iDesign on XtremeMac’s Consistency + Elegance: The Interview | iLounge Article

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iDesign on XtremeMac’s Consistency + Elegance: The Interview

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Monday, March 3, 2008
Articles Categories: iDesign

Consistency, elegance, and contrast were the themes of our third edition of iDesign, which focused on a handful of beautiful products from XtremeMac, a Weston, Florida-based company with unusually impressive industrial designs. Following publication of our look at its Luna and Tango speakers, as well as several of its other, aesthetically similar offerings, we caught up with the company’s industrial design team to learn how the company has so successfully developed complementary, rather than derivative accessories for Apple’s iPods, iPhone, and Apple TV.

The audio recorder MicroMemo didn’t steal the fifth-generation iPod’s look; instead, XtremeMac matched and built on it

We spoke with XtremeMac’s Darren Hoffman, Vice President of Creative Services, who has long been credited with the company’s impressive packaging and marketing, and Travis Read, Industrial Design Manager, who has been intimately involved in designing each of the company’s key products. Along with XtremeMac’s CEO Gary Bart, both men have taken raw concepts—in one case, nothing more than a rectangular block drawn on a board by Bart to represent a speaker—and carved them into smooth, shiny pieces of museum-class art, every bit worthy of display alongside an iPod. Our iDesign Interview with Hoffman and Read begins here; enjoy.

(1) One of the most striking things about XtremeMac is how consistent the designs of your accessories are: in a given year, your desktop speaker, alarm clock, charger and FM transmitter products all have a very similar, modern look, then two years later, you change to another theme. How do you choose the “look,” then design around it?

Travis Read, XtremeMac: We base our designs on the current look and feel of the iPod, but add an XtremeMac element. In late 2005, Apple was only selling black and white iPods, thus the “Yin-Yang” based product designs we had at that time. Basically, we start out the design process with sketches and then I create 3D models to make sure the design works. From there, Darren, Gary and I make the necessary changes and finalize the design.

The “look” of the product line for 2005 was really based upon my retro-contemporary design of the original Tango. We took that design and evolved it into a more modern look that we incorporated throughout the rest of the line. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, we updated our look to complement this new style of iPod. We were really focused on coming up with a new look that would work with the iPhone, as well as the new more colorful iPods Apple had introduced. As you can see, we went with a black and chrome look that we have carried throughout the line and our packaging.

Darren Hoffman, XtremeMac: For most new concepts, Gary, Travis and I will independently have something specific in mind, from a feature set and/or design standpoint. We’ll then bring our collective thoughts together in the combined form of hand sketches, digital illustrations/renderings or verbal communication. From there, the best “plan of attack” is determined. Travis will then start to model the concept in 3D while we make some of the more detailed design decisions such as color/finishes/materials, right then and there. We’ll usually sit down and review/revise the design several times. The number of revisions may vary, depending upon the complexity or engineering issues on that particular concept. We eventually arrive at a point where everyone is happy with the design and it becomes the final direction.

(2) Of all the products you’ve released so far, the original Luna was the most complex thanks to its screen and menu system, yet also the most elegantly implemented in design. Why did you go with such advanced clock radio functionality at a time when competitors were comparatively low-tech?

TR: The clock radio category was a new category for us and we knew that in order to enter into this market, we needed to provide a product that was better than what was currently available. So I hit the drawing board and came up with some initial designs to get the process started. After showing Darren and Gary my designs for Luna, Darren came up with the idea of having an iPod-like user interface. Once we realized the capabilities we had with this display, we just couldn’t help but continue to add features. We really liked the fact that the user would be able to customize their settings unlike any other alarm clock available.

DH: Yes, there were an abundance of advanced features, settings and controls, but at the same time, if you knew how an iPod menu system worked—and by nature of the product, our buyers did—you would have immediately been able to figure it out.

(3) What were your aesthetic design goals, and challenges, with Luna?

DH: Our design goals are always the same: we try to achieve a clean and simple look without being boring or copying something that’s already been done.

Luna (left) took an upscale, minimalist approach to iHome’s popular clock radios

TR: My goal was to create the sleekest iPod alarm clock available. Of course, I wanted this design to tie in to our product line but I also wanted it to stand apart from the crowd; a design that used the least amount of buttons, but provided the most functionality, which was not an easy task. So, I came up with the idea of using four knobs that looked more like a design feature than typical buttons. The challenge here was to make sure the knobs were easy to use and provided enough function without having to add any more buttons. We also worked to find the perfect display, as we wanted a very strong black background and many displays have a blue tint. It took some time to find, but we finally found the one we wanted. Finally, we also had to slightly adjust the height to accommodate speakers that would be better than the competition.

DH: There were certainly many challenges with Luna. We had some ambitious plans with the display and speakers, but had to put ourselves in check or else it would’ve been a $350 alarm clock. As it was, we probably spent too many hours developing the menu content, sequence and look—we even manually created all of the fonts and graphic icons.

(4) How and why did you come up with the original Tango design—what was the inspiration?

TR: We were in a product planning meeting and we were just starting to make an entry into the audio market. Gary drew a rectangular block on the board just to represent that we need a speaker category and for some reason this triggered an idea in my mind. Somehow that rectangle turned into my design for the original Tango. The funny part about this product is that the first design is the one we stuck with; we normally go through many phases of designing before we get to the final look. Tango is where I originally came up with the “Yin-Yang” design, which is what inspired the 2005 product line.

DH: Gary wasn’t very confident about the look. During one trip to China, he pulled me aside and asked what I really thought about the design and maybe we’re making a mistake and should re-think the ID. I liked its minimal feel from day one, and convinced him not to touch a thing!

(5) What really happened with Tango and Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi? Tango was announced in January for a March release, and looked unlike anything else, then Apple released the extremely similar-looking iPod Hi-Fi in February, and Tango didn’t ship until year’s end.

TR: It was a total coincidence that the designs were so similar; flattering, but coincidental. Since Tango was really our first true speaker product, we ran into some challenges finalizing the audio and some of the finishing details. We really worked hard to make sure the design elements went all the way through the product—from the actual unit to the remote to the packaging—and this process took some time. Thus, Apple was able to get its product shipping much before ours.

iPod Hi-Fi coincidentally appeared right after Tango; showing the similar thinking of Apple’s and XtremeMac’s designers

DH: We’ve been in a similar situation when releasing other products as well. I think we’ve learned from it and are now giving ourselves more realistic/relative time frames between announcing and shipping.

(6) Just as one other example, your AirPlay line of FM transmitters has seen interesting design evolutions over the years, last time shipping with glowing, built-in antennas that seemed like they were there more for a cool visual effect than anything else. Functionality aside, what factors inspire your design choices?

AirPlay Boost for the second-generation iPod nano

DH: The AirPlay antenna was part form, part function. It truly was intended to provide a clearer signal, but at the same time offer something unique that could add another angle, in a marketing sense. We generally try to maintain a balance between overall feature set, aesthetics and budget—perhaps even in that order. First and foremost, we want the product to offer competitive or innovative features, but we also want it to look as appealing as we can. We usually start “up here” in terms of the coolest finishes, materials or technology, then as necessary, bring it back down to where it can be produced and sold at a realistic price point. Where does our creative inspiration come from? Personally I’m largely inspired by furniture, architecture and automotive design. When I win the lottery, I’m going back to school for all three!

TR: My designs are inspired by what I see and my surroundings, which tend to be ever-evolving. Generally I like to focus on the overall form and then tweak the design from there, staying ahead of current trends.

(7) We don’t often say this, but we’re consistently impressed with your packaging and advertisements, as they always look great, and tie together perfectly with your products. What are the goals for your packaging, ads, and products, and how do you harmonize their looks so effectively?

From product to package to web promotion, XtremeMac keeps its designs consistent, complementing both the look of a given Apple product and its lifestyle marketing

DH: My background is in advertising design and visual communications, which often focuses on corporate identity and branding. The goals are pretty much the same for all of those elements. You always want to stand apart from the competition while offering clear, consistent and effective brand communication. We do our best to achieve that. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but if you’re consistent with the corporate brand, imagery and message, you’re on your way.

(8) Tell us about XtremeHD, your lineup of Apple TV cables and a four-port HDMI switch. Was the design process any different? What sort of involvement did Apple have?

DH: To the best of my knowledge, Apple had no involvement in the development of XtremeHD. The price of cables these days is ridiculous and we knew that if we could develop a line of inexpensive, good-looking cables and switcher, we’d be pretty successful with it. Our design process was a little more defined in this situation, because XtremeHD products were intended to accessorize AppleTV. The final production switcher didn’t vary much from the very first rendering and is designed to neatly stack with the AppleTV, hence the same shape and size. Our cable design started out being a lot more “involved,” using higher-end materials and processes, but we knew that in order to meet our sub-$20 price point, we had to sacrifice some of the detail that wouldn’t be missed anyhow. The result is a line of simple, attractive and affordable cables that perform just as well as much higher-priced items.

The XtremeHD HDMI Switcher arrived shortly after Apple TV, matching its looks and footprint

TR: The design process was a little different in that we knew exactly what Apple TV was going to look like since it was announced before it shipped. Basically, Darren and I looked at Apple TV and came up with a line that complemented its colors and style, based on what Apple had announced to the world; Apple liked what it saw and put them in retail stores with Apple TV.

(9) This year, both Luna and Tango will have new, lower-priced base models, as well as smaller and even less expensive versions. What sorts of challenges have you faced in downsizing the prior, more expensive designs into these new models?

DH: We’re really only scaling back the physical dimensions of these products. The features will be nearly the same; certain features are even being added in some models. For example, Tango X2 now has an FM tuner, while the previous version does not. From a design standpoint, there were a few minor challenges. As an update to our audio line ID, we wanted to keep some of the characteristics of Tango and Luna but give them both an updated, more streamlined look. The shape of the Tango’s face was preserved, yet the footprint is a bit smaller and we removed any hard edges and corners. The same changes were made to Luna: X2 has a similar face and dials, but more refined edges and a smaller footprint. We went with a matte black finish and chrome accents to better match the newer iPod(s) and iPhone.

One feature cut from the original Luna design, an on-board Snooze button, looks set to come back in Luna X2

(10) Besides the new products we saw back in January, can you give our readers any hints as to what XtremeMac’s next big plans are? Do you have anything planned for outside of the iPod and iPhone markets?

TR: Our big plans are to continue to push the iPod and iPhone market forward by continuing to provide innovative products with sleek designs.  We have lots of new and exciting ideas, but I am not at liberty to speak about those now!

A portable clock radio called Luna Voyager, shown as rendered art, is coming; iPhone compatibility is still a question mark

DH: Stay tuned though, there should be some pretty cool stuff from us in ‘08.

iLounge: Thank you for your time.

DH, TR: Thank you!

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