The Un-p3 Project Part 1: Design Rational

Or the article formally known as Industrial Design 104: Materials and Manufacturing

I did mention before last year and the beginning of this, I had given up on creating my own unique Mp3 (iPod Beater?) player because I could not create a design that was uniquely different than the tons of Mp3 player products in the market. However the idea of this product still floated in the back of my mind. Fortunately, with my recent exposure towards re-newable organic materials and its manufacturing processes, I have been inspired enough to restart this project!

This article was supposed to be the fourth installment of an Industrial Design How-To series where I used designing an Mp3 player as an example of my design thinking process. Originally called Industrial Design 104: Materials and Manufacturing, this article and the related thinking has been through many reiterations. Thus I felt it would be more logical to change the title, leave behind the past and move forward with the actually design discussion at hand. (It’s more interesting anyway!) It is still a relevant to the fourth installment in the series as this post talks about how I use materials and manufacturing as an inspiration to get back into this long troubled project.
Before we get into this proper, I do suggest you do a little background reading in my 3 previous articles as the design research is a good foundation to this post:

Here is a quick visual recap of the structure behind our thinking.
4 Prong Approach
Here is the visualization structure of our discussion as presented in ID 101. In ID 102 and ID 103 we discussed the marketing aspects. In this installment we will focus on the Engineering aspects, which covers the materials and manufacturing, and we will also cover the design thinking and rational as well.

Music Match Box: The MUn-p3 Project

I knew when I started this was going to be a tough and ambitious project. I knew that if I wanted to design an Mp3 player well, I had to design something different to the reigning champion, the iPod. It would be a mistake to do what many other companies did and that was to design something that tried to take on the iPod in their own playing field. Also if I wanted to design something different, it could not in be a superficial way. For example, if the iPod’s design “was friendly and had round control dial”, an incorrect strategy would then be to design an Mp3 player that “was hard and had a vertical dial.”
The way forward was to design a Mp3 player that had an alternative marketing angle that was built into the core to its design DNA. First and foremost I wanted it to be different, and the way for me to do it was to fall back onto my favorite past time which is to create products that are counter culture or cultural commentaries on how people use consumer electronics today. In this case I wanted to comment on how people use Mp3 players today, more specifically as the iPod is the market leader, a comment on the Mp3 culture that the iPod has created.
What I found is that the iPod product goes against every norm and expectations of what a portable product should be. It’s fairly fragile, prone to scratches (further highlighted by the gloss paint), and the shiny metal back creates a culture of fastidious polishing. It’s really interesting that people buy the iPod and then shell out more money to protect it. You almost can’t bare to use it and its no wonder that people describe the experience as almost in the realm of object worship.
I like to state for the record that I do not hate the iPod, in fact, I love it. But if you and I wanted to design an “iPod beater” or at least an iPod alternative, I would seriously consider using the other side of the iPod culture as the Marketing angle to my Branding and Design Language. Therefore here are the salient points to my personal design brief.
1) A unique boutique design that has value for money. I never believe people should overpay for good design.
2) The product should be so simple to use that you would not need to use a “play list” or even a need for a display. It’s totally no frills, just drag and drop, plug in your head phones and then hit play. My product will be targeted to a market who knows how to create “folders” as an alternative to play lists (See ID 102). Think about it, if you have billions of Mp3 songs, who bothers to create play lists anyway? Finally I consider you as responsible for your own music collection and know how to get it through the right means. Therefore I’m not going to “nanny” you by building a product that controls how and where you can use your music.
3) I like to design my Mp3 player as an object that asks to be used. It could be fairly rugged, grab-able (forget about that finger prints stains!) and can be knocked around in day to day activities such as mixing of objects deep inside your bag. You would not be scared to take it jogging, and at the price (point 1) where if it actually broke you would not feel that annoyed.
4) As this is a personal product, it sounds logical that it should be a reference point in relation to your life experiences. This also implies that it had to be fairly durable and long lasting. A chip here, or a nick there, allows it to “grow” with you instead of you resenting it. Thus it actually evolves into something beyond the mundane and hopefully something you would become attached to. You may actually grow fonder of it as time goes by! (This is very against our current polishing consumer culture, where things are made more precious and thus more detached.) My inspiration came from looking and thinking about the type of objects that people cherish. Objects such as a wooden toys, tops, or trains came to mind. The materials do play apart, such as in the wooden toys, creating a very warm and Haptic feel when a person engages it. Organic materials (Metals, Wood etc.) are really perfect for creating such “feelings”.
5) Another good way of differentiation is by getting inspired by manufacturing or the making process. I have always had a huge interest in the potential of combining craft within consumer electronics manufacturing context. This is a total oxymoron because where craft means irregular hand made and one off; manufacturing is all about creating many within very tight accuracy and standards.
Not to be easily dissuaded, I felt this will be a great opportunity for me to experiment different ways in combining craftsman making techniques with the tight tolerances of precision electronics. I think if my design can use traditional hand made methods in the outer housing such as CNC or simple cutting techniques, instead of high pressure high heat plastic manufacturing processes, I have a good chance of creating something really different and environmentally friendly to boot.
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With all this in mind I started toying with the idea of a cool, semi-rugged MP3 player but with out the use of plastic and expensive plastic tooling. So how do I proceed?
I played around with the idea of making an Mp3 player with a paper mache housing. I had planned to get strips of paper and then layer them over a “mold”. While suitable for masks and Piñata horses, I don’t think it would be suitable for a product exposed to the daily grind of my target market.

paper01
I was thinking of molding little triangle shapes or inserts to hold the PCB.

I’ve always loved the idea of reusing old existing products and giving them a new life. Thus logically, and my mind quickly latched on to an idea of a match box as a means to house the electronics in it. However this was not to be, as the size of a standard match box does not fit my electronics circuitry I had planned to use. Though this is a cool idea yah? My next stop was logically to create and fold custom sized match boxes using sheets of Polypropylene or even better, recycled cardboard. However the problem I found was housing maintaining the structure enough to hold the electronics.

paper02
Lots of interesting opening possibilities.

Then while browsing the Feb 2007 issue of Dwell magazine, I came across an article on “The craft of design”, and was immediately inspired to use recycled wood, plywood to be exact.

plywood
Did you know plywood can be flexible? I actually did not! It’s therefore always a good idea to talk to your manufacturers. I love this material; it’s tough yet with just the right “give”. This is 1mm aircraft grade plywood I’m holding.

I found that wood contained all the tactile feedback, warmth and uniqueness I was looking for when applied in a consumer electronics context. Furthermore when designing in wood I was amazed with its ability to handle knocks by its semi-ridged organic structure. Furthermore aged antique wood creates an effect that is highly unique and customizable based on how the product is used during its lifecycle. I found my “muse” and decided to use wood in the traditional craftsman way, by building up the product through creating layers of cut of plywood. Now its time to get down and prototyping this idea!

sketch
Just the tip of the iceberg. Page 1 of 20 in my sketch book of thumbnails, and none remotely exciting to me that is. I think the trick here is to emphasis the unique layering assembly I am looking at by using wood. Back to the drawing board!

I hope you have enjoyed the story so far, as in the coming weeks I will be posting updates on my design journey on my Un-p3 project and how I will eventually be submitting the product for exhibition at the Singapore Design Festival 2007 as well as hopefully creating a limited batch quantity and selling it online!

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