Lunchboxes, pencil cases and ski boots: The unlikely inspiration behind Raspberry Pi's case designs

Designing a product that can fit in a school bag and look at home in the office or living room is no easy task, as Raspberry Pi's lead industrial designer explains.

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Some early case design concepts for the Raspberry Pi.

Image: John Cowan-Hughes / Raspberry Pi

Inspiration can come from unlikely places, though it still comes as a surprise to hear that the design of the Raspberry Pi  case was influenced by something as far removed from the world of computing as a ski boot.

"The official case lids have a hook and snap detail, which was inspired by the act of putting a ski boot into a ski," explains John Cowan-Hughes, Raspberry Pi's Industrial Design Lead. "You intuitively hook it in and then snap into place."

Cowan-Hughes has been involved with developing the design language of the Raspberry Pi since the Raspberry Pi 2, specifically the physical cases that give the boards their iconic aesthetics and keep them safe from damage.

This includes the most recent Raspberry Pi 400, which marks the biggest shift in industrial design in the board's eight-year history.

With all Raspberry Pi devices, getting the design right involves a balancing act of playfulness and sophistication, Cowan-Hughes explains: appealing to children of a school age, but equally not too toy-like.

"As well as making our products exciting and engaging for children, many people also use the Raspberry Pi as a smart home device or a home entertainment system, so our products need an aura of smartness and sophistication to sit alongside the other high-end consumer electronic products you may have in the house," he tells TechRepublic.

"We've hopefully blended all of those ingredients together to create a unique design language."

raspberry pi first case design concept

Raspberry Pi went through dozens of ideas for the design of the original case, at one point toying with the idea of making it transparent.

Image: John Cowan-Hughes / Raspberry Pi

Before it exploded into popular culture and became a beloved plaything for computer hobbyists and DIY hackers, the Raspberry Pi was intended as an accessible introduction to programming aimed at kids: similar to the BBC Micro of the 1980s.

While it has edged towards more mainstream appeal in recent years – particularly with the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, which now sports an impressive 8GB RAM – its core principles remain the same: making computing affordable, friendly, and accessible to all.

In fact, the inspiration for many of the products are simple things like kids' lunchboxes and Tupperware-style products, says Cowan-Hughes – things that are highly intuitive, understood and tap into existing behaviours that people find familiar.  

"It's all about inviting and encouraging people to interact with Pi itself, which is the most important thing," he says.

"The core design principle is around keeping the Pi itself very accessible, keeping the cases hackable and encouraging that where we can."

The likeness to lunchboxes come as a surprise at first, but once you've heard the fact, it's hard to ignore the similarities with the colorful, two-tone case of the Raspberry Pi 4 and its satisfying snap-off lid.

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Sketches of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.

Image: John Cowan-Hughes/ Raspberry Pi

Yet there was a time when things could have gone in a very different direction. "The first [case] was almost not like a case at all. We just created this simple, usable frame around the Pi so not to obstruct it, and then added clip-on panels," says Cowan-Hughes.

"Because there was nothing existing in terms of the visual language or what we wanted to do, there were about 50 ideas."

At the time, Raspberry Pi was seriously considering whether to simply make the case transparent so that the board inside was visible. "That was an idea that got quite far, but got put aside because we made it so easily openable [instead]," he adds.

"[For] the first case design, there were two others that were in the same race and they fell aside."

SEE: Inside the Raspberry Pi: The story of the $35 computer that changed the world (TechRepublic cover story PDF)   

Reluctant to hide away a good idea, Raspberry Pi has even discussed making the designs that fell away available for 3D print. "That kind of open-source thinking...I think we will do it, if we have a good design that got away we won't keep it in the cupboard somewhere, we might make it available for people to print and use themselves," says Cowan-Hughes.

The snap-off lid has remained central to each iteration of the Raspberry Pi case since the early days. Unlike typical consumer electronics, which hide away their electronics innards and attempt to keep users out, Raspberry Pi takes the opposite approach: inviting users to peek inside, tinker with the board and try to understand what makes it tick.

"Ordinarily when you design a product, especially for consumer electronics, it's intended to only ever be used in one prescribed way," Cowan-Hughes says. 

raspberry pi first case prototypes

Some more prototype cases. Raspberry Pi has considered making some of the unused designs available for 3D printing.

Image: John Cowan-Hughes / Raspberry Pi

"It's usually an inaccessible box and you keep it in that pristine fashion forever. We had to go in completely the opposite direction for this…we wanted a case that invites people inside and encourages play and adaptation. When we are considering the aesthetics and the design of the cases, I think of kids throwing them in their school bags. There's almost a school pencil case analogy: you buy a pencil case, but then you decorate or adapt it to make it your own."

Even the detailing of the cases is kept to a minimum to retain the Raspberry Pi's design. "The reason we keep lots of uninterrupted surface area that's blank is because it's evocative of being a blank canvas for your creation – a blank sheet of paper," says Cowan-Hughes.

"If we'd designed it with intricate surface decoration or it appeared too perfect, you'd be less inclined to hack and modify it and create something more with it. All of that has been carefully considered, it's been a fascinating challenge to define the design language of the official products across the range and align it to the Raspberry Pi proposition."

SEE: Raspberry Pi sales are rocketing in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak: Here's why (TechRepublic)    

Inviting users to engage with and modify the board has been key to Raspberry Pi's philosophy from the beginning, spawning a huge cult following of have-a-go hackers and programming hobbyists that have taken the Raspberry Pi to places that are largely unreachable by traditional desktop PCs.

Really, the uses of the Raspberry Pi are limited only by how far users can stretch their imagination, leading to all manner of wacky and wonderful projects from fans around the world. "We get as much pleasure out of seeing the cases become part of another creation – a robot someone's made, or going up in a weather balloon – than we do seeing it in its perfect, pristine state as a desktop computer," says Cowan-Hughes.

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The Pi 400 is a marked departure from the design of previous Raspberry Pi devices.

Image: Raspberry Pi

Of course, there is also a more serious effort to put Raspberry Pi's single-board computer to use. During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the company saw a massive uptick in people seeking out the Model B as an inexpensive means of working and studying from home after schools and workplaces were closed.

Raspberry Pi founder and co-creator, Eben Upton, had previously plugged the Pi 4 Model B as something that could quite comfortably take the place of a traditional desktop PC for work and study. This was put to the test in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, when users flocked to Raspberry Pi resellers to secure themselves a sub-$100 computer system as mainstream PC manufacturers were stripped of stock.

With the launch of the Raspberry Pi 400, the company is looking to entrench itself even more deeply in the mainstream consumer market. The 400, which offers an all-in-one desktop working solution (minus a monitor) for $100, comes at a time when consumers are increasingly thinking about how technology can best work for them in the new reality of flexible working.

It's somewhat of an odd coincidence that an idea that was conceived four years ago can be so relevant for the current times. "With COVID-19, people's need to access to technology and computing within the home has increased," says Cowan-Hughes.

"We're perfectly placed to help support this in terms of accessible space-saving design that celebrates smallness and also price point."

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the Pi 400 is inspired by the technology of the 1980s. Raspberry Pi has made no secret of the fact that its latest board pays homage to the all-in-one systems that ignited the age of home computers – and later, games consoles – when they entered our living rooms almost three decades ago.

pi4 sketching and CAD design

Cowan-Hughes is by no means the only person on the Pi design team. "The best way of looking at it is that I deal with everything that's external, and then there's the internal team," he says.

Image: John Cowan-Hughes / Raspberry Pi

"A lot of the Raspberry Pi team are kids of the 80s and 90s and had that first exposure to computers appearing in the home," says Cowan-Hughes.

"I feel very lucky myself – I remember my grandad getting a Commodore VIC-20, and having that early experience of seeing this new piece of technology and sensing it had unlimited possibilities had a big impression on me. It was probably the start of me getting into product design.

"With the Pi 400, with its accessible price point and size, it is potentially going to go to places where other computers haven't been before, in terms of kids having that early computing experience. It's exciting to think that our products could help enable experiences that might inspire a hobby for life, or put someone on a path to a future career."

SEE: Raspberry Pi stocking fillers and gift ideas for holiday 2020 (TechRepublic)

Developing the Raspberry Pi 400 was by no means a one-man job: while Cowan-Hughes led the design of the Pi 400's keyboard case, the product is the fruits of a four-year effort by multiple members of the Raspberry Pi team, including Simon Martin, who designed the electronics for the board.

"Obviously, there is a large engineering team," says Cowan-Hughes, who worked for Bristol-based design consultancy Kinneir Dufort before being brought in-house by Raspberry Pi in November this year.

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A 3D concept design of the Raspberry Pi Zero case. "There's just something about the simplicity and the proportioning of it that I just find nice," says Cowan-Hughes. "It's probably my favorite."

Image: John Cowan-Hughes / Raspberry Pi

"I work alongside the internal development team to design the product's appearance and overall user experience. We have a network of development partners such as Kinneir Dufort who assist with design and engineering and also T-Zero, who produce our injection-moulded plastics."

Most of Raspberry Pi's devices don't take four years from conception to reality, either. "[The Pi 400] was a new challenge because of the complexity of the product, and because we're furthering the reach into more consumer-friendly products like this," says Cowan-Hughes, pointing out that even the addition of a power button was something the company had not really had to consider before.

He adds: "With the official cases, we are learning how to improve them with each one we do. It's an efficient design process – but ordinarily it can be a year from first sketch through to launch. We're hopefully making each case better as we learn and refine the development process."

From the way Cowan-Hughes describes it, Raspberry Pi has a very learn-by-doing approach when it comes to design: if there is an idea the company wants to pursue, it prefers to get a physical prototype out quickly rather than spend hours obsessing over sketches and computer-generated mock-ups. 

"It's about bringing that idea to life and actually discussing whether we think it's got potential," he says.

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A 3D mockup of the Raspberry Pi Zero case.

Image: John Cowan-Hughes / Raspberry Pi

"We're very hands-on with our design process and big fans of learning through iterative prototyping. We try to make ideas physical via mock-ups or 3D prints as quickly as possible. That's how we primarily assess designs.

"Especially with things like the case opening experience and the fit of the lid, it's really important that it feels right and you can only ever assess that physically. You can't do that virtually."

So, what's next for the tiny, white and red PC that has taken the maker market by storm? For now, it's anyone's guess: the launch of the Pi 400 shows that Raspberry Pi has refined the art of throwing curveballs to its ever-growing fanbase. And luckily, its fans are always ready to pitch in with their own ideas and suggestions.

"We try to make every product perfect, but there's always more we can learn," says Cowan-Hughes.

"What's amazing is just how engaged the community are. Where they spot an improvement area they'll highlight it, and often also share a creative solution to help fix it, too. 

"You get great positive feedback, but you also get negative constructive feedback, which is vital for us to create better products."

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