Getting TDK as a client was like winning the lottery.
I'd like to say that design teams at Ziba form an instant emotional connection with every client we have, but that's rarely true. The process of connecting is usually complicated. We're always analyzing brands, trying to get what they're about and find the core values that will influence our designs. It's a lot of work.
But with TDK we knew right away, on a gut level. The designers on the project team grew up in the '80s and early '90s, so the name brought a flood of memories, of unwrapping a fresh cassette in front of the stereo, crafting a mixtape for some road trip, some friend, some girl. Or listening to Get the Led Out on 97.9 at 10 pm, waiting to hit record on that one song and complete the Led Zeppelin collection. We knew it was about music and sharing, and a tangible, tactile listening experience. We also knew that modern listening isn't tactile at all and that TDK has the most badass logo ever.
TDK hasn't enjoyed that kind of day-to-day cultural presence in the digital era. They made the world's best cassette tapes, but cassette tapes got replaced by CDs, CDs by DVDs and today even DVDs are fading away. To a bunch of former mixtape junkies it felt like the biggest well of untapped potential ever. Cassettes were storage media, but they were also containers that held your passion for music. If TDK wanted to move their brand forward, they needed something that brought that passion to the modern listener.
The Cost of Digital
Modern music is digital, and most of us are fine with that. It lets you grab a song from the other side of the planet in 30 seconds, and fit 10,000 of them in your pocket. Nobody really regrets that ability, but it does have its costs.
Midway through the project we spent a few weeks visiting urban male listeners in Berlin, Sydney, Tokyo, San Francisco and Manchester -- music-obsessed cities. The guys we talked to weren't necessarily musicians, but they had huge collections and loved listening to music and talking about it, more than just about anything. We called them Music Prophets.
Despite owning thousands of hours of music, Music Prophets are the first to admit they rarely sit down and really listen to it. This sense of detachment and semi-nostalgia showed up in interview after interview -- no one actually wished they lived in the '80s, but they missed the purity of experience you got out of analog. Even guys in their early 20s, too young to have recorded an actual mixtape, would talk about how unsatisfactory digital listening was.
We saw related evidence everywhere: kids on the street riding fixies, collecting vinyl, printing their own T-shirts -- doing things the hard way, because it connects them with the experience and with other people. Music used to be harder to get and harder to play, but because of that we celebrated it. We listened out loud.
Analog was great because it was social, and because you could touch it. You couldn't bundle a bunch of functions into a single screen back then, so everything was switches and knobs. You got this direct connection with the act of playing your music, whether it was carefully laying the needle on the spinning platter, or turning the weighted volume knob, or hearing the "thunk" when the tape drive engaged.
Boombox interface image: CC Flickr user Joseph Robertson
But it was also a pain. Anyone remember the confusing Tape Selector switch on your boombox? Metal II? Dolby EX? 35 different equalizer settings? As playback got more advanced there was more to control, and most analog interfaces were a complete mess. This is where the hierarchy and contextual control of digital really helps. Nearly anyone can figure out an iPod and most of the technology that connects to it.
TDK could be the first brand to bridge the gap between the good parts of analog and digital. Something warm and tactile but also precise and flexible. Over the course of our research we'd covered a whiteboard with images of analog and digital interfaces. Eventually we cleared a little space in the middle, wrote down the term "Digi-Log" and went from there.The Product Line
TDK didn't start out with a specific solution in mind, so we were free to explore just about anything audio or technology related, from gaming to soft goods to cloud storage. But the teams quickly agreed that the focus had to be music and the experience it creates. Once we had the Music Prophet as a design target and an understanding of the brand's potential, we were ready to ask the crucial question: What does this guy need from TDK?
Storage media was ruled out pretty quickly -- TDK is already a major player in the market, but in a post-analog landscape, media barely impacts the listening experience at all. The means of listening, though, had a lot of potential, especially if we could bring some of analog's passion back. Listening devices for digital music are uninspiring at best: earbuds, cheap iPod speakers with tiny drivers, cobbled together rack systems. What would TDK look like if it played the music, instead of just storing it?
So that's the direction we headed in. A line of audio electronics made for listening to music, in depth and out loud. Digi-Log became a primary design guideline, along with a need to give the music a visual presence and make sure the interactive experience had a clear hierarchy. More importantly, everyone agreed that the end result had to sound as good as it looked. This was another great thing about working with an industry icon. TDK cared as much as we did about build, quality and performance, if not more.
Turntable - Vinyl is the ultimate tactile music listening experience and its resurgence was everywhere; even Best Buy sells records now. So a USB-enabled turntable was the obvious starting point, focused on hi-fi listening rather than DJ-ing. The design guidelines demanded that listeners be able to see and touch the music as much as possible, so it features an exposed drive belt and built-in music visualizer, along with the lighted tone arm that highlights the grooves in the record.
We ended up going with one of the early sketches, depicting an outer frame wrapped around an inner body -- the metaphor for floating and protection was perfect for a turntable, and visually we loved the contrast.
Headphones - Any music lover knows that a solid pair of headphones crushes a nice pair of speakers when you're listening solo. Case in point: we tried out a pair of $600 Denons, and they were amazing. The secret? Big drivers. If you take apart cheaper headphones you'll find tiny drivers inside, even when the cans are massive. So for TDK we speced -- and got -- 45mm drivers, which is kind of amazingly huge. They sound incredible.
The rest of the design centers around the cans, and a large earpiece-mounted dial that lets you mute or adjust the volume without fumbling around in your pocket. A single sweeping arc of leather captures each of the articulated ear-muffs, with the champagne-colored dials piercing the outer surface.
Boom Boxes - Initially, we ruled this out. Boomboxes since the '80s have become sad caricatures of themselves -- today you're more likely to see one decorating a T-shirt at Urban Outfitters than blasting music on a sidewalk. Especially since the iPod came around, boomboxes have been all about "look how small we can make this," and dumbing down the design to accommodate Apple.
So instead, we asked how you make something for listening out loud, that's not necessarily a boombox? What if we made one with speakers on four sides? The Sound Cube was the first of the speaker systems to get fleshed out. The design takes advantage of passive resonance to get 360° sound out of just two drivers, so you can drop it in the middle of the room and get an instant party -- with no dead spots.
Something was missing though. One thing that made boomboxes great was their audacity -- they were almost offensively big and loud, and the Sound Cube was a little too appropriate. We knew that people would shout "retro!" as soon as they saw a classic boombox format, but we figured it was worth it, especially if it respected both the brand and the Music Prophet.
Building a 2011 Boombox
What followed was probably the coolest piece of secondary research we've ever done. The boombox might be the 20th century's best example of an object shaping popular culture, from the rise of hip hop and punk to John Cusak using one to serenade Ione Skye. And if the rise of the boombox is a strong lesson, its fall is even clearer: first came the Walkman, driving music inward, and then came the MP3, killing social listening for good. At some point, listening out loud in public became a crime, on par with smoking and littering. Earbuds convinced us that it was impolite, and we retreated to our cars and living rooms to let loose.
The first question was, how big should it be? Our first volume study was intended to find that line of acceptability, and then go way past it. We knew the first white foam model was big enough when all the Europeans in our office started complaining -- they really thought the size was offensive. We debated shrinking it by 20% or so, but by this time we'd gotten so into the attitude of the boombox that the consensus was "if anyone asks us to make it smaller again, we'll make it bigger."
Then we had to figure out how to divide up this huge volume. It's a boombox so it's got to have massive sound, and that sparked a discussion that ended in a decision to have three drivers (why three? because it's bigger than two). We did eventually do a two-speaker version as well, with a carry strap. Internally, we called it the "Euro."
Old school boomboxes generally had two mid-range drivers plus separate horns. When you included all the necessary knobs, switches, lights, they got very busy. A lot of what we think of as the "retro" look is a result of this clutter. By using digital controls that weren't available in the old days, we could calm the face down, giving us a modern icon based on a classic format.
The Interaction Design team was in on this project from early on, working closely with ID to prototype visualizers and EQ adjustments, with interactive demos based on product renderings. This led us to a nicely balanced interface, with digital and analog each doing what they do best: one knob for on and volume; another for tuning, EQ and track selection; touch-sensitive controls and an OLED display for everything else. The demos helped insure that these products would steer clear of "plug and play" factory user interfaces.
With the full line established, we could refine each product more or less in parallel. This was critical to establish a unique design language that TDK could use to inform future product development.
Each product started off as pure monolithic geometry -- a pure cylinder for the headphones, a rounded cube or rectangle (like a cassette tape) for the others. From there the layout became a formal exercise in orthographic design. Each product established its own grid, which we would carefully pierce or add onto until we had something both elegant and badass.
All the products are surrounded by some sort of frame. On the boomboxes this becomes an integrated handle that's sturdy enough to sit on; for the turntable it was a cast aluminum protective chassis; for the headphones it's the sweeping arc of the leather band.
The sense of craft and precision that's always been crucial to TDK's identity shows up in the materials, finishes and signature elements. All the things you see up close or lay your hands on are part of this: beveled edges on the aluminum knobs, precisely intersected light pipes, a notch in the aluminum bar to create a handle, the cone tips of the turntable feet and the lighted tone arm.
Materials are real and honest, from aluminum bar stock in the handles to CNC-cut acrylic face plates and stitched leather in the carry straps. The color palette holds closely to the iconic black and charcoal TDK cassette tape with its copper pin stripe. Warm blacks contrast with cool high-gloss acrylic, punctuated by champagne-colored knobs and details.
In the end, the line wins because it's a perfect expression of the initial vision. The difference between the cosmetic models and the final products is practically zero, which is nearly unheard of in mass market electronics, and more than we could have hoped for. That purity is a testament to the passion the design team had for the project, but even more to TDK's incredible willingness to make it real.