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 fifth of the interviews we conducted, which has been edited only modestly for style. This iDesign Interview discusses SwitchEasy, a Hong Kong-based developer of cases and electronic accessories that range from flippant to aggressive to minimalist, though always with impressive attention to details. SwitchEasy is perhaps best known for the incredible pack-ins it includes with many of its cases, including double video stands, twin screen protectors, and port covers for that last bit of extra protection.
The full iDesign feature on SwitchEasy can be seen on pages 60-61 of the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5, with excerpts from this interview following on pages 62-63. iLounge interviewed SwitchEasy’s Managing Director Steve Bau along with Senior Designers Andy Clarke and Dave Ryo Lau. Enjoy.
(1) Tell us how SwitchEasy originally came to be, and how the company is different now from its earliest days.
Dave Ryo Lau: Originally SwitchEasy was started in 2005 by Steve with his “PivotDock” for iPod shuffle. The name SwitchEasy was inspired by the Apple “Switch” campaign and we hope that we can help convert people to enjoy aesthetically pleasing objects in their lives. Steve ran the company solo for three years until Andy and I joined onboard. At first, we had to pick up a lot since we were in the graphics field, and we didn’t know much about designing products. Steve was in an even worse situation, he was from the IT field and had to pick up [Adobe design programs] Illustrator and Photoshop from scratch and had to do his own marketing and shipping. We were lucky that in the early days, our manufacturers in both China and Hong Kong are eager to open up their kimonos to teach us the tools of the trade. Nowadays, we have a team of 3D mold engineers and graphics people to realize our concepts. Also, our rapid prototyping machine does wonders for us.
(2) Your cases generally fall into one into three different theories of design: understated elegance, colorful fun, and striking textures. The understated ones are all about matching the device’s curves, but with the others—Cubes for iPod nano, or CapsuleRebel M for iPhone as examples—you’ve introduced designs that are really distinctive. Can you walk us through the process of creating one of these creative cases, from start to finish?
Andy Clarke: [A]ctually there wasn’t much going into our design process. We simply took the pages from the design playbook of Apple and Ikea and color choices from many Japanese phone vendors, and sort of mixed them up. We follow Apple’s design language closely and try to make something different so our product would “pop up” on the shelves. Last year, we are in this “Organic” design phase since we had a bit of success with our original Rebel line. “Organic” was also something we have identified from Apple in their design language for the last two years.
One thing we want to do is to extend our Rebel design to make it more distinctive. Therefore, we looked into making the plastic skeleton into bones with a few failed attempts since it’s hard to create organic structures with computer programs. So what we ended up with was to hand sculpt a model to finish the job. Within two weeks of tweaking, Rebel M was born.
With Cubes, we started off wanting to make a fashion statement with the case. During one of our trips to Japan, we saw the info.bar phone from Naoto Fukusawa and it was love at first sight! And the concept developed into something that resembles Chiclets chewing gum on a strip. Our intention is to create a case that our customers can play with a bit while enjoying their nanos.
(3) Another hallmark of SwitchEasy cases has been outstanding value for the dollar—either tons of pack-ins or extremely aggressive prices for cases with fewer pack-ins. Why do you go through the trouble of designing headphone and Dock Connector port covers, different video stands, and even Universal Dock Adapters when so few other companies bother?
Steve Bau: The SwitchEasy product philosophy is very simple. It’s only one word:
I always like to use the Japanese bento lunchbox metaphor to describe what we try to achieve in our product. With a good Japanese bento, you always get your five food groups—or maybe four—neatly compartmentalized in an elegant box. Then you get your little packets of Wasabi, soy sauce, wet naps, and chopsticks included in a carry bag. Everything is thought out for you, all you need to do is enjoy. Bento boxes are great products with great fulfillment to customers. What we want to do is just that.
During our development process, we spent a lot of time looking at the use case of how our customers use the new iPods/iPhones in relevance to our products, and developed associated accessories that would fulfill their use case scenarios. It doesn’t really cost us much to include the pack-ins, but the customer satisfaction level that we’ve heard was great!
(4) SwitchEasy has experimented with electronic accessories over the years, including KuroDock back in 2006 and ThumbTacks last year. You do a good job with them, too. What has held you back from diving deeper into the electronics side of the business?
Lau: Electronics is an even harder business than cases. There are too many variables that could and would [create] failures. We are really good with plastics, and now we are just getting into small bags and sleeves, which took us two years to learn the business. We think in the future you will see more electronic products from us. But at this time, we simply just don’t have the kung fu to pull it off.
(5) Conventional wisdom suggests that iPod shuffle cases don’t sell, and that even iPod nanos are less protected these days as they’ve become more affordable and durable. Since you’re one of only a handful of companies to create cases for every iPod and iPhone model, can you provide any insights on which Apple products have the highest demand for protection, and why? The sheer number of iPhone 3G/3GS cases suggests that there’s a been lot of interest there.
Lau: The iPhone category is still the top selling product from Apple. The use case scenario for using a phone is dramatically different than using a MP3 player. People tend to have more contact with the phone than any other piece of electronic device other than maybe a laptop. Therefore, the demand for protection solutions for this category ranks the highest. With the just-introduced iPads, we think there’ll be a great demand there too. With iPad’s instant-on technology, the lightweight and thin form factor, as well as the long-lasting battery, we think users will be using the iPads all day long. Therefore, the need for a good protection solution is strong in this category too.
(6) What sorts of challenges has the iPad created for your design team, and how do you think cases will differ for the tablet relative to Apple’s phones and media players?
Clarke: We think that iPad is a different category all together. Apple pretty much made a TV with no stand. We think the key in making an iPad sleeve or a hard case is to include some kind of features that would prop up the iPad. This would allow customers to view its content hands free and enjoy the iPad at its full glory.
iLounge: Thank you for your time.
[Editor’s Note: The staff and white background images are courtesy SwitchEasy, save for the info.bar image, credit Naoto Fukusawa. The original iLounge feature article on SwitchEasy can be found in the iPad Buyers’ Guide and iPod/iPhone Book 5. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]