Agfamatic 2000 Pocket. Interview with Designer Julian Schlagheck

Agfamatic 2000 Pocket. Interview with Designer Julian Schlagheck

(In German language. Click “CC” for Germanc transcript and English translation).

HS: What are we talking about today?

JS: We are talking about the Pocket-Family of Cameras that were designed and launched in the 1970s. Originally, the Pocket concept was developed by Kodak. In 1972 Kodak launched it, I think it was called Instamatic. Just as the Agfamatic Pocket 2000, it was a camera that used an open and slide mechanism. Back then this was exciting, because it was a simple method for the transportation of the film, it was a very simple solution that could be economically realized. Agfa, the company, jumped that train, but with its huge team of engineers it was able to pursue its own way.

They developed the basic principle further and created this very famous “Ritsch-Ratsch-Klick” principle, which is characteristic for the whole Pocket family except the later Pocket families of the late 1970s that were controlled by electric motor. The beautiful thing about the Pocket camera, the very simple, classic camera is the “Ritsch-Ratsch” technology. By the means of very simple mechanics you transport the film and cock the shutter, which then can be released perfectly. The Sensor button was part of the Agfamatic Pocket from the start.

The Agfa Sensor button has an interesting past history. The engineers had the idea to enable a vibration-free trigger, er, which was realized via a 16 mm diameter and the delicate tension of a die-cast part that made it possible to take a photo by pressing the release button very gently without causing any vibration. The previous generations of the camera had a classic mechanical shutter release that was prone to shake and consequently blurred photos.

The Pocket camera has a particularly attractive attribute in my point of view, and that’s the intuitive operation of the camera. You didn’t have to read detailed operating instructions, because the camera is intuitively comprehensible, even today. When I give it to someone, they will easily find their way around, maybe not the very young, they might search for a display, or a touchscreen, this camera doesn’t have that, here, there’s just a simple symbol for bad weather and another one for good weather. It’s not very demanding, but totally sufficient.

At the time, there was a trend in the photo industry towards fine grain film and paper and that’s why one thought that the negatives could be even smaller and smaller. So, there was an obvious trend to miniaturize the cameras, to be able to put them into the pocket of a jacket. And that’s what the Pocket was able to provide perfectly, er, that’s the case with the film, too, of course. The classic Color Negativ 200 Tiger film was a really simple cartridge, which with this technology had a complete, proper casing, and that’s why one no longer hat the problem of having to pull the film, and precisely attach it to the film spool of the camera. Instead, it was actually a true Plug-and-play-solution of the 1970s. It was easily possible to open the packaging to remove the film, without the risk of accidentally exposing the film, without complicated handling. Here, ergonomics was really taken care of. With a simple slider, one could open the camera, insert the film and then close the camera again. That was really a little revolution and highly appreciated by the customers, that there was no complicated inserting of the film any more. That means the camera was also very popular among the youths, a popular gift for children and teenagers as first camera, because it was so easy and intuitive to use.

Er, In addition, it was very interesting that back then, complete sets were created. In contrast to today, where we Industrial Designers develop products that then are marketed by some advertising agency the great thing here was that the designers and the advertising people worked together and developed product bundles together. They said, hey, it would be great to create a set, so the customers see what kind of film is suitable, there’s the right accessories, first of all, I’ve got a hand strap. Back then, there was an interesting study with young people, and they wanted to get away from the classic photo bag of their grandpa. Then there was this development with this beautiful strap, and there were also some packages, some sets, which were developed especially for teenagers, in the 1970s, I think they were called Teen 70. Again, this was a bundle that included film, accessories, bags, all in one, something that you don’t get nowadays anymore. Today, there’s a product and then a huge market for accessories, where I have to buy all individual accessories things myself.

HS: The Agfamatic was a huge success. What’s the reason for the success? Er, is it the fact that the whole package was perfectly attuned, was it the sensor, was it the sound, that “Ritsch-Ratsch-Klick”, the advertising, why was the Agfamatic so successful, in your opinion?

I think it’s a lot of things that come together here. On the one hand, it’s that fact that the camera was an intuitive experience. It was a very basic photographing. It’s a little bit like today, with our smartphones, turn it on, trigger, done. The automatic takes care of the rest. Back then, this wasn’t that natural. There were version of the Pocket such as this here, later generations, they had a function wheel that required further technical expertise, but even that was still quite simple. There’s the focal length, the focus distance, I can set macro mode, er, the bad weather setting wasn’t a separate button anymore, instead I had to read a little bit in the user manual, but all in all, it was super easy to learn and experience.

Furthermore, the cameras were very robust. Apart from having passed any fall tests Agfa executed then, the ingenious thing was that the lens and the viewfinder were protected in a simple, unpretentious way, I could push the parts together, fasten it, and put it back in my pocket. That also means that it was portable without any problem. The camera was handy, was nice to hold in the hand, and what was special, for that time the design of the camera was very, very modern although it had a timeless character. It was simply a product that met the Zeitgeist back then. If you had an Agfa camera, you held something truly modern in your hand. That’s a great story, and I think that’s a great feature, a lot of companies spend an insane amount of money to achieve something similar. Here’s an outstanding Corporate Design, Agfa cameras were immediately recognizable by everyone.

This was of course also achieved by the integration of the sensor, the sensor actually became the CI symbol for Agfa in general, even more than the rhombus that was applied here still quite subtle. The look and feel of classical black casing that was generally used back then in combination with this silver look was something exceptional. The camera is still completely made of plastic, in part also chrome-plated, that is, galvanically treated plastic parts. In the 1970s, this was also something special and extraordinary.

Another thing we didn’t discuss yet are the flash cubes that were very easy to adapt. Back then, there were the classical
plug-in systems that I had to plug into my camera to have a flashlight for indoors. This here was straightforward, and the kids appreciated this very much. Such a small flash cube was a bit weird, of course, this small cube, had just four flashes, before you had to change to a new one, but that was state of the art at that time.

So, it was a well-made product, regarding design, the sets, the ergonomics, and the cost. Agfa had the production costs well under control, later generations that had metal casings, this one, for example, was complete metal, an aluminum die cast part, and the cameras became quite expensive then, and that was the problem in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the Japanese launched photo cameras that cost just a third of that of an Agfa camera. That was a fact, sadly, in that case, the Germans missed the trend. But the reputation never suffered, the Pocket cameras were used partly until the 1990s, because the people simply loved them. Many people still remember the typical Ritsch-Ratsch-Klick sound of the camera, which also became the nickname of the Pocket cameras, the Ritsch-Ratsch-Klick cameras. Well, it was simply a well-done product and an outstanding success for Agfa.

HS: You told me that your father had a discussion regarding the red color of the sensor, right?

JS: Right, the red button, there’s a funny story. Well, the camera was designed by Mr. Schultes and my father, Professor Schlagheck, my father being rather responsible for the moving image sector at Schlagheck Schultes Design, that is, the Super 8 cameras, whereas Mr. Schultes was mainly responsible for the photo cameras, although design, in the end, is always teamwork and never just one person. So, the original designers of the whole Pocket family are Mr. Schultes and my father, Professor Norbert Schlagheck. As I said before, the red sensor has a nice pre-history. Agfa was very proud that they had the red sensor, because it became the brand recognition for Agfa, but it took some doing. I still remember, my father once told me that in some presentation a camera flew through the room, er, because the Agfa board couldn’t be brought to approve the red button. They just didn’t understand why it was so important to us designers. They understood why the technicians wanted it, because it made the shake-reducing trigger possible, but they didn’t get it, why the designers wanted it to be so dominant, with a special chrome ring and a big red surface. Well, a little smaller would have been okay, too. That was a nice pre-history. Later, they all were happy that we designers pushed it through.

There’s also to add that in those days, in contrast to product development today, all of the involved departments worked together and came to a decision. These were the marketing people, the sales people, as well as the engineers and the designers, and they very intensely discussed the advantages and the disadvantages of the different solutions. It was discussed very intensely how costs could be reduced, and what else, could be optimized, how certain details had to look like in order to make service and repair tasks easy. I mean, back then, cameras were repaired not just simply thrown away. And, this was also unusual, we sat together with the ad agencies. I still remember, we have… Agfa did a lot together with Schlagheck Schultes Design and also Mendell und Oberer, different topics, but also with other advertising agencies, with in-house departments, too, there was a lively conversation and discussion about what is great about the product, told that the ad agencies, which took the suggestions of the designers and developed them further, and this is what we miss today, it’s not existing anymore in the typical process of industrial design. In most cases, the product is being finalized by the designer, and then the designer doesn’t see it again and only later he gets to know that ad agency XY worked on it and did something, without knowing all the background thoughts of the designers, without adopting the designers’ basic thoughts or just taking some inspiration from them. That exactly was very important, so many things were discussed in these large circles, everyone could learn a lot from these discussions, like, we could promote this feature or that theme. Today, this is not the case anymore, well, it’s another world.

HS: What fascinates me about the camera, is that on eBay the camera, and other, let’s say, icons of design, experience a growing demand and the prices go up, and I ask myself, what’s the reason for this? An explanation could be the haptic quality that the camera provides, and… er… a rather sensual experience, much more than the modern smartphones, which are used to take photos today. Maybe that’s the explanation for the popularity of the old camera. Of course, one is tempted to glorify the past, and many have similar memories, the Pocket was the first camera that I’ve got as a present, so many things are idealized, but on the other hand, that Ritsch-Ratsch-Klick, has an incredible charm, right?

JS: Yes, I just wanted to say, it’s a haptic experience and acoustic experience. It’s funny that all the digital devices, the smartphones, when you take a photo, you hear the old mechanical shutter sound although there is no traditional shutter anymore, that means something gets imitated that isn’t here anymore. I think it’s this all around experience, as you said.

When I… here this beautiful sound, it’s mechanical, a bit rough, but I realize, I’m doing something. Today, when you sit in a car… Sometimes, I enjoy using the good old window crank handle, instead of just pressing a button. It’s really a totally different experience, also a visual experience. It’s a beautiful thing to have a viewfinder. I’m looking through a picture, I see my picture, I have to search for the picture, there’s a frame that shows me, that’s this format, and that’s that format. It’s simply a different, haptic, visual, and acoustic experience, which today’s products don’t offer anymore. And, one has to say, the weight alone conveys much more, value, as a product that I buy today. It’s nice to hold in the hand.

In this sense one can say that we were ahead of our time, er, when we have a look in our cabinet later, with the cameras, with same samples from the past, there are a lot of things that we could still sell today, they would be popular today, too. The design vocabulary, is a timeless design vocabulary, which is still up to date.

HS: Sometimes I ask myself, er… today it’s not easy for designers, for example smartphones. People expect the next revolution from Apple something radically new, but how could that look like? It’s difficult, sure they could add some red button here, but it wouldn’t have a function. So they could apply some styling, but the real function, is very reduced, minimalistic. They could paint it green or blue or brown, but in the end, the function, or it’s visualization, disappears more and more, you just have a bar, sure, you can make it curved, whether it makes sense or not, you can, I don’t know what, but there’s not so many sensible possibilities. So, sometimes I think the visualization of functionality disappears, and the designers have to think about, how can I still incorporate it, for example the shutter sound, as you said, it’s completely artifical.

JS: Right, right, I can… For Bayer Diagnostics we designed blood glucose meters. The handling was done via a display and a few knobs. I’ve had a look at the user manual and I read: push the button two seconds, then you reach this mode, push it four seconds, the you reach that mode, push it six seconds, then… What an insanity! Our designers and engineers back then didn’t make this mistake, it was obvious how to use the product. There were not many options. As I said, here’s my bad weather and here’s my good weather button. That’s plain! I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to look it up, or search in any sub menus or click any help buttons, in order to get along. We mustn’t sugercoat everything, of course, er, today, we have totally different, possibilities with the digital technology, there’s an immense amount of different systems, digital storage technologies, different cables, etc., but all this is not the case here. There wasn’t the question, does it have the newest Firewire or USB connector or whatever. It was an analog device and in this respect, I believe, what you said, what is so fascinating about these devices it’s the simplicity of the analog technology that by the way had an exceptional standard regarding quality

Many of the young people don’t know what great quality and also inexpensive quality classic silver halide film had. You don’t get that of the quality anymore today. Then, the storage medium: When I save digital photo data: how long is it possible to view it? When do I have to transfer it to another storage medium in order to avoid seeing just pixels one day? These are questions that don’t exist here, even classic photo prints last decades and don’t fade away. Often if you have a look at old photo albums you are fascinated by the quality of the photo prints or of the Super-8 film of your grandfather or father that you found in the basement and that has still great reproduction quality. So, there are a lot of factors that the people weren’t aware of, back then, because the digital age wasn’t there yet, but regarding the whole impression the whole usability, it was very convincing regarding, the quality of the design.

HS: I think both the designers, the designers definitively, but also the managers, that they slowly understand, that certain things were quite good, back then. Nikon, for example, launched at camera that features classic operating elements, in spite of being a digital camera. Sure, it’s rather for the enthusiast, it’s not a smartphone, of course, it would make sense there, but I think that there’s a change of thinking that acknowledges the good things of the past and that we can learn from it. Because, many photo enthusiasts are really upset, and I understand it, that they have to find their way through endless sub menus, to just change the aperture, for example. Such things are really annoying, like, what I always hated is car radios with buttons for the volume, because I’m much faster with a, real knob for the volume. Sometimes, the mechanical solution is better, even if it’s controlled electronically, but the operation via display is sometimes worse than via real switch or controller.

JS: That’s absolutely right, the haptic is making a comeback, the customer wants that, er… it was interesting to see, as the digital cameras arrived, there wasn’t a viewfinder, for a long time, but now, viewfinders are coming back, as people realize that it’s a different experience, if I’m looking through a viewfinder and looking for my image, instead of looking at a display and can’t see anything because the sun is shining on it. The whole handling is completely different. And there’s a trend back to the traditional thing.

I have a client… Recently, I sat in a Tesla, and on the one hand, I was excited, because the Tesla has a pure interface control, complete, it had its charm, it was really witty, I was fascinated by thrilled by the possibilities and played around, great, but you are right, certain basic tasks, like turning on the radio or increasing the volume, that’s much faster done with a real button that I can press and turn. Sure, with a display, I can touch it, touch the radio symbol, and then another symbol, and finally I can adjust the volume, there I can do it blindly, here, I have to look at it, and I don’t have…

I just remember, we are doing a lot of products for BMW in the interior sector, there a lot of work is dedicated to what is the look and feel of a turning knob, how does it feel, how do I turn it, what kind of feedback do I get, how smooth is it. These are qualities that these products still had, but that you find not often nowadays. The car companies work a lot on, I don’t know, what is the sound of the door, when I close it, does it sound thin and cheap or is it a full sound, which in turn stands for quality. The products back then had that definitely. Many products don’t have that quality anymore, and as you said, there’s definitively a trend that tries to combine these worlds, er, in any case, there’s huge potential to do a lot via interface, via touch based interface, but as well as via direct access by the means of classic analog, haptic control elements.

HS: It’s funny that you mention Tesla, because I had a similar experience. It’s a great concept. I had a look at the chassis with the batteries in the floor of the car and if you look at how little space the engine requires, this is a liberating concept, there’s much more space for the passengers and the bags, or whatever you’ve got to carry. But what I also didn’t like that much is the interior, the enormous display is impressive, sure, but on the other hand, for me it had a rather cheap look and feel. Displays are not that special anymore, and I also didn’t like the graphics. If you look back, even a cheap classic car conveys more quality and sensible experience. As you said, to combine this, in a car like the Tesla, no problem with the huge display, but to combine it with other elements that have this haptic feeling, that would be great, because, these companies, they go to great lengths, regarding design, color, etc. as they want to bring across emotions, and then, I think it’s short sighted to stop, when it comes to the control elements, the parts of the car that you touch and use constantly, and says, ok, it’s enough to add a huge display or a leather steering wheel. So, I think the designers should work on this, to achieve a better solution.

JS: That will happen, I’ve got some projects, unfortunately I can’t tell you details but you are absolutely right, something is going to happen in this regard. There’s also this overdose of graphical stimulus, the visual noise, of the graphical interface of the display that I didn’t like with the Tesla. To be sure, it was impressive, there’s this translucent car on the display and it shows where the power flows, but I don’t want to see that, actually, when I just want to turn up the volume. So there’s too much visual excitement, thousands of impressions, and we, the designers realize that there’s a trend, a recollection, towards simplicity, simple forms, in contrast to excessive complexity that no one wants in this field. And I think that this is really very important and that this will be happening.

Who is not swearing, when he tries to, I don’t know, connect his new Blue-ray recorder with the TV set and the user manual suggests 15 ways to connect the two devices. This actually happened to me lately. Optical cable, or this or that connection… it’s a horror, where we the designers unfortunately have only limited voice, especially in the IT sector. Er, one has to say that this is definitively the reason why Apple has been such a success, Apple is simple plug-and-play. I buy Apple products and they have just worked. I was very upset when the newest generation got a new connector again because it’s a cut and suddenly the consistency is missing again.

In any case, Agfa got it right back then. It was what we today call real plug-and-play. Everything worked harmoniously. There were the sets, which were tuned to work together, everything was simple, that was the case with the Agfa Family, too. The Agfa Family was one of the most successful products regarding the design, at least it was chosen for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, because the camera beautifully symbolized the classic film roll. With this camera it was possible to take a photo or to film. The Family was complemented by a projector with a little TV screen that you could attach. And when you inserted the Super 8 film it stopped while taking a photo and continued running afterwards. A great product. As you see, there are no unneeded controls. Here there’s the slot of the Super 8 film, here you could attach a light and then there’s film and that’s it. There’s another control element here, and that’s it!

It was a complete plug-and-play system, a complete set, if bought, and I had no problems. Here you can see what I tried to say, the timeless design that the Agfa products of that time had. It’s a device that a lot of people ask me about and everyone is excited about how beautiful and simple it is. It’s a camera, which you could still sell today.

We were just talking about the possibilities to transfer the design or the design approach of back then into the present day, and here we have the old Agfamatic 100, which was characterized by this Aluminum frame, something that a lot of today’s cameras have, it’s like a thick iPhone with a good looking stripe and a black front and back, with details, and with our sensor, of course. We said to ourselves, hey, how can we transfer this simplicity, this look and feel to a current design, and began doing a design study and brought this simplicity and timeless elegance of this camera to a new generation that basically uses the same design elements. There’s the metal ribbon, the red sensor, and at the back a large display. Okay, there’s no viewfinder, but, as I said it was just a quick design study, but it’s a design that is well received by all our clients.

We also tried, we thought about bringing, the Pocket feeling back and we played around a little bit and developed a version, you see, we have picked up this silver color element and created a study and as you see, the design, the look and feel, I can transfer it easily to new designs. In fact, it works perfectly, we played with it and played with this element, facing upwards, facing downwards… It was a great experience.

This is a nice product, too, you see, with the ad agencies… it was Mikroflex back then, just the color scheme, the packaging, back then it was much put much more emphasize on the cameras being great gifts. Nowadays… sure, when you buy a Canon, or a Samsung or whatever, they have a nice packaging, too, but something like this, you don’t get anymore. This is a classic bundle, a comprehensive package and design.

Leave a Reply