Message to all CE Manufacturers: Ditch the Gloss Black Finish

I received a radio here at the office lately that had a pair of white gloves packaged alongside it. Butler-style, valet-style, Michael-Jackson-style gloves… explicitly to handle the radio.

“Please unpack your cubo elements with the gloves provided…” the manual instructed.

It wasn’t studded in diamonds, exceptionally delicate, or even slippery. It was just gloss black. And the surface collected fingerprints like a murder weapon on CSI, thus the point of the gloves.

I actually give the manufacturer, Sonoro, credit for acknowledging the picky surface and including the gloves, but unfortunately, the trend extends far beyond the company’s luxury radios (which actually deserve star treatment). That shiny Obsidian-black look has managed to lacquer up just about every item in consumer electronics. From laptops to smart phones, headphones to MP3 players, GPS units to keyboards, I see this glossy black plastic on half the boxes I open here. Everyone wants that sexy, nothing-but-reflections look.

Unfortunately, these items usually go back in the box looking like they were handled by Mike Rowe after dredging a grease trap on Dirty Jobs, because the surface is frighteningly, maddeningly, painfully impossible to keep clean. Besides the usual fingerprints, the surface collects smudges, micro scratches, and if you don’t clean it for more than a day or two, a healthy blanket of dust to top it all off.

When did this become an acceptable way to design products people are supposed to actually touch and use? I realize the surface looks exceptionally swank in press photos, on roped-off mantels at expos, and in the homes of the people who walk around wearing white gloves all the time, but for the rest of us, it quickly turns into a mottled record book of every person and thing that has ever touched it. You might as well let a group of third-graders finger paint on the final finish.

Even worse, many of the products that seem to go for the opal mirror effect have quality on par with toys you can buy out of a gumball machine, ruining the illusion of quality entirely. That defeats the point. Once upon a time, artisans hand-applied layers and layers of black lacquer paint with hours of wet-sanding in between to produce this sort of finish for the likes of pianos, furniture, and other quality items. Now, it’s practically a checkbox on injection molding machines.

I love the look of gloss black when it’s clean. Everyone does – hence the popularity. It just needs to be applied sparingly, and to products that aren’t going to see a lot of manhandling. To clear things up for fledgling industrial designers, I’ve created these lists of things that are and aren’t OK to use this finish on.

OK: Cars, motorcycles, pianos, museum pieces, boxes containing priceless jewels

Not OK: Remote controls, phones, keyboards, mice, notebook lids, shovel handles

Am I making sense?

I’m not calling for a return to the days of PCs cloaked in various shades of grey and beige, but I think there are a lot of other attractive, and more practical options. Look at what Apple has done with the frosted silver finish on its notebooks, or a ThinkPad’s seductive-yet-durable matte black finish. Even leather (sorry Greenpeace) works well in the right places. A little R&D into new materials wouldn’t hurt, either, for companies that really want to set their products apart.
I hope that with time, manufacturers finally let this gloss black trend pass and move onto more practical and less maintenance-intense finishes. Until then, I’m going to see how long we can hang onto these white gloves.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.