Article by Mike Gallagher
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When flipping through Paul Kunkel’s Digital Dreams, the story of the Sony Design Center, there’s a guilty pleasure derived from looking at page after page of sexy Sony products. Between the glossy pages are well proportioned objects of beautiful line and grace, each photo increasing the level of techno-lust. For years the Sony corporation has been producing these objects of desire, creating products that have defined consumer electronics and consumer culture, their influence extending into the design world and the world in which we live. While the Design Center is responsible for such high visibility and influential projects, the individual creators have remained anonymous. Digital Dreams takes a look inside Sony, exposing the designers and the inner workings of the Design Center.

Digital Dreams begins with a flashback to Sony circa 1989, a time of slumping sales, stagnating design, and low morale. To change this climate of doom, the Design Center initiated a project known as "spirit". This project involved a handful of Sony's top designers whose objective was to create conceptual Sony products for inspiration and new creative direction. The results are a group of highly individual yet distinctly “Sony” products that, despite their age, still look fresh today. Each “spirit” project is presented as a flawless creation photographed in a highly seductive manner, accompanied with designer comments of concept and process.

Kunkel reviews the gamut of the Sony product family, showing the history (lineage) and examining selected products in detail. These in depth portions provide a variety of information; concepts, sketchwork, alternate versions, and project development. Insight is also added from designers discussing concepts, thought processes, problems, and humorous anecdotes, putting the project in context of a design experience.

Most revealing in Digital Dreams is how each Sony product family or product category is thought of in terms of multiple generations, using the metaphor "sunrise to sunset" to describe each generation as a "time" of day. The first generation, known as "sunrise", is the initial product that features a new technology or a distinct "breakthrough”. At this stage the product is often crude (technologically and aesthetically), due to a rush to market. Following the sunrise are subsequent product releases where both the engineering and design are refined. The product reaches "noon" when the engineering and technology are in their most efficient and functional state. The design at this point has evolved into a state of elegant and simplified being, achieving "Sonyness". This is what Sony considers a product’s high point, where "icon" status is attained. "High Noon" is not only a point of technological and design significance, but is also important from the view of the marketplace. High noon is the point where Sony begins to feel market competition from other products that have picked up on Sony's lead. In order to compete in the shrinking “afternoon” market, Sony creates numerous variations and mutations of the high noon icon. These designs address the lifestyles, personality and individuality of the consumers. This is the period known as "sunset", where the design "fireworks" occur in an explosion of colors, textures, materials, and styles. On this side of noon design is the driver, as opposed to technology in the sunrise period. Sony relies here on design for inspiration, expression, and the manufacturing of desire.

While moving through the Sony product families, Digital Dreams also covers the different dimensions of the Design Center. Kunkel touches lightly on Sony's graphic and packaging design, and deeper into web and interface design. The importance placed on web/interface design is significant because this is where Sony Design is presently concentrating great efforts. Sony foresees its future is in the digital arena and that its former analog ways are a thing of the past. Sony is currently in a period of transition, envisioning and creating the digital age. This transition involves redefining itself for a new generation of users or consumers who might be unfamiliar with Sony and its history. Digital Dreams is Sony's introduction to the twenty first century, and its blueprint for the digital future.

What Sony is dreaming of is a digitally integrated product line, with interchangeability at its heart. Sony envisions products that will work with or are compatible with each other. To make this digital convergence possible, a common digital medium is being created for use in digital products. This medium is an interchangeable memory/information storage unit to be used seamlessly between digital cameras, music players, computers and other digital products. Whether its visual, audio, or any other form of information/data, the memory storage unit seamlessly transfers data between products. These products will not be limited to what we know today as consumer electronics, but will also include new products that address the new needs of tomorrow. Sony is now developing the products that consumers might want or need in the future, given the extensive capabilities of portable digital data and the digital convergence.

The story of Sony is one that author Paul Kunkel allows to tell itself, and given Sony’s extensive catalog and influence there is much to be said. Digital Dreams provides a look at the success of Sony with beautiful pictures, pieces of interviews, and coverage of its impressive line of products. The picture Sony paints of itself is a company with integrity and innovation, which has resulted in its world leadership in electronics. This image is maintained throughout the book, with Kunkel praising Sony Design for its brilliance and beauty. Since Kunkel was approached by Sony to write Digital Dreams, criticism is kept to a minimum. Many products when "analyzed" are granted an unqualified "best" status, and Sony's unsuccessful ventures are downplayed or not even mentioned (Betamax). This is not a sober academic study of Sony, never scratching much further beneath the surface of what is seen.

Digital Dreams serves to introduce the Sony Design Center and establish its importance at the close of the analog twentieth century, and as a springboard to the digital twenty first century and Sony's future vision. The book praises Sony for its past and excites the reader for what will become of tomorrow. As a reference of Sony products Digital Dreams is invaluable in covering the Sony catalog and playing witness to its influence in shaping our lives. Worth a book in itself is the Sony never seen; the concept products, the marketing/product development, and products that never made it to market. These explorations unveil the inner workings of Sony, the Sony that has (until now) remained behind closed doors. In its exposure of Sony, Digital Dreams provides material enough for the most insatiable techno appetite.

Digital Dreams: The Work of the Sony Design Center
Paul Kunkel, Copyright 1999, Universe Publishing
ISBN 0-7893-0262-4