Applying Lessons from the Past to Today

Commodore 64 Design Process

Creating revolutionary prototypes is nothing new in any industry. After all, someone needs to think up the next big thing, go through the process of creating prototypes, and then refine the design into a viable product. Because of this, lessons learned in the past can be applied to creating prototypes and engineered designs today.

One such successful design story is that of the Commodore 64. While the chips used in the computer were developed in 1981, the Commodore 64 itself wouldn’t see creation until 1982. The chip design team managed to shave down the design time to less than nine months due to using in-house, integrated-circuit-fabrication facilities for their prototyping and designing. Five prototypes for the Winter Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas were quickly developed in a time frame of less than five weeks.

Initially, the decision to produce chips for a video game was made by assessing the current market and predicting what other companies would be producing in the future. This allowed developers to get ahead of the game, in a sense, and provided a clear idea of what to shoot for - a useful product and market prediction tool used yet today.

Additionally, the developers incorporated elements from other companies that proved successful alongside aspects they wanted to see in their own product. They broke these aspects down into the categories of “must have” and “would be nice to have” in a clear design hierarchy early in the development process. This allowed the team to easily determine what aspects to focus on rather than trying to cram everything they wanted into the new chips immediately. 

By using in-house chip manufacturing capabilities, developers were able to individually test parts of the chips. This allowed for debugging individual circuits by simply lifting the component out of the chip without effecting the other circuitry. This provided a typical fabrication time of a few weeks and, in emergencies, four days. Rapid prototyping allows for testing and refining designs efficiently. The more iterations of a prototype that can be produced in the time allotted, the better the final design will be.

A flexible budget allowed for development costs to be absorbed by the company overhead, with no markup needed as the chips were produced in-house. Time became more of a premium than the materials due to using existing product lines and personnel. This prompted steps in streamlining the development process and the layout of the chips. By using a modular design, existing production facilities, and parts such as existing VIC-20 cases and circuit board sizes, developers were able to reduce design time considerably. 

It should be noted that, like the Commodore 64 design team, today's developers need to be willing to make changes and adjustments on the fly. Even after production started on the C-64, the design team had to work through a number of fixes for issues that came up due to the rush to get the system to market. These ranged from production issues with overseas plants, to technical glitches. Being able to rapidly address issues on the fly is a huge asset in design and prototyping.

While having a plan and a goal is of key importance to design and prototyping, freedom to design is also important. The Commodore 64 design team was autonomous, meaning they did their own market research, developed specifications on their own, and handled the project right up until production. With this freedom, they were able to produce designs and prototypes quickly, creating something unique, rather than being tied down to decisions made by marketing.

Looking back at the Commodore 64 and other projects gives us a key insight into what design processes and methods work best. These lessons can help make the process of developing designs and prototypes more efficient and cost effective, while avoiding some of the mistakes made by those who came before. Design Department incorporates lessons learned via past design successes when developing new prototypes or designs for our clients. For an example of some of our work, take a look at our portfolio!

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