For most of the 1980s and 1990s, computer cases were an off-white color people variously called cream, putty, or beige. It changed in the early 2000s, and from then onward, the most common color was black. Here’s why computer cases changed from beige to black.
Why computers were beige in the first place
Early home computers tended to be a dark beige, like a tan-gray color. This color tended to blend in well in homes. It didn’t necessarily win awards, but it didn’t clash with anything.
Early business computers were more likely to be a light beige, an off-white or cream color. This was to blend in with office equipment. File cabinets, typewriters, and other items commonly found in offices were usually this color, so IBM chose a similar color scheme so its IBM PC wouldn’t look out of place. Other computer companies followed. Home computers eventually adopted the same color scheme and styling in hopes of being taken more seriously.
Office equipment was that color because it does a good job of hiding minor dust and dirt. It can still get dirty of course, but it’s more forgiving than pure white would be.
Beige was a safe if uncreative choice. Computer companies weren’t trying to be bold in their design at that point. The idea of having a computer on your desk, dedicated just to you rather than being a multi-user system, was bold enough. The important thing was reaching critical mass to create a new market.
Once that market was well established in the late 1990s and the idea of having a computer in your home was no longer controversial, people started critiquing the design. They wanted something other than “boring beige.”
Early shifts away from beige
Steve Jobs was more outspoken about design than most. While his designs at Apple in the 1980s were all various shades of beige, after he left Apple and formed Next, his computers at his new company were black. They also tended to be non-traditional shapes that emphasized his machines weren’t constrained by the need to accommodate legacy devices like 5.25-inch disk drives.
But Jobs wasn’t the only one. Unix workstations often were bolder shapes and colors, to differentiate themselves from ordinary PCs. Silicon Graphics workstations, for example, tended to be bold colors and feature rounded shapes.
Jobs continued this when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s. That proved to be the tipping point. Apple changed its design, incorporating rounded corners, non-boxlike shapes, and translucent plastics. People either loved it or hated it. But those late 90s Apple machines weren’t beige, and sometimes weren’t boxes either. And while they weren’t cheap, middle-class families could afford them.
PC companies started copying them, and got sued for it. But those non-beige PCs did sell, which indicated the world was ready for something different from those safe but boring beige PCs that dominated the market for nearly two decades.
Why black instead of other colors?
The knock on Apple’s translucent designs was that it looked cheap. The machines were anything but cheap, so it seemed counterintuitive to pay a premium price for something that looked cheap. Apple eventually shifted to white and/or metallic designs that weren’t beige, but were also less over-the-top.
Makers of high-end PCs, looking for something other than beige, adopted black. Black made sense for several reasons. Apple wouldn’t sue you for using black, because they weren’t using it. Also, most other consumer electronics were black, and had been for a number of years. Stereos, VCRs and DVD players, televisions, and audio equipment were black. So the color made sense for computers too.
The trend started with gaming computers, but it wasn’t long before mainstream PCs were black too. By around 2005, it was more common for a PC to be black than beige. Black blends in well in the home, and in the office, it doesn’t matter as much anymore. People expect to see PCs in offices, so it’s OK if it doesn’t match the file cabinets.
And that’s why computer cases changed from beige to black.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.