There is a shift taking place in consumer electronics. Products that were once bought primarily for their functional capabilities are now being chosen to express the buyer’s identity and personal style. From mobile phones and laptops to digital cameras and audio equipment, these products have become essential fashion accessories for many consumers. So, it makes perfect sense for a fashion label to step out from its traditional realm of clothing and embrace the world of industrial design with its own brand electronic products.
The word on the Street
Street Fashion brand WeSC (WeAretheSuperlativeConspiracy) was founded in Stockholm in 1999 and the label is now deeply rooted in skateboarding and snowboarding culture. Although it has dabbled in own label headphones in the past, which mostly involved customising colours and patterns for standard off the shelf models, WeSC’s collaboration with Stockholm-based industrial design agency Norra Norr resulted in the company’s first exclusive range of headphones – Pick-Up and Maraca.
Where fashion meets Industrial design
When Marcus Rudbäck, Andreas Enqvist and Erik Petersen set up Norra Norr in 2007, they specifically wanted to use their joint expertise to push the boundaries of industrial design and make it more “in tune with the pulse of our generation.” For them this meant straddling the disciplines of industrial design and fashion. So, the trio went about creating a list of fashion brands they wanted to work with in the future, with WeSC being one of them.
“We really liked their punk attitude of ‘we do what we want to do’. We gave them a call and by pure luck they were looking for designers who could help them with the design for some new headphones. They met a couple of other companies but decided to go with us as their partner,” says Norra Norr’s co-founder and creative director, Marcus Rudbäck.
The brief from WeSC was to firstly stay true to the playful and fun energy of the brand and secondly to create fashion as opposed to technical products. The fashion company also specified that the range should be timeless, in that it would still be relevant over several seasons with the only updates being a change of colour to fit in with its seasonal clothing collection. Specifically, WeSC was after two models (one over-ear and the other on-ear) that could both be folded down, sold within a price range of €50 to €100, be easy for WeSC to produce, and, importantly, be compatible with existing solutions such as speakers and cables. “There was no need to reinvent the wheel in this project; it was all about the attitude,” comments Rudbäck.
Norra Norr was confident that it could deliver on this brief and although it had never specifically designed headphones before, the team was able draw on its experience of designing other fashion accessories, such as classic watches and wearable sporting equipment, for clients such as POC and Yniq.
“We have a long experience working with sporting equipment like goggles and helmets so we could use the knowledge we’ve gained about ergonomics and designing something that looks good with the user’s face. It is very important that the product makes the person wearing it look good,” says Rudbäck.
Back to the ‘old skool’
Norra Norr also drew inspiration from music itself, including vintage music devices and old-school Reggae and Hip Hop DJs who wore big headphones. “We looked at classic products like amplifiers, turntables and stuff from the 1960s and 1970s to get the right look and feel. ‘Sample and mix it,’ so to say,” says Rudbäck. “Our goal was to make these headphones totally different to anything currently on the market and then to diversify.”
The design process kicked off with a huge brainstorming session between Norra Norr and WeSC. “WeSC has a very creative and fun attitude about their brand and about fashion in general and we tried to tap into that energy and fly with it,” says Rudbäck. “Our strategy was to be less analytic and more personal in the development of the product.
During this session, the designers identified some key phrases that would help guide the sketching concept phase:
• ‘Skate funkis’, which, according to Rudbäck, translates as Scandinavian functionality but with the attitude of skateboarding culture.
• ‘We have fun’, which is very much a slogan for WeSC and in this project means that all concepts will have a funny twist, even if only in a small detail.
• ‘Fashion electronics’ meaning that the end result should be more of a fashion product and lifestyle device as opposed to a technical gadget.
For Rudbäck, the key in any design and development process is communication and in this case Norra Norr presented its ideas to WeSC using concepts the team had produced using VRay. “Since we focus on strategic design, it is important to have clear communication with many different levels and departments of our client’s organisation, many of whom have little or no experience with product design and development,” explains Rudbäck.
We looked at classic products like amps, turntables and stuff from the 1960s and 1970s to get the right look and feel. ‘Sample and mix it,’ so to say
From the VRay renderings, WeSC selected the two concepts that it wanted to take into development. Thereafter, WeSC pretty much gave Norra Norr free reign in the process, but of course was involved in all strategic and design decisions.
As well as using VRay for visualisation, Norra Norr also work with a variety of other tools during the design process. “We use pen, paper, glue, foam, fabric, wood, rubber, metal, all the kinds of workshop tools you might imagine, Google Images, Lego, Rhino as a 3D tool and SLA for 3D printing,” explains Rudbäck. “We also mix all these tools together depending on what suits the project or process.”
In designing the two headphones, Norra Norr took great care in how they would fit and look on the user and in order to get the right sense of proportion and scale they created many mock-ups and prototypes.
“Ergonomics are really key and we made several prototypes to make sure the two models fit as many types of heads as possible,” confirms Rudbäck. “The trick is to make sure the product looks good without detracting from the ergonomics and functionality. No one will thank you if you design something that is aesthetically pleasing but isn’t a quality product.” SLA is currently outsourced to a rapid prototyping service bureau in Sweden, however Rudbäck says that when the technology is simple enough, they will look to getting a machine in-house.
Norra Norr is a strong believer in ‘going with your gut’ and for the company, the design process is about constantly analysing what the design team is doing and why, but always maintaining a connection to intuition. “What’s more important than anything else is to make something relevant. In some projects, the design is not the most relevant part of the project, but then you need to find the detail, the innovation, the story that gives the product personality,” Rudbäck explains.
In this project, working in such a niche segment, gave them the opportunity to create products that engage the user emotionally. “’We have fun’ is the WeSC way – something we also believe in. We think this philosophy shines through in the final products, which are playful but still functional with a bit of Scandinavian design sensibility thrown in for good measure,” says Rudbäck. For instance, Pick-Up resembles the arm of a turntable with hinges and joints aligned to the axis of rotation. Working with basic cylindrical forms, Norra Norr wanted to create the look and feel of mechanical precision while still maintaining a sense of playfulness. This small and agile headphone follows the wearer’s jaw line and is small enough to fit in a jacket pocket when collapsed.
According to Rudbäck, Norra Norr always tries to be involved from the start to the finish of every project and this always means cooperation between themselves and everyone from the sales team to the engineers to the manufacturers.
“Communication with the engineering and production teams is very much based on CAD files being sent back and forth. This lets us control the final design to the hundredth of a millimetre and also allows us to adapt the design to address issues that come up on the engineering and production side,” says Rudbäck. “All of this is crucial to making a good end product. We like to say that no one will thank you for a good-looking design sketch if the final products in the stores are crap.” As a result, Norra Norr sends CAD files developed in-house in Rhino to the engineering partner and also make prototypes and preproduction samples to confirm the design before tooling and mass production.
However, this part of the development process in the WeSC project proved to be particularly challenging as Norra Norr had to work with a new engineering partner in China that had little experience of product development. “It took a while for them to understand what exactly we were looking for in terms of details, finishes, ergonomics etc. But during the process it became better and better,” comments Rudbäck. He strongly believes that communication is paramount as often the design team is located in a different part of the world to the manufacturer. Communication might also involve sending CAD files along with detailed presentations and reference materials. “Get to know each other, visit as often as you can and always make the vision you have clear to every one on the team,” adds Rudbäck.
For him, it is very important to be true to the design all the way through the process. Despite the challenges, this project was no exception and the final products that emerged at the end of the design and development process are very similar to the initial concept sketches that Norra Norr presented to WeSC at the start. “We always stick with the project to the end. That’s the only way to maintain the quality of design,” says Rudbäck.
The Maraca and Pick-Up were launched towards the end of last year and although the project involved some frustration and many late nights, the end result is something both companies are very proud of. “It has been both inspiring and challenging to help strengthen WeSC as a street fashion brand and at the same time narrow the gap between fashion and electronics,” says Rudbäck.
The WeSC community has also given the headphones the thumbs up via feedback at the stores and on forums and blogs. “It is the best compliment you can get as a designer to see or hear that people appreciate all the hard labour behind the products,” he adds. “Every product we develop is like a child, you see it grow up and finally you see it live on its own.”
www.wesc.com / www.norranorr.com
Music to your ears
Since the launch of Maraca and Pick-Up Norra Norr have been involved in another Scandinavian headphones brand, Urbanears. With the goal once again of moving headphones away from electronics and into the fashion and lifestyle segment, Norra Norr focused on function, quality, details and materials to create a cohesive family of products that would appeal to a variety of users.
All three models in the range – Medis, Tanto and Plattan – are made of coloured steel with aluminium detailing and handmade drivers. They are treated with a rubber coating that gives the headphone a matte look and a smooth feel. The headbands and cables are textile rather than plastic, making the products look and feel more like a garment and less like a mechanical product.
The Urbanears headphones will retail between €40 and €60 and all models will be available in 14 colours. Additionally, each one will come with a microphone and remote compatible with most Nokia music phones, iPhone, Blackberry and HTC, among others. Tanto and Plattan were launched in December whilst Medis will be available in stores from March 2010.
Frances Corbet hears that great industrial design can be fashionable and fun