Incase: 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 fourth of the interviews we conducted, which has been edited only modestly for style. This iDesign Interview discusses Incase, which has created some of the most popular iPod, iPhone, and Mac cases, recently expanding its lineup to include iPad cases, as well. The company has also offered a deliberately limited array of electronic accessories, specifically iPod chargers and iPhone batteries, and has become famous within the industry for a unique relationship with Apple that celebrates the opening of new flagship Apple Stores with limited edition, store-specific cases.

The full iDesign feature on Incase can be seen on pages 52-53 of the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5, with excerpts from this interview following on pages 54-55. iLounge interviewed Incase Chief Design Officer Joe Tan and Vice President of Design Markus Diebel, who provided the answers below collectively. Enjoy.

(1) It’s often said that Incase’s iPod and iPhone cases look like what Apple would release if it was in the case business. Can you walk us through the touchstones of an Incase accessory design, and the considerations that keep your team so close conceptually to Apple’s ever-evolving style?



Joe Tan + Markus Diebel: As a design-focused company, Incase is in tune with what it means to create a better user experience through combining essential functionality with beautiful design simplicity, which in turn complements and elevates Apple’s products rather than overpowering or detracting from their unique beauty. Incase’s design language has always been about being simple, intuitive and innovative since its founding in 1997 and I think that is what makes our design philosophy resonate well with the Apple user.

(2) Many developers look at case design as an exercise in shielding as much of a product’s body as possible with protective materials—and your Mac cases tend to reflect this, with almost complete exterior coverage. But your iPod and iPhone cases have often taken a different tack: most leave the screen entirely exposed and some, such as the Perforated Snap Case, almost flaunt how open they are in the name of fashion. Are there philosophical reasons for this difference, or does it just come down to the whims of different designers?



Tan + Diebel: If you look at the breadth of the Incase line, you will always find products for the design-conscious user that appreciates essential functionality and simplicity. That said, user needs are always a primary design consideration, so we do our best to create something for every type of user while designing products that enhance and celebrate the device form.


Incase’s Perforated Snap Case was inspired by textures of clothing and furniture, evolving from a concept render (above) to an advanced custom mold (below)

The Perforated Snap Case captures that essential functionality by protecting the back, the sides and the corners but also the iPhone screen by overlapping the case edge around the iPhone bezel to prevent the screen from getting scratched while facing down on a table surface. You essentially have an all-round protection but in the most minimal way possible. The perforated pattern is not only beautiful to look at but it also creates a great tactile sensation, reduces material and completely pushes the boundaries of manufacturing, which can be appreciated if you study the case closely. Sometimes these almost invisible, hard-to-replicate details are what excites us and pushes us to innovative further as a design team.

(3) One thing that differentiates Incase from almost every other case maker is your series of laser-targeted limited edition products—ones that fly completely in the face of traditional rules of mass-marketing and -manufacturing. You’ve made Apple Exclusives, location-specific iPod and iPhone cases sold only at individual Apple Stores, when most companies pray for distribution at as many locations as possible. Can you tell us why you originally decided to do these limited-run cases, and how they’ve evolved over time?



Tan + Diebel: We see these special projects as part of the uniqueness of our brand approach. Like many brands, we work to reach target demographics that are influential to mass market trends—early adopters in technology, design, art and fashion communities to name a few. We choose to reach these consumers in many ways, including via unique, special edition, limited-run products that resonate or are created with these communities in mind.



In regards to our Apple Exclusives, we feel that fans and members of the Apple community that attend new store openings are an essential group within our target demos. It is a privilege to be able to design commemorative products for Apple Store openings to reach our target demographics in every way we can, whether by sheer sales volume or through limited-edition products.

(4) Case makers rarely dabble in electronic accessories, and many have exited the market exasperated by the pace of Apple’s engineering changes. Incase has stayed extremely focused on car and hybrid home-car chargers over the years, and dabbled a little in iPhone battery packs. Does Incase want to expand beyond these items, or are electronic accessories just a hobby relative to the core case business?



Tan + Diebel: Having both been at IDEO for numerous years prior to Incase, both of us who lead the Incase design team are well versed in creating consumer products across almost all industries, including consumer electronics. We strive to bring products to market that we are completely satisfied with and offer consumers a unique point of view/points of differentiation from our competitors. Getting products absolutely right in this regard and that make strategic sense for the brand take time. Again, looking at user needs, we are always working to enhance people’s relationships with their technology. We continue to explore different areas where we can do this, and if the opportunity exists in the power category, it will be considered carefully.



(5) How do you choose the seasonal or annual colors and textures for your products? Right now, the iPhone section of the Incase web site is practically bursting with different variations on the same basic Slider case design, ranging from glossy and matte to flake-finished and topographic mapped.



Tan + Diebel: Our creative team strategically maps out our colors and surface finishes based on informed intuition and what we see in the worlds of technology, art, design and fashion as well as manufacturing. The basic functionality and form factor of the Slider Case has proven to be very successful and resonates with many different types of consumers. As the audience of iPhone increases and broadens, our selection of cases reflect this growth to suit a range of tastes without losing the essence of its design simplicity.

(6) What sorts of unique challenges do you think the iPad brings to the table? It looks like you’re trying a bunch of different options—Mac-like sleeves, iPod-like play-through cases, and eBook reader-style flip cases—trying to see which gains traction.



Tan + Diebel: The iPad is a unique, multi-dimensional device in that it does so many things all at once. This has resulted in completely new user behaviors and needs that continue to evolve, since iPad has attracted, and continues to attract, a wide variety of users that integrate iPad into their lives in many different ways. For iPad, as with all devices we design for, we create products that follow our core design philosophy while offering a variety of products to suit different user needs. Our team continues to study and assess user behaviors and needs to create innovative solutions that complement iPad to enhance the user experience. We have some exciting things coming down the pipeline for iPad in the near future, so expect to see and hear more from us soon.

iLounge: Thank you for your time.

[Editor’s Note: The photos of Joe Tan and Markus Diebel, as well as the Perforated Snap Case tool and other white background images are courtesy Incase. The original iLounge feature article on Incase 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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