Braun identity: How razor-sharp product design inspired Apple and beyond
4th Feb 2014 | 12:01
From Rams to Ive
Much has been made of Jony Ive and his design inspirations; the ideas and influences that have helped shape Apple's most-loved gadgets.
But we rarely get a glimpse of what truly inspires the man. Most of the time Ive's design reasoning is pieced together through his 'whitewashed' vox pops that have become an essential part of an Apple launch.
That changed last November, when Ive alongside fellow designer and friend Marc Newson chose their pick of the greatest designed products of all time to put into a (RED) Auction.
The items chosen were varied, ranging from a limited edition Leica camera to a cosmonaut space suit. But there was one device nestled among the 40 objects of desire that summed up Ive the most. It was a Hi-Fi, dated 1965, made up of a TS 45 control unit, TG 60 tape recorder and two L 450 speakers.
That audio system was produced by Braun and signed by revered designer Dieter Rams. Unsurprisingly it reached $100,000 when it hit auction at Sotheby's.
Rams' inspiration on Apple's senior vice president of design has been well documented. They both share the same industrial design ethos, where a product's look is unobtrusive to how it works. For something to work both function and form need to ring together, rather than work against each other.
Like Apple, Braun's designs have gained a massive following. This was something that was highlighted at the tail end of 2013 when an exhibition of posters inspired by Braun (and in turn Rams) were showcased at the Walter Knoll Showroom in London, under the title of Systems.
Alongside the artwork, which comprised 34 limited edition posters created by the UK's most influential design firms, were a smattering of Braun products, ranging from '50s electronic equipment - including a 'make your own radio' kit - to the modern-day Braun CoolTec shaver.
The showroom acted as a time capsule which showed just why Braun's products are so admired - because their design is seemingly ageless.
To get more of an idea of Braun's design link to modern technology, TechRadar spoke to Ben Wilson, industrial designer at Braun, who explained to us that even though technology has significantly improved, Braun's design principles have stayed pretty much the same.
"It is great to see that 'good design' has evolved in the minds of the consumers out there," said Wilson to us when we asked about the Apple link.
"Apple and Jobs together with Jony Ive have done an amazing job in creating products that people 'have to have'. Of course the technology plays a key role but Apple's biggest point of difference to the market is its design, use of materials, fantastic attention to details and the pushing of manufacturing boundaries."
A Braun historian who took us around the event in London explained that while there is much made of Apple's affection to Braun, it is as much about the ethos of the design as the designs themselves.
"What Apple has done with design is give attention to detail," he said. "It is that kind of consideration - that way of thinking about graphic markings and fixings - and about how all those things relate to the production of the design.
When showing us the posters that made up the exhibition, he noted: "Design is not all about the form – it is every part of the process. From using the product to holding it to the packaging. It is that global view of product design that Apple owes a lot to Braun, the thinking about the details."
This devil's detail is certainly apparent Braun's earlier work. Some of Braun earliest designs were shown off, including a modular flashlight where units could be swapped on the device. Released in the 60s, the flashlight ended up having 100 different pieces made for it over that decade.
The products on show were varied - from a 'building blocks' electronics kit made for schools to a piece of audio history, the Audio 2. Again, Braun's fascination with modular design was highlighted in this device which was originally on sale in the 60s.
According to Braun, the record player was one of the first times that audio equipment wasn't hidden inside a cabinet – the technical aspects of the device were celebrated and not shied away from. It was a celebration of the technology that made up the record player and what the technology could do.
Also on show was a side by side comparison of a Braun calculator and the original iPhone's calculator, as well as an iPod Classic and the Braun T3 Pocket Radio.
Put together and the designs are achingly similar - with a circular centre dial dominating both products. Where the iPod has a screen, the Braun radio a speaker grill – but the streamlined design is noticeable on both. It is this simplicity that has stuck with Braun, notes Wilson.
"Braun design has of course evolved in relation to what is technologically possible, but the design philosophy and core values of design quality, design function and design aesthetic have stayed the same.
"Braun design has always stood for functional, honest, consistent and 'good design'. Today we say the 'strength of pure' when we talk about Braun design," he explained.
Standing the test of time
When asked to come up with designs for the exhibition, 34 agencies agreed to create a poster for the show - this was out of a list of 35 that were asked. Number 35 only declined due to time constraints.
Wilson says that this 'love' for Braun is something that sets the company apart from other big-name manufacturers out there.
"Good designs that stand the test of time become classics and therefore have a certain collector's value," explained Wilson.
"The Braun story, products and Braun design has inspired many designers and companies over the years. Owning these products is like owning a part of this history."
And it is this history that Braun isn't scared to go back and look at, especially when it comes to new products.
Although Braun is now most famous for its razor lineup, it is also continuing in the watch space – a place it dominated in the 70s.
"Over the past three, four years, the evolution of our clocks and watch business has been a great means to extend our portfolio into existing and new markets, and that helps building and strengthening the Braun brand," said Wilson.
Does this mean we will see a Braun smartwatch? Well, for now it's more about making watches relevant again.
"In this day and age, a watch is not really a tool you 'need'. Time is everywhere, on the computer on a smartphone... So, for us creating a watch that people want is great. It's also a huge challenge and a passion topic for all of our designers."
The latest product to come from Braun camp couldn't be further from the analogue world of watches, though. The Braun CoolTec razor is the first electric shaver with active cooling technology. An integrated electro ceramic cooling element within the razor takes the heat out of shaving. Which all sounds great but how does this rather complicated technology fit with the 'functional' aspect of Braun?
"From the beginning of the development process, our design team worked very closely with the engineers and scientists to ensure that the Braun CoolTec looked like and felt like a Braun shaver, while also living up to the users expectations of a modern, state of the art shaver," said Wilson.
"The team did a great job in designing this 'new to the world' product, CoolTec has also already received various prestigious international design awards, Red Dot and the Australian Good Design awards."
It all seems a world away from the modular world of Braun when Dieter Rams was in charge of design, and what blatantly inspired Ive to further Apple's product line with innovative products. But Wilson believes that there are still a lot of similarities, while the new products come under a new mantra.
"Today our philosophy, the 'Strength of Pure' is the basis for our current and future designs."