and motivations for that trend might be worth pondering for another day.

As a result of their recycling program, Goodwill has also built a small but very interesting museum, The Goodwill Computer Works Museum, chronicling some of the more important computers and personal computers as part of the birth of the industry. By volunteering at our local Goodwill, we were treated to a private tour of the museum, though you can visit the museum on your own. With no shortage of quirky and appealing attractions in Austin, this place fits right in as a "must-visit" for those that want to reminisce about old Osbornes, TRS-80s, and Nexts. Lots of geek fun.

dell goodwill

Check out more photos of the Goodwill Computer Works by Ken.

Read more of Ken Musgrave's Think.Design blog
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

Ken Musgrave has been building and leading Dell's Experience Design Competencies, including industrial design, visual identity, and usability, at Dell Inc. for the past eight years. The team now extends globally with creative professionals in Austin, Texas, Singapore, and Taiwan. For the first twenty years of Dell's history it enjoyed growth through operational efficiencies and superior cost structure. Three years ago, Dell recognized that the principles and process that got it to that point would not be the same ones that would carry it into the future. Design has been at the forefront of that cultural shift. Ken has lead the development of a design competency and design culture through that transformation—including seeing Dell move from being a U.S.-centric manufacturer of computers to being a global source for great product experiences.

At Dell Ken has lead design-centered strategies ranging from consumer personalization to enterprise experiences. Before Dell, Ken led several design leadership and corporate identity roles at Becton Dickinson, a medical technology company. While there he led a global program to redefine the company's visual, product and global corporate identities. Ken holds an MBA from the University of Utah, an MS in design from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a BS in industrial design from Auburn University.

Add New Comment


  • Bruce Miller

    For a long time, past and to come, advances in electronics form Asian and the U.S. predispose manufacturers to the cheapest possible builds - Imagine a Commodore 64 built to last a lifetime-priced the same? What would be the point? Expect massive, almost miraculous electronic innovation from the Huge Chinese and Asian intelligentsia working on this today. Expect "internal resistance " free, heating danger free,  nano carbon super capacitors to replace fire hazard Li batteries shortly, Read the specs on the Chreos car - unbelievable by American science, they respond with scepticism, even as Israel announces a 1000 km electric car up and running! Expect computer miracles beyond your wildest expectations even beyond your U.S. understandings! The 21st Century world belongs to Asia, all we in the wet can do is to stand back in awe as it unfolds before our very eyes! Pebble bed gas reactors, Thorium LFTR styled reactors, astounding "chips" even in your cell phones today, and this is but the tip of the iceberg.  

  • James Smith

    It still doesn't explain why Dell builds cheap junk to meet a price point instead of making quality products that do not have to be replaced each year.

  • $6241910

    Because could you imagine how much money would be lost if a person didnt have to buy a new computer each year?

  • James Smith

     Good one!  I like it.  I wonder how Apple is surviving, then?  I have an almost 5 y/o iMac and a G4 Powerbook even older.  Both are working perfectly and I have no need or desire to buy new ones. 

    Maybe that's why they release a new iPhone twice a year?

  • James Smith

     They may charge twice what junk builders charge, but compare them to quality PC makers such as Lenovo and Toshiba and their prices are comparable. 

    When you consider the reduced cost of ownership, cheaper of free software, fewer repairs, longer useful life, etc.  They aren't that far off from Dell and HP. 

    I do think they are plucking the chickens with the frequent iPhone upgrades, but no one is making them buy.  BTW, I don't have an iPhone or even a smartphone of any kind.  It's the "in" thing here to have them and I do know people that change at least once a year.  For me, I can't see the need.

  • $6241910

    Because Apple charges two sometimes three times the amount of a pc of the same hardware. They are still getting their money.

  • Chris H

    Good job dell. I was always sketched out by the quality because of the price, but they end up being really rock-solid machines. This is probably one of the reasons why

  • $6241910

     If you mean by "rock-solid" machine you mean sitting there like a useless rock on your desktop..

    If you are impressed with dell products, you are most likely are business customer. Dells business models and their business support it top notch. But consumers are sold self destructing trash. But thats the way it is with every manufacturer. Consumers are just the useless slaves. Sell their bosses the good stuff.