Silver-Painted Plastic Gadgets Must DieS

If there's one thing that makes me vomit in my mouth, it's plastic gadgets painted silver.

It's not the plastic. I like plastic fine. And although I prefer solid molded colors, painting plastic with other colors is ok, too. It's just that the overriding reason for painting a plastic device silver is to make it look like metal. Which is stupid. This needs to stop as surely as wooden panels on station wagons needed to stop 30 years ago and why tofurky is a totally unacceptable replacement for either turkey or tofu.

Silver painted gadgets started rising in prominence in the cellphone world, and 8 years ago were thought of as a premium finish to those in design circles. "Blame Motorola or Casio," say some designers I talked to about the trend. Now the "tin man" treatment is reserved for the cheapest devices while the best get done up in real metal. I'm still confused as to why this was a good idea in the first place, and why companies, even some high-end brands, still maintain the facade. (I'm totally looking at you, Pentax, Canon, Dell and Sony.)

First off, it's insulting to buyer intelligence. Are makers trying to fool us into thinking a device is aluminum or magnesium or stainless steel when its actually a light piece of bent polymer? Maybe from 10 feet away, they'd think that we couldn't tell the difference, and they'd be right. Visually. Allan Chochinov from Core77, says:

Painting plastic objects so that they appear metallic is a fudge of course—and often convincingly so. But the lie becomes apparent soon enough; at the corners or wherever there's any kind of friction, the paint wears away to reveal the true plastic.

Industrial designers talk about the virtues of an "honesty of materials" in design practice, and when that honesty is expressed in the final product it's really great—but rare. With the almost-suffocating cost constraints and real pressure to pump things out quickly, the artifice is just too irresistible.

Yes, the methods of turning a hunk of plastic into a shiny thing is getting better, so these piece-o-craps look better than ever close up. But contextually, they're not fooling anyone with half a brain. Everyone, everyone, EVERYONE knows that when they see a huge silver TV, even from 30 feet away, it's probably not made of metal but rather coated with Pantone 877c. And that overly curvy designs are likely plastic sprayed with paint. And mainstream gadgets, like PSPs and DVD players made in China, well, those things are too chintzy to ever get the full metal treatment. They're not worth their weight in metal.

Which brings us to cost. Yes, like most commercial compromises made in the world, plastic made to look like metal for the most part comes down to saving dollars in manufacturing. Cormac Eubanks, a principal engineer from Frog design told me:

As a raw material metal (aluminum or zinc alloy) is many times more expensive than the same volume of material in plastic. In processing metal, parts need to be die cast, stamped, or (if money is no object) machined. Then one needs to finish them with brushing, tumbling and/or bead blasting. Lastly metal parts need to go through a plating or anodize process to prevent corrosion and oxidation over time. All these finishing steps add considerable additional cost. Painting plastic on the other hand can be inexpensively injection molded and painted silver in large volumes in a repeatable way.

Secondly, painting polymers to look metallic is insulting to plastic, which isn't hard and cold like metal, but has its own wonderful qualities and implications. Like translucency, as shown in Zune's cornershot multilayered finish and Samsung's red-tinted LCD TV bezels. And resiliency, flexibility, strength and lightness of weight. Or if you like, some plastics can be heavy and stiff, since there are so many ways to make it. Plastic can also insulate from heat and electricity, and when it's really cold, plastic won't stick to your hand like a piece of metal does. It can also be easily shaped into radical forms without having to be moved through an extensive finishing and forming process. Those qualities are totally undersold when a machine's plastic casing is passed off as being made from metal.

Leaving material qualities behind, I'm sure there's an aesthetic appeal here, too. At least in the minds of tacky Vegas-brained marketers. And maybe at first, the appeal works on those too stupid to catch the drift that they are being had. But as anyone who's owned a silver painted device knows, within months, if not weeks of heavy use, the thin veneer soon gives way to the gray/white/black plastic underneath. Which would have been fine and beautiful in the first place, had it not been covered up. Worn out silver colored plastic is uglier than the late Tammy Faye Bakker's make-up job after a tearful sermon. The Wii in white looks just as nice as it would in aluminum, to me. And because the color is solid, it'll look good no matter how often it gets scratched.

Eubanks says that companies should be "true to the material. That means making plastic look like plastic, metal like metal and rubber like rubber. Honesty with materials means you are being honest with your customers."

I can agree with that. And look forward to the day silver-painted gadgets are no longer made.