The Revo Heritage in its natural setting.
As an interaction designer, I steel myself for disappointment in almost every consumer electronics product that I buy, apart from those by that company in Cupertino. Practically every device I own falls into one of two categories. Some have decent product design chops, but the interaction design feels like it was created by another department who never even bothered to chat with the design team around the water cooler. The others have interfaces that work well enough, but the device itself looks like the worst excesses of a teenage boy's doodles on the back of his schoolbook.
For a long time, I have wanted the device that does it all—docks my iPod, receives Digital Audio Broadcasts (DAB) and FM radio in addition to being Wi-Fi capable, but resisted the urge to buy yet another consumer electronics product that I was just going to end up hating. However, just before Christmas I treated myself to an early present—the Revo Heritage Radio. Quite apart from satisfying all my music needs in the kitchen (it also hooks into Last.fm), it's a beautiful piece of product design.
I'm waxing lyrical about the Revo Heritage because it was evident from the outset that an awful lot of attention to detail had gone into designing not only the device but the interface. I felt praise was due and pinged an e-mail to Heritage Managing Director, David Baxter, who mailed me back straight away saying, "Thanks for taking the time to write, it really made my day." I wanted to know more about this small company based in Scotland turning out such great products—the Heritage just won a 2010 Red Dot Product Design Award.
Revo's other products have a more obviously technological look to them, but the Heritage makes a deliberate break from this, so I was intrigued by the influences.
In a reversal of process, these early sketches were actually done after the initial computer renders in order to quickly think through variations.
"As a brand, Revo was a relatively late entrant to the DAB digital radio market, with our first product (Pico) going on sale in December 2006," says Baxter. "At that time, the market was dominated by a collection of retro-influenced radios housed in wooden cabinets. There was very little visual differentiation between brands, and in my opinion a general lack of imagination. My view was that Revo should go the other way, by producing radios with a very contemporary look and feel—anti-retro to a certain extent. Why would a retailer want to stock yet another me-too, wooden boxed retro-radio brand? We decided that design and modernity would be our point of difference. We boldly said that we'd never produce a wooden radio, and joked that we wanted to be 'more B&O than B&Q.'
"Our brand positioning and design philosophy paid dividends, and we were grateful to receive a fair degree of commercial success. Multiple iF and Red Dot Product Design awards followed, cementing our reputation as the radio choice for the design conscious consumer.
"In early 2008, we were asked if we'd like to produce some radio concepts for a large consumer electronics manufacturer; their plan was to re-launch an old European radio brand. The idea appealed, and we set about developing a number of concepts for a retro-style 'kitchen radio.' Within months, the deal had gone cold, but the process had opened my eyes to the idea that perhaps Revo could produce a retro radio that offered something new, rather than simply being a rehash of old ideas. The brief was pretty simple: Heritage should be retro-modern on the outside, but absolutely state-of-the-art on the inside. The final Heritage design was completed by the end of February of 2009, and electronic development was in full swing by mid-March."
Early Renders of the Heritage.
From an interaction and service design standpoint, the Heritage is also interesting because of the integration between those aspects and the product itself. Revo wanted to support as many relevant radio formats as possible, including a premium online digital music service "to complete the radio's 'it does it all' feature set," Baxter says. "Last.fm seemed like the perfect fit, since it's effectively a realtime 'personalised' radio station." It's also the feature I most often use at home as a turn-it-on-and-forget solution. It's like a magic radio that plays all the music I like, and if something odd comes on, I can immediately skip it.
It's clear that there has been much discussion about the integration of the screen-based interaction with the product design itself. A great example of small being beautiful, the UK side of the development team numbered only four.
Revo deliberated over 60 wood samples before finally settling on American walnut; Several of the lens option tested for Heritage's 'secret-until-lit' display.
"When designing a radio, we are often limited in what we can actually do with the on-screen operating system/user interface. This side of the equation tends to be created by one of our technology partners and is often set in stone. In the case of Heritage, the actual structure of the interface was already 80% defined, though we were able to make some modifications, supply our own custom graphics, etc. It therefore became vitally important that we got the radio's physical interface right. For example, the decision to use a joystick controller was key (a first for a digital radio). It allows the user to quickly and easily navigate the radios menus, while cutting down on the button count, and avoiding visual clutter on the radio's front panel.
"In consumer electronics terms, Revo is a tiny company, with a total staff of only 10 people. What we do have going for us is an abundance of passion and enthusiasm. We live and breath our business, put blood, sweat and tears into our products, and our independent status allows us to make decisions quickly and without our 'big ideas' being diluted by people from outside the project team. Everyone involved tends to be very hands-on," says Baxter.
The acoustic mule prototype was built to prove the acoustic capacity of the chosen cabinet size; One of three fully functional SLA models built prior to commencing plastic tooling to prove the mechanical design and further test the electronics and acoustics.
The visual effects industry has a mantra that if you can see that an effect is an effect, then it's not doing its job properly. Of course, most Jerry Bruckheimer films ignore this and end up being the film equivalent of the LED encrusted, spaceship cruiser hi-fi systems that blight the shelves of electronics stores. The sad side to this in design is that the tiny details that are sweated over often go unnoticed if they are doing their job well.
"With a product like Heritage, it's all about the detail," he says. "We took the decision to make the overly techie elements, such the joystick control and iPod/iPhone dock, as discreet as possible in order to safeguard the purity of the radio's 'old school' appearance. We wanted the OLED display to be secret-until-lit, which on the face of it sounded like an easy thing to achieve. In reality, it proved to be a real challenge. We spent weeks experimenting with lens tint levels; numerous modifications were made to the internal plastics to ensure that the OLED component sat in a recess that didn't cast any shadows or show any edges when the display was powered-on."
The physical design is publicised as being influenced by the "classic European table radio designs from the 1960s". I have Gestalten's book on Dieter Rams, Less is More, on my desk to review right now, and the Rams approach in the Heritage seems evident enough. I feel it's also a product worthy of Apple in terms of the attention to detail, even if the design aesthetic is markedly different. The mutual affection between Dieter Rams and Apple is no secret, of course.
"The work of Dieter Rams at Braun was certainly an inspiration, and, as a follower of Apple for over 20 years, the work of their industrial design group has been massively influential—there are still times when I ask myself 'what would Apple do?' We also looked at radios from old brands like Telefunken. Looking back at the 50s and early 60s, it seems to me that this was a time when radios were treasured items. A radio was a significant monetary purchase; build quality and materials still mattered before cheap plastic transistor radios commoditised the market. We wanted to created a radio that would re-capture that era."
Yet here is the difficulty and irony of such a device that has entered a highly competitive market in which there is no shortage of other DAB/Internet/iPod radios. Many consumer electronics are built to last a couple of years at the most and have the feel of being practically disposable. While I can imagine the Heritage sitting in my kitchen ten to fifteen years from now, there is a paradox in the fact that the technologies it supports—iPods, Wi-Fi, Last.fm—change rapidly. This begs the question of how to achieve a high level of build quality without making it excessively expensive and whether it will still be able to function in 20 years time.
"I'd love to say that we've developed a secret formula for producing high quality products at reasonable prices, but the truth is that Heritage is expensive to make," says Baxter. "It uses expensive electronics (the OLED display, joystick, high quality amp and digital radio chipset), expensive materials (aluminium, walnut veneer), and it's all assembled by an expensive specialist manufacturing partner. The reality is that Heritage is actually our lowest margin product, and that in an ideal world, we'd sell it at £299.95 rather than £229.95.
"Technology, particularly digital technology, is moving so quickly. Currently there is much debate in the UK about what digital radio platform will prevail. My feeling is that DAB digital radio (or the enhanced DAB+ standard) will be the dominant format in Europe, though internet radio will prove to be a popular choice with a percentage of the population. It's not ideal that the digital radio landscape is unsettled, but Heritage does cover all the various formats. I'm confident that you'll still be using it in 15 years time."
Andy Polaine is an interaction and service designer. He is a Research Fellow & Lecturer in Service Design at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland and the Editor of The Designer's Review of Books.