From healthcare and sustainability solutions, to lifestyle accessories and housewares, RKS Design has a history of solving complex and wide-reaching problems by paying close attention to user behavior and relying on a cross-discipline, multi-cultural team of experts for insight discovery. While many design firms can claim the same, or similar, qualities and achievements, RKS stands out from the crowd thanks to an uncommon vein of musical influence that shapes much of what the team accomplishes.
In addition to the work they've done with notable entertainment and audio clients like Line6, JBL and In2Technologies, the RKS team developed their own sustainable guitar and line of guitar gear. We interviewed RKS founder and CEO Ravi Sawhney to find out where this musical preoccupation comes from and what it does to further the firm.
Core77: What part do music and musical instruments play in the creative process at RKS?
Ravi Sawhney: Music is our drug of choice. As designers our creative zones are greatly influenced by the visual environment and the sounds that surround us. I found that growing up during the hippie era, I, like so many others, didn't just use music as background it was and is something we listened to, read into, believed in and connected with. As a student of design, I discovered that music could control my brain from being analytical to creative, from sketching to writing; I found the right music to make it happen. When Lance, my partner and RKS Creative Director, joined, we aligned on our love of music immediately and he introduced me to even more audiophile equipment. At the time, the studio rocked out on an NAD system with Canton speakers. It wasn't long before Lance had us listening to Linn equipment, which I still own at home, as does Lance. The studio today rocks out to JBL studio monitors we designed about four years ago. Music is always on here; in the studio, in the canteen, in the lobby and the prototype lab, and it's all different.
Ravi and the RKS team meet with Line 6 CEO, Paul Foeckler in 2012.
How has developing musical products impacted your approach to designing other, non-musical products?
When we work in the field, we observe people's rituals, their processes and their innate learned behavior (meaning muscle memory) in order to understand the user in a more in depth manner. We apply these learnings and insights into everything we design; product, experience or brand. In working with musicians and their gear, we learned that musicians have an innate ability that allows them to transcend thinking about what they're playing which allows them to fully express themselves through their instrument as an extension of their voice. The instruments they work with are time pieces that capture hundreds of years of design and craftsmanship within a single piece.
So, what's this got to do with designing wearables, an insulin pump, a garlic press, a new bicycle, etc? With each case, there are pre-learned behaviors. We all know that changing someone's behavior, or their learned motions, becomes increasingly difficult over time. This means that we have to experiment with consumers to understand their motivations and boundaries for change. The hardest part about designing new innovations and their experiences is finding the ability to motivate and inspire people to do new things. We all love new products, but what we love most, is doing something new and being successful at it. What we seek to do as designers is to expand and enhance what people love to do and take them on yet another great journey of experiences.
Rock and Hall of Famer Dave Mason and professional musician John Sanmatero with Ravi Sawhney circa 2000, reviewing the initial foam concept of a new guitar, the genesis of the RKS Guitars.
Which music oriented product are you most personally proud of? Which has been most commercially successful?
I'm most proud of our electric guitars. They've proven themselves to be highly respected instruments used on stage, in studios, everywhere. They will far outlive us and provide a design legacy rarely obtained in our field. They could potentially be the instrument that songs are created on that touch millions, if not billions of people, poetically; influencing how people think or act, as it has occurred so significantly in the past (as I remember it did during the 60s). Music is the universal language, guitars are the universal instrument.
As far as commercial success, our work for Line 6's AMPLIFi is probably the most immediately recognizable success. The AMPLIFi is a piece of completely disruptive technology that utilizes cloud technology to access musical recordings that you can either play along with or swap out the band's guitar with your own rendition. And that's just one small benefit from a suite of benefits that's rocking the guitar world (think of it as Apple meets guitar amplifiers). And its industrial design... the AMPLIFi has one foot in the look of traditional amps and the other in the future. They (Line 6) even let us strip off the typical big badge that goes on the front of all other guitar amps. These amplifiers were sold out in their first two weeks in many Guitar Center stores.
Why a sustainable guitar? Why not focus on a more likely product for sustainable development?
Music has changed the world for so many and continues to do so. It's a universal language that crosses all culture and borders. Guitars are symbolic of much more than music, they represent the ability to connect to music and the concept that someone could write a song or lay one on one of our guitars meant that our touch could reach so many people is such a positive year, Then finally, it had to be sustainable, it had to bring something to the world that would be positive and not cause a negative effect on the planet.
RKS Guitar featured on the cover of Business Week in 2005.
What was it like to work with Hall of Fame musician Dave Mason while developing the RKS guitar line?
As a designer, it's been an amazing experience to collaborate with the likes of Dave Mason. As a casual guitar player, it was devastating to see how professionals could so easily play, sing, perform and all simultaneously. Hell, I could barely squeeze out a dozen songs at the time, so after watching him, I gave up playing for a long time.
The other rather difficult side of working with Dave and others was adapting, or trying to adapt, to their rock and roll lifestyle. Luckily, they were past their drug use days but we still traveled with them, attending sound checks, hanging out before, during and after concerts on stage, back stage and as apart the audience and then joining them at the after party. I can honestly say it was both endless and exhausting. You really appreciate musicians, with all their flaws and gifted brilliance. You can also see that being a designer is somewhat similar in that we too spend endless nights trying to created many different things and for so many people. We too have to write a hit song every day for our audiences. The musicians see the similarities and how neither of us can do what the other one does. But when we come together, great things will happen.
What other products/developments have been influenced by music?
We designed for the famous brand JBL; Eons, plus DJ speakers and studio monitors and their first line of multimedia speakers. We designed speakers for Infinity, headphones and ear buds for Gamers, Music docking stations, headphones and ear buds for the female market for Vestalife and stage speakers for Gibson. Some of the most exciting work to date is still the RKS Guitar line. But today, the work for Line6 is rocking the music industry and connects so well with guitar players. D&A and products such as the Starfish floor stand are more influenced by this work than the other way around.
RKS designers brainstorming and ideation with the Line 6 team. (2012)
Lastly, has music been a great influence to Ravi in his spare time? Does he play instruments?
Guitar when I can.
Visit the Work portion of RKS's website to learn more about the products and solutions Ravi and his team bring to life thanks, in part, to their dedication to music.