Based in Bristol (UK) and Palo Alto (US), Graphcore is a technology start-up with the ambitious mission of creating a future where machine learning improves all aspects of our everyday lives.
Pentagram partnered with design agency Map to develop the industrial design of Graphcore’s intelligent processing unit (IPU) and Rack Mount Chassis. The project was led by Pentagram, and Map creative director Jon Marshall, who subsequently joined Pentagram as a partner in April 2018.
The design language of powerful computer systems is typically anonymous, living in cold dark boxes in even colder darkened rooms. Eschewing this, the industrial design team decided to focus on a design that represents individuality, and the potential for change. They did this by bringing the Graphcore visual identity (also designed by Pentagram) to life in the physical world.
Map translated the identity’s dynamic typeface and pattern generator into a highly customisable panel system, which was brought to life through the creation of over 50 distinctive injection-moulded plastic tiles. Nine of these tiles are applied to each Graphcore IPU, allowing for more than 1000 unique combinations and providing each card with its own distinct identity.
With future products in mind, Pentagram developed a bespoke software tool, Quadtree, which extrapolates brand elements from Graphcore’s visual identity to infinitely generate patterns, layouts and colours for new tiles.
The rack-mount chassis was developed to connect 8 IPUs together in a system. The design of the front face uses patterns from the Graphcore visual identity as apertures for airflow. Graphcore’s colour palette provides multiple individual options, and the design of the airflow grid also allows clip-on branded details in contrasting colours, further personalising each chassis.
The technical challenges of developing the plastic tile system and PCIe chassis, while maintaining airflow and technical performance, required close collaboration between Map’s industrial design team and Graphcore’s technical team. This led to the development of custom sized heat sinks for the IPU chips, which allowed the team to create space for fixing the tiles and develop a chassis of the required stiffness to support the silicon chip in a stable state.
Affording this much time and care on the aesthetic of a product that largely goes unnoticed inside larger computer systems is unusual. However, Graphcore’s IPU is a unique breakthrough technology, and it is important that the launch products reflects this.
And in the sea of sleek blackness of that cold room, there’s a moment of something soft, playful and inherently human.