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

Most designers’ time is focused on creation when it comes to a product’s lifecycle. But it is just as important to look at the other end of the lifecycle–the deconstruction of the very products that they create.

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

dell goodwill

In 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 goodwill

The 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
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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.

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.