As designers we enjoy figuring out new ways of interacting with the world around us. Clients often come to us with raw, just-invented technologies, and we help add a human perspective. New technologies prompt new forms, and we look for meaning in form. A product’s personality is the sum expression of the content it delivers, the function it performs, the behavior it elicits, and the aesthetic it portrays.
Design communicates, and usually we want to say something new. But then there are moments when new isn’t the desired way forward. Too much has been said about skeuomorphism - the practice of disguising the new as the old to add instant familiarity, an act often seen as declawing the experience potential of design. But when we want to create emotionally charged objects, integrating known references often communicates much more effectively.
For a while now I’ve been interested in using cultural capital as reference material for design, most recently with audio equipment. I’m intrigued by music and audio because of their rich emotional impact and cultural heritages. Music provides many of our most visceral experiences; it communicates directly with our mood and behavior. For example, the classic 80’s boombox has become an oft-used, not-too-subtle visual reference for the party that certain music provides. The boombox’s iconic form is obviously effective in communicating the vibrancy of popular music, but it doesn’t quite reflect the high fidelity technology of bygone eras that best enhances other types of music. Enter the reel-to-reel player. Predating CDs and tape cassettes, the reel-to-reel player is a magnetic-tape-based recording and playback technology which creates a rich and complex sound; it outputs authentic music to an audiophile’s ear.
Reel-to-reel players also have a great physical expression: two seven-inch reels mounted side by side on the front of a case, feeding magnetic tape from one reel to the other. This piece of equipment tells a wonderful story of form and function in the context of music recording and reproduction. I’m not nearly old enough to remember their heyday, but I miss their analog form an awful lot.
While smartphones have become our de facto music players, low quality music files and ubiquitous device docks with miniature speakers have laid waste to rich compositions that should be experienced without compromise. But play data-compressed, or “lossless,” audio files such as FLAC or Apple Lossless, and pair your smartphone with a robust, well-engineered sound system, and your ears may be in for a treat. How can this be communicated? I thought it was time to revisit a reel-to-reel player’s iconic semblance to bridge the experiences of just-good-enough digital music and shared, amplified sound. So I’ve designed and built an iPhone speaker in the form of a reel-to-reel player.
Two powerful 6-inch speakers are visible through the reels, the concentric rings of the black speaker cones vaguely resembling spooled audiotape. The tape head – the input module that would read music off the tape in between the two reels – appropriately becomes the iPhone dock. I’ve referenced a form factor with a history of over 70 years, powering it by an infant technology, playing music that could have been composed only days or hundreds of years ago. This remix of eras is perfectly tuned to music, as music transports us back to moments scattered throughout time. Referencing an old form factor to communicate a qualitative activity and give meaning to a new device actually makes sense in this context. The iPhone is layered in front of the player, a literal reflection of one technology and one form factor supplanting another.
With my previous exploration into analog form, I was interested in how iconic product shapes communicate functionality, and how that communication was lost when all our devices converged into anonymous slabs of glass, plastic, and metal. This reel-to-reel player is less academic; it is a mash-up of functionality and reference (the players never produced the actual sound, they relied on an external speaker system). Its motive for being panders more to attaching a meaningful, expressive form to a nostalgic longing. The old form is given new life, disguised as an iPhone-dock-boombox. The intention is perhaps more in line with music itself: more about the emotional, less about the rational.