On a cold sunny day in January, I make my way to the south of Cologne to visit Andre Poulheim and Thorsten Frackenpohl in their studio.
I have come to sneak a peek at the studio's latest project, the BeoSound Moment for Bang & Olufsen (which was launched at CES last month), and to learn more about the processes behind the studio's services, defined as 'Design driven product innovation' on the company website.
The rooms are a bright and lofty affair, steal beams and arched ceilings reminiscent of the building's industrial past as a shoe factory. The team buzzes through in the main room, which has conference rooms, a workshop, kitchen and 3D printer room grouped around it. A friendly, albeit slightly neurotic, dog named Femi makes the studio complete.
First things first: I get to play around with their latest toy. The BeoSound Moment is a music system that integrates the user's music and streaming devices into one wireless interface. And... it has a wooden touch interface!
The sleek oak surface is completely bare except for a B&O logo on the left, and a smoothly milled ring-shaped indentation on the right. The ring is the interface for the most common interactions: it lets the user control power and volume, and skip songs backward and forward—meaning no buttons, sliders or flashy screens would disturb a B&O styled home.
For more in-depth interaction, the tablet can be turned around to a combination of a screen interface with an aluminum version of the ring, where all the other functionalities are accessible. However, a mood-based software on the inside promises to get to know the user over time and reduce the need for interaction to a minimum by always providing the right tunes at the right time.
I am keen to find out more about the studio's way of working, and am introduced to the team, shown former projects while the team explains what's behind what they call the 'LEAD' process.
Apart from the two founders, the team is made up of three designers, administration, and an ever extending network of freelance collaborators ranging from service designers to graphic designers and brand specialists.
On an award-clad (red dot, iF, good design, universal design) wall, shelves showcase completed projects including an exoskeleton for a robot in collaboration with Bayer MaterialScience, avalanche shovels for Ortovox, and the socially sustainable Webbox for Vodafone's emerging markets. I spot the much-celebrated inflatable tent Cave for Heimplanet, which they kindly inflate for me on the terrace. Bucky Fuller would have loved it.
"We strive to design the future" Thorsten explains with a grin. "Design driven product innovation means concentrating on products that are truly new and give the client a competitive advantage. The LEAD process stands for the steps we have developed to achieve that: Learn, Evaluate, Activate, Develop."
"Before we design anything, we need to get to know the user. The user's daily routines should always have an impact on decisions for the design of the product, but also on strategic decisions for a product portfolio", says Thorsten. He shows me through their research cabinet and opens some boxes with delicate contents. For a project revolving around innovation in sex toys, they prepared toolkits for the (anonymous) testers containing detailed logbooks with photos and charts for evaluating different toys and lubes. Talk about an intimate relationship with the user.
Andre shows me some prototypes for an avalanche rescue device: "This is probably the most classic design phase of our process, where we do extensive prototyping for both the whole product architecture, and individual components."
Thorsten, who is about to get on a flight to China to supervise the application of some new materials for a client, explains why the last step of the design process is just as important as the others: "Technical requirements have to be fulfilled, but we also need to make sure the design details are executed accurately on an industrial scale".
The studio is currently working on extending their service portfolio to an even more holistic process, by emphasizing the research aspect on one hand, and expanding to simultaneous in-house user experience design on the other. "We have a product design background, but we believe expanding the product development process on all sides, and even into business segment development is the natural next step."
And... does it work for a small design studio to try and meddle in end-to-end processes of their clients?
"Absolutely. In the end, letting design be an integral part of a company structure simply makes better products."
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