In a combox below, reader Foxfier's pupils dilate as she asks if I am a fan of Steampunk, since the UPC drive I featured yesterday is designed in that style.
Incidentally, Wikipedia defines steampunk as;
It says of steampunk design specifically,
Am I a fan? The answer is "Yes (and no)".
Like anything, most examples of steampunk design aren't that noteworthy, and some of it I just find ugly in a way a little more interesting than usual. On the whole, I think we have enough exposed gadgetry and mechanical crap in our lives already. Add to that the fact that most of the steampunk designs involve merely grafting onto an object gears and tubing and guages that are totally cosmetic and useless, and things can get ridiculous pretty quickly (sure, decorative elements are often non-functional, but, you know... a little moderation, please). It would be fun to own some of these things (it might feel like you were a character in a sci-fi film), but I think in many cases the fun would wear off after a while and at some point you'd basically be left with something else to drag to the curb on trash day.
There are some brilliant artistic minds working in the steampunk style and doing truly elegant and amazing things like these;
These are beautiful, functional items. I love the old-fashioned, round typewriter keys. True, this kind of aftermarket modification is not open to most people (belonging to obsessed hobbyists, professional designers and rich people, mainly), but hopefully this kind of approach might seep into some of the corporate design departments eventually. It's fun, it's beautiful... it makes the person sitting at the computer feel a little better about being human, which is what design should be about.
I heard today, though, that France is now the second leading market for McDonalds in the world, behind the U.S. How is that related? Well, the French famously loathe McDonald's. They protest and complain about how it contributes to the degeneration of French culture, but... the McDonald's burger is half the cost of a sandwich from a bistro down the street. They buy it for the same reason we buy it... cuz it's cheap. Bland and unhealthy, but cheap.
Corporate designers have surprisingly little control over the design process. It is dictated first by what is quick, easy and - above all - cheap. Budget is what drives design 99% of the time, and designers are often left with very little elbow room in which to work. Why? Because we consumers want cheap stuff, and we won't by a computer for $800 if we can find one with the same functionality for $795. Companies know this, and act accordingly.
We pretty much get what we want. We just need to learn to want something a little better.