A Conversation With Robert Brunner, the Iconic Designer Behind Beats By Dre

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A Conversation With Robert Brunner, the Iconic Designer Behind Beats By Dre

Seven years ago, former Pentagram partner and Apple industrial design director Robert Brunner co-founded Ammunition, a new studio that aimed to give design the respect it deserved when crafting a product. Since then, the firm has produced iconic tech like the original Beats headphones, the recent Polaroid Cube, and, just announced today, the upcoming Leeo Smart Alert Nighlight, the first of Leeo’s planned smart home gadgets.

We had a chance to talk with Brunner about his work, his approach to design, and his ideas for the future.

Paste: How would you describe Ammunition’s general design philosophy?

Robert Brunner: Through my experiences working with these great organizations, I saw this rising importance of product design in the business community as being crucial to success. The reality is that we were getting some very valuable intellectual property and giving it away pretty cheaply. I wanted to build a company that worked in different business models that could actually participate in the success of the really interesting stuff we created. So I needed to build a multi-disciplinary approach to doing things. I came from the world of visual design, interactive design, and Matt [Rolandson] came from a world of user experience and brand strategy so it just made a lot of sense.

Paste: So you had this idea of valuing your own work a little more than you did in the past?

R.B.: I think that, myself included, other designers just focus on the notion of “I want to do something cool, work on something cool. Just do well enough financially that we feel okay.” That’s fine and that’s great, but I was seeing that design was becoming intellectual property and should be treated in the same way as someone writing software code or creating specific hardware. That’s what we’re about, making great things and shipping and delivering them. We’ve really built a reputation doing not just great work but great work that’s effective and actually happens.

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Paste: How did you first get involved with Beats?

R.B.: I was introduced to Jim Iovine and Dr. Dre through a friend of a friend. They had this very specific belief that there was an audience and an entire young generation that was lost to the idea of great sound, being brought up listening to compressed audio through inexpensive earbuds. What they wanted to do was not just sell the higher end audio experience to their audience but also do it in a way that was tuned to their music. That was really important. Our secret weapon was we had two guys who actually created and produced a lot of the music helping us tune the products.

We began working closely with Jimmy and Dre. before there even was a Beats company organization. It was just those two guys. We began building that product and it turned out that we were right. Jimmy’s a smart enough businessman to notice that for his audience, there was no audio company that they were super fired up to be involved with. It certainly wasn’t Bose, it wasn’t Sony, and it wasn’t Sennheiser. So we helped build an enormous business that was eventually acquired by Apple for a huge sum of money. It was a nice validation of our work.

Paste: Could you say a little more about what the actual design process was like?

R.B.: When we first started working on it and we decided we were going to do an over-the-head and over-the-ear headphone, I did a quick audit of everything that was out there and everything in the works. They all shared the same sort of design approach of being functional in ergonomics. You had big ear cuffs, highly articulated adjustments to the phones, and a padded headband. They all worked very well but they were just very busy, mechanical things. I remember looking at the front-on view of one pair of standard headphones and I drew this single line that ran from ear to ear. I wanted to achieve something that was all that stuff together and simplified into one cohesive form that was beautiful and actually looked good on you. That was the impetus. Then we had to go back and make sure we could deliver all the functionality, structure, and durability within that form, which was no simple task.

Paste: Do you think your experience at Apple influenced your thinking towards it?

R.B.: I had my beliefs about design before I was at Apple. I’ve always believed in things that are simple, beautiful and have longevity. It’s not a purist approach to minimalism but building clean, expressive things.

Paste: Moving on to the Polaroid Cube then, you said that Beats was a collaborative effort, that they came to you with this vision. How did you get involved with the Cube then? How did it compare?

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R.B.: We started working with Polaroid when they had a relationship with Lady Gaga. She was anointed their sort of the chief creative person and we worked with Gaga and her team on a Beats project. We developed some cool stuff. Unfortunately, it didn’t see the light of day, but we established a good relationship.

When the Cube came about, they were looking at where free standing, single purpose cameras still made sense right now. So much of this point-and-shoot digital photography has been absorbed into your smartphone, so where do specific cameras make sense? One of the areas was the action camera. GoPro is a fantastic product, and it’s doing fine in this space, but it really is, as a brand, somewhat inaccessible and focused on a more extreme user. Then we thought there’s room for the action camera for the rest of us, right? That was how the project was born and what we really wanted to do was, again, create something that was simple but very iconic and recognizable and fun. It’s something compact, streamlined, durable and easy that you can just stick on your toddler’s bike helmet and make a video.

Paste: With wearable technology, it seems like there’s a lot of room to explore in terms of design. What are your thoughts on that space, where it is now, where it’s going?

R.B.: I always like to say that, with Beats, we turned out to be the most successful wearable technology company in the world. It’s a very early time for this technology. The Apple Watch is still of this first generation or maybe the beginning of the second generation. It’s a beautiful product and it’s going to do very well. It will be interesting to see what kind of functionality it breathes through their app ecosystem and how it starts to define smart watches as more than just a piece of your smartphone on your wrist. But their audience will adopt a lot of them automatically. I do think it’s a challenging space though because the interesting thing about wearables is that you do enter the realm of fashion. You are asking people to put something on their bodies that express things about themselves, so there’s a different dynamic. What are you saying about yourself? What club are you trying to be a part of? Those are all really interesting questions that I don’t think many tech companies have actually figured out yet.

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Paste: So now you’re working with Leeo on this smart smoke alert/night light along with future smart home and safety products. Has this changed your design approach? Do these new priorities present new challenges?

R.B.: One of the philosophies that we have at Leeo, and that we really resonate with, is building these simple things that fit as seamlessly as possible within people’s lives. We feel like with the coming crop of home automation products, these companies tend to ask people to do a lot. They have to spend a fair amount of money on their home network, or hard wire things into their home. So we really are focusing on very simple, understandable things with a well-defined purpose that have real value people want.

Paste: And that includes services along with products?

R.B.: There’s a very strong connection between designing a thing and a service. So if you want to have this great functionality and vision, you need to be able to acquire and analyze data and compare it to other things, people and situations, and then come back with effective functionality. It’s really an interesting time for design. We’re building and looking at products and ideas that we all thought were pretty much already done and re-thinking them. We’re starting to build out these products and services that Leeo will be rolling out in the next couple of years. We’re expanding on the things we’ve learned and it’s allowed us to learn new things.

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