Speck Products: The iDesign Interview
On June 1, 2010, iLounge updated our iDesign series—a look at the top industrial designers and designs in the iPod and iPhone ecosystems—with a series of six new feature articles and interviews. For the first time, iDesign expanded to look at the work of noteworthy application developers, including Duck Duck Moose, PopCap Games, and Tapbots, while probing the creative, marketing, and engineering talents of leading Apple case developers Incase, Speck Products, and SwitchEasy. Today, we’re rolling out the extended version of the first of the interviews we conducted, which has been edited for spelling and focus. This iDesign Interview discusses Speck Products, which has been making iPod cases for nearly nine years, and currently produces some of the very best iPhone and iPad cases on the market, as well.
The full iDesign feature on Speck can be seen on pages 56-57 of the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5, with excerpts from this interview following on pages 58-59. iLounge interviewed Speck’s Founder & Co-Owner David Law, Lead Designer Bryan Hynecek, Senior Engineering Manager Jarret Weis, and Industrial Designer Dan Xiong, who co-developed the company’s iGuy mascot with her husband HaoYu Feng, in the process learning a lot about how the company’s most noteworthy and successful products were developed. Enjoy.
(1) Speck was one of the first iPod case developers, and though some of your early designs are reflected in current cases, a lot has changed. What are the three most noteworthy ways that your approach to designing cases has evolved over the years?
David Law: Has it evolved?! (laughs) Obviously we’re much more sophisticated, one, along with consumer tastes, we’re more fashion-conscious, two. We are still pushing the envelope and were then. That hasn’t changed. And three, it’s got better! Our industrial design has clearly evolved and has become much better.
Bryan Hynecek: I think first is just a leveraging of more advanced manufacturing techniques. Second is staying on top of an evolving accessory market, making sure our stuff remains relevant.
Jarret Weis: Third, we’ve gone from utilitarian to an actual accessory, fashion. I mean everything was ToughSkin, black and tough, now we’ve got options of substrates, materials, designs… we recognize there’s more than one type of customer now.
Hynecek: Those are all things that go [into] staying on top. We’re not moving away from functional, but we’re expanding. For iPad, we’re actually going back towards more functional than fashion driven cases. We’re making sure we’re sensitive to the level of maturity of the device and where it’s going accessory-wise. As far as the users go, as the products reach more and more people, we’re having to offer a wider and wider variety of cases, we try to come up with some designs for everyone and also designs for individual personalities and use applications.
Dan Xiong: We’ve become more fashionable, it was all about a protective solution when we started out. One thing that’s certainly affected design is the spirit of the company, and how that’s evolved, it’s getting more and more fun, and more brave, more daring to experiment.
Hynecek: Two things on the Speck culture evolving: yeah, the environment is more fun, on the other side, we’re becoming more brave in how far we push… Manufacturing and design-wise.
Weis: We’ve also matured…. That’s a lot of it; the growth and experiences that we’ve had over the past 5-6 years have aided and helped us to develop new products. We can take things from other products, other materials and techniques and apply it elsewhere. How we made CandyShell and how it was tooled, we used what we learned there to develop the new one-piece iPhone SeeThru, and the newer MacBook cases. Honing in on this stuff, we’ve reinvested it back into the product line. And also Bryan sorta mentioned we’ve grown our addressable product; we had small distribution, now we’ve got a lot more customers with a range of lifestyles, we can’t just make one product for everyone. Since we’ve matured and realized that, it allowed us to get into that more and grow, partner with our distribution and channel to figure out what makes most sense. That influences the design, and we didn’t do that before. We used to think it was cool internally, and pushed it out, now we’re getting closer to the end customer.
(2) Speck is far more aggressive in creating products specifically for female users than most Apple developers—your release of the purse-like PixelShield is just one example of an unambiguous effort to appeal to women and girls. Can you tell us what sorts of considerations go into creating female-friendly cases, and which ones have earned the most positive responses?
Weis: I’m surprised to hear we’re more “aggressive!” I think a part of it, early on, [was that] accessories tended to be utilitarian, less focused on design and aesthetic. But there is now a large part of the market—female—that isn’t being addressed. [The consumer electronics market] historically has been male dominated, from the customers to the buyers for stores, that they’ve bought just very masculine products, all black, utility… Now there’s a bit of a shift. Buyers see the opportunities for more female-focused products, the market is realizing this opportunity—Best Buy stores no longer just have black laptop bags, they’ve introduced colors. Target, whose customer is 70-80 percent female, they’re specifically requesting more female-focused products from us. There’s a large part of the market there that was unaddressed, and we’re going to try to capture that. When our MacBook SeeThru came out, we were really surprised that clear was #1—OK, [it was] pretty obvious—but pink quickly became #2. That just indicated several years ago that people are buying more for a fashion play… Women especially.
Xiong: I think what makes PixelShield more feminine specifically is the handle. That first was a sales request, they want extra functionality, not just a sleeve. For the scale of the iPad, adding a handle gives it a very interesting shape, functionally friendly… So I always like to put handles on other products, we were concerned it makes the product polarized to be too much more feminine, not masculine. So that may be true, but so far it has been selling and reviewing really well! Other than PixelShield… For other cases, it’s really only the colors and colorways that are more for females. For the Fitted cases, we went from three basic non-gender specific patterns to more organic shapes on the patterns, more colors—even the ArtsProjekts [versions] are more towards the female market. The girly-cute ones are the ones selling out first!
Jarret: That reinforces how much of that market has been unaddressed previously, and how much girls are taking over in accessory buying; like belts or necklaces, it is a fashion accessory.
Xiong: Really, we’ve never even made a case specifically for the female market. Changing the colorway is a cost-effective way to change the agenda of the product, make it more female-oriented. PixelShield did turn out more feminine… Honestly it wasn’t the real intent.
Weis: Look at the history of the industry, it’s gone from bulky bulbous products to more streamlined, more friendly to the user. Even the CandyShell colorways—black to lighter colors, lighter shades, et cetera. Maybe it’s that we’re not afraid to just try. Colorways and patterns have been successful with the ladies. Palette selection, that’s what’s making them feel more feminine, and girls/women are appreciating that and buying it.
Hynecek: I think this continues on the first question, knowing the market and distribution of Apple products is broadening, bringing in new demographics and psychographics, one of those happens to be the female market. Like how we approach everything else, observational understanding, having females work on design—then running things through the internal gauntlet. On the back-end, getting feedback through our customer service.
Weis: And for us guys, running more feminine offerings by our significant others!
Hynecek: As far as the most successful female-oriented products, the black and white-striped Fitted cases at Target stores have been really popular.
Weis: Yeah, that’s a specifically more female-skewed channel… We’ve got more channels and avenues to get that feedback, it used to be just Apple and Radio Shack—that really skewed us a certain way. Now our larger distribution lets us work around that, offer more specific things for specific customers.
Hynecek: I think there’s a scale of consideration, a product like PixelSkin or CandyShell—the function is more unisex—the color makes it gender specific. PixelShield… Like you said, yeah. (laughs) That handle.
(3) We’ve heard it said that people love to have color choices but generally settle on black. Speck almost always offers a wide variety of colors, but with the iPod nano versions of PixelSkin, you fell back from nine different colors last year to only one this year, and it was black. Was it difficult to sell so many versions? Or have iPod nano users just stopped needing colored case choices?
Weis: People do want choices in accessories. They are looking for more than a black case. Even if they do settle on the black one, they want choices, they want to know they have options. For the iPod nano, I think nano users just stopped using cases, period!
Hynecek: The nano has become an accessory in itself; it’s not your valued product—you just run with your nano…
Weis: Right, so you need an armband, something functional.
Hynecek: And Apple came out with so many colors—you don’t need the color play that the case offers. You already bought the color you want.
Xiong: And the metal body is already very protective.
Weis: Price point on those iPods has really dropped too, people can upgrade every year or so, and really not worry about it getting scratched, they’re just less likely to need or want a case for it.
(4) CandyShell is quite possibly the best iPhone and iPod touch case ever developed—highly protective, easy to get on and off, and very attractive. Can you walk us through how it was originally conceived, some of the challenges of its manufacturing, and then how you evolved it with additional colors and other tweaks?
Hynecek: Thanks! We’re pretty proud of it, too. So where it came from, it came from the silicone skin industry. It seemed like people preferred silicone to the two-part hard case, because of simplicity of installation—but the big problem with silicone is removing it from your pocket. Especially if you’re a guy without a purse, it’s in your pocket, and when you take it out, it turns your pocket out and gets all the pocket lint stuck all over the silicone. And over time, the silicone cases don’t offer much structure. So, we realized there was a desire to have the rigidity and structure of a hard case, with the simplicity and protection of silicone—hence CandyShell. Manufacturing was a challenge; we were designing it on the original iPhone before the 3G came out.
Weis: We were told the 360 degree undercut could not be done—flat out refused by our manufacturers.
Hynecek: A couple manufacturers told us it just could not be done—the 360 undercut on both on the plastic part and again on the rubber part makes it incredibly challenging.
Weis: We were told we couldn’t, but we just fought to do it. We had seen other examples that weren’t in the case industry, but it made us think it was at least possible somehow.
Hynecek: That’s called cross-pollanization!
Weis: We’d get answers back from our manufacturers saying “no,” but with no good reason why. It was like the vendors not having patience, energy or sophistication to even try and make it work. But we made it work. It was a labor of love.
Hynecek: We spent, I’d say, more time invested in designing the tool/manufacturing process than the product itself! Which is why we don’t really have a lot of concept sketches to show on this one.
Weis: And we almost called it “Plubber” instead of CandyShell!
Hynecek: The color evolution was more of a Darwinistic approach. At first the colors were contrast-driven, showcasing the two different materials of the case, adding to the focus on that. Later as it evolved, we came to more of the subtle “hombre” contrast, same hue but different value.
I think what we did, if I can say this without sounding too arrogant (smile)—CandyShell was a game-changer in the industry, it shifted and created a new category of iPhone cases. Before CandyShell, it was a [silicone] skin or a two-piece. Sometimes the materials were two different materials, but it required assembly, you had to put the soft-rubber part on and then the hard shell part. Now we’ve heard rumors of our competitors calling things “CandyShell killers” and that’s probably the highest compliment! (everyone smiles)
Weis: And the fact that it’s getting knocked off! It’s paying homage to us and our originality.
Hynecek: We can hint at the next evolution of [fourth-generation] iPhone CandyShell. The iPad CandyShell… Some elements might come through on the next revision of iPhone CandyShell.
(5) You experimented with electronic accessories for a while. What did you learn from that experience, and would you ever team up with another developer to bring Speck’s sense of design to non-case accessories?
Weis: We did learn a lot from the electronics experiences. Part of the learning from the most recent car chargers that we did for Target… was that Speck is known for our case solutions. I think there are a lot of opportunities for incorporating electronics, but we really want to make sure that we solidify ourselves as a case provider. From the end user standpoint, we want to make sure we make the best cases and not dilute our focus until we really figure out the best way to go down that path again. We don’t want to come out with something that’s not fully out there or fully here. Even the Target [charger was] very channel-specific, speculative, it let us try it out. But… Are we ready to expand to that? Probably not, is what we learned… (chuckles)
I think we’d want to just make sure it makes sense with our core offering. Sure we would team up, if it made sense with the right situation, making that product fun and clever with Speck style. But if we did find a partner with good experience, good vendors…. Sometimes we have good designs, just not the right partners to execute on those. So we’d have to really be partnered with someone with the technical and engineering experience. We’d want to find opportunities that are different. A partner outside the scope of everyone. We’d want to be bringing something new to the table, not just putting a new design on the same thing. Customers are more sophisticated. They want more to it than just a different color.
Xiong: The experience we got and product cycle timeline for cases versus electronics is extremely different… Learned a lot, electronics brought us some trouble, it was… an experience.
Hynecek: The most recent electronics came [from] retail opportunities, I don’t think we’ve ever say NEVER. Our new products tend to be a passionate idea from a member of the organization. If someone gets really excited about an electronic product that we can take a Speck twist to… We’d definitely consider it! To me, it’s an alignment on three things, distribution channel, what we wanted to make with a Speck twist, and who’s shopping for it, the consumer within that retail channel. There was a misalignment there somewhere in the past.
Xiong: We are now really focusing on being a case company.
Weis: Yeah, first and foremost, we are an established case brand—we don’t want to dilute if it doesn’t really make sense.
(6) iGuy—a funky case with arms and legs—was a company mascot of sorts back in 2005, and still appears on the labels of your screen protectors. Can you tell us how he came about, and any chance he’s going to make a return appearance?
Hynecek: iGuy is definitely not dead! He’s alive and well in the spirit of our office and what we do. He is the fun.
Law: He did somewhat start off the fun stuff, but really was the first product to publicly express the fun-trip that we’ve always been on at Speck.
Weis: This was a very “out there” kind of solution to everything else mundane I think. I‘ve heard people talking about Apple products having personality, so we sort of gave the iPod a body… The shape of it was almost like it was asking for a body and personality.
Xiong: And the arms and legs offered creative functionality to the user. [He] fits in different use scenarios, legs can be a stand, arms as cable management, the most funny is when he sits on the dock. He created special interaction between the user and the case. This came out of a brainstorm called the “Skinathon 2005”—we were trying to come up with all the different kinds of skins that we could.
Hynecek: So bringing him back… the original iGuy is really based on the icon of the original iPod. The next-gen iGuy might be less product specific, more encompassing of the Speck personality and less iPod-like.
Weis: There are different perspectives and ideas on this, we talk about him all the time and we’d like to see him evolve… The essence of the fun that he represents… Creative, “out-there” solutions are still within Speck, but we could see him evolving into something that makes more sense for the current product lineup.
Hynecek: We come up with iGuy ideas all the time—the iGuy cartoon series. The spirit of iGuy lives on at Speck: “iGuy speak,” we invented a whole language for him that’s just like… a bunch of digital characters. We’ve talked about iGuy comic strips with his arch-enemy. Who is that? What would be the opposite of iGuy? Angry guy? Tough guy? We’ve talked about iGuy comics. He’s not dead… But how he re-emerges might be slightly different than what we originally did.
iLounge: Thank you for your time.
[Editor’s Note: Staff and other white background images are courtesy Speck Products. The original iLounge feature article on Speck can be found in the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]
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