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Robert Brunner: What All Great Design Companies Know

About this talk

What’s the secret to becoming a legendary design company like Apple or BMW? In this talk, designer Robert Brunner deconstructs his creative process revealing the stories behind products like Beats by Dre headphones and the Polaroid Cube.

First, he says, recognize that a brand belongs to your customers. “You don’t own your brand. A brand isn’t a logo or packaging,” he says. “It’s a gut feeling. And when two people have the same gut feeling, you have a brand.” Secondly, most people view design as a part of the production chain, you get requirements in and out comes a product. But design is the chain, and for the best products it permeates every step. “It should be a topic of conversation constantly,” he says. “Thats how you make great stuff.”

Robert Brunner, Founder & Partner, Ammunition

Robert Brunner founded San Francisco-based design studio Ammunition in 2007 to communicate ideas through products, brands, and their surrounding experiences. His work as an industrial designer has spawned numerous brand-defining designs over the past three decades. Prior to founding Ammunition, Robert was a partner at Pentagram and led strategic brand consulting and industrial design programs for Fortune 500 companies. Previously, he was the Director of Industrial Design for Apple, where he established its pioneering internal corporate design organization, Apple IDg. Before joining Apple, Robert co-founded design consultancy Lunar.

Named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business,” Robert’s work is included in the permanent design collections of the MoMA in both New York and San Francisco. He is the co-author of the book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company.

Full Transcript

Good morning, everybody. I’m a designer of physical things. I make stuff. How many other people out here make stuff? Good, we’ve got some stuff makers here.

So I have two jobs, which is a little insane, but fun. I mentioned Ammunition. I develop and design all this stuff for this headphone brand called Beats by Dr. Dre, which keeps me enormously busy. But I will go into that as we get along.

So I want to talk about something that’s kind of near and dear to my heart. And this will become clear as we go on, but this notion of ideas, not objects, and what it really means to make good, meaningful stuff.

So first, a little bit about Ammunition. So started the company after Apple and Pentagram. And really through this process, we became acutely aware of the power of the relationship between people and things. I mean, it’s a sort of primal. It goes back to, like, when we first picked up a stick and whacked our little caveman over the head with it. We sort of become fascinated with the things around us. And when done right, people have a relationship with things, a special relationship. And it forms an important part of their lives. So that was a fascination that developed throughout my career, and learning through Apple and Pentagram and seeing when it worked and it didn’t. And so that was the foundation of Ammunition, of building a team and an organization that’s really centered around this idea of making great stuff and stuff that actually you want to participate in. But through this, and working with a lot of companies and helping them learn how to use design and be successful, I began to develop his opinion about what design is and what it is– oh, good. Because the font there is wrong. I gave you the font. What do you mean? What we start doing is realizing what we’re doing is creating this interface plane between the companies we work with have created in their constituents. It’s sort of the big D– design is– the thing that surprised me through all my years was how companies didn’t realize is they just made stuff and put it out there and saw what happened, when really what you’re doing is you’re defining this view of you to everyone and what it means and who you are and your values and all that. So if you’re not thinking about that shit, people don’t understand you. So that’s really where we started to build the group and the company. So throughout all this– I hate to admit how long, but it’s been, like, 30 years I’ve been doing this– there are some observations. And these have become very acute for me, especially today and what’s happening in design. So I’m going to go through those and then show some work. I was asked to show, like, sketches and shit, so I’ll show you that too. So brand, right? Everybody talks about brand. And those of you who may have seen me speak before, you’ve heard this before. But I keep finding this really interesting over the years that it’s a highly misunderstood thing. So what I like to do is get people’s attention and say, you actually don’t own your brand. And I start explaning this by, I’ll tell you what brands are not. They’re not identities. They’re not logos. They’re not retail experiences. They’re not packaging. They’re not products. They’re none of that. What a brand is simply a gut feeling– a gut feeling you have about something. And I always say, when two people have the same gut feeling, you in fact have a brand. But what’s interesting about that if you think about it is that as a company, it’s not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is. And it’s what they feel. You cannot control how people feel. You can only influence. And the irony is that you don’t own it. They own it. So you have to get that into your head and realize that it’s very important to work to establish a relationship with people and really communicate about who you are and what you’re about and what’s important to you. Technology– everybody loves technology. Everybody is fascinated by it. We talk about it constantly, especially in what I do. I work in the consumer electronics field, mostly. But in recent years, people have started to realize something very important, and that’s this. Technology enables, but design establishes. And while it’s really important the underpinnings of what makes something work, it’s always the things that are successful are established in people’s lives by the people in this room. And what’s really great about this– I really think that we are, right now, entering into a golden age of design, Sounds really important, but I think it’s true. When I look at the way we’re working today versus even five years ago, it’s extremely different– the engagement, the degree of influence that we have. So the people who were heroes five years ago were the engineers. Today, you guys are the heroes and it’s happening more and more. So when your parents about your career choice, you can say, ha ha, I was right. Money– a lot of talk about money today. Things like Kickstarter, the amount of venture capital going into hardware these days, big acquisitions that are making the headlines– everybody’s talking about money. It seems to be a measuring stick. And actually in addition to doing the usual consulting stuff, we have a lot of business partnerships. It’s one of the things when we started Ammunition, I realized that as designers, we actually give away our intellectual property really cheaply. We’re just happy to get a good project, and it’s really cool, and yeah, we’ll get enough money to pay our people. That’s fine. And then people go away and make millions and millions and millions on what we did so. And so I wanted to change that and start building partnerships and our own companies and things where we could participate in them more. But one thing that we learned is that money and an opportunity are not extraordinary assets. And my business partner Matt Rowlinson uses this phrase all the time when we start looking at working with somebody is, what are their extraordinary assets? And having a lot of cash and having maybe a business idea aren’t extraordinary assets. It’s things like, do you have an audience? You have an amazing distribution system in getting products out there. Are there some underlying things you know how to do that nobody else does? Those are extraordinary assets. If you look at a company like Beats that’s been enormously successful, it has nothing to do with the money. In fact, there was very little money put in in the beginning. It was about two guys that understood some very important things about modern music and had a very strong relationship with their audience. And of course they brought me into it. So those are important. So risk– how many of you run into this barrier when someone doesn’t want to take a risk, a client, so forth, and like, no, we can’t do that. It’s too risky. I always say to them, risk is not a four letter word. Because risk and innovation are inherently linked together. Innovation by nature means you’re doing something you haven’t done before. That’s risky. We’ll do the same thing we did last time. We know how to do that. It’s easy, right? Well, that’s not risky. So really, ironically, not taking risks is the riskiest thing you can do today. You really have to push and learn how to work with people to understand, OK, we’ll do our best to do due diligence, but we’re going to push. So finally, the object– I spend a lot of time with objects. I obsess over objects. We all do. But it’s not about the object, in my opinion. It’s more about the thing behind it. I always do this little thing. So I ask people, what is this? Anybody know what this is? No, it’s not an iPhone. This is a very nice object– exquisitely designed, wonderfully crafted. But it’s not an iPhone. It becomes an iPhone when you think about how you learned about it, the process of purchasing it, maybe at the Apple Store, getting it in that wonderful box, turning it on, experiencing the interface, creating content, connecting with your family and friends. Then it becomes an iPhone. But if you close your eyes and think of your iPhone and start taking all that stuff away, pretty soon it just becomes a nice object. So that’s the thing is that when we’re looking at making great products, the object’s really important. But the things that makes it special are those ideas that go beyond that. So with that, a few ideas. So I’m going to go through these quickly. So this is a recent project that we did. And it was really ultimately about rethinking the sales transaction. So you might be familiar with the mobile transaction company Square. Got involved with Jack Dorsey and his team first on developing their second generation reader. So for those of you who haven’t used Square, it’s an amazing idea that really democratizes the credit card as a business tool. All you need to do is download the app, get the reader, sign up, and you’re in business taking credit card payments. So it doesn’t matter if you have your own boutique shop or you’re a guy in the street selling art. All of a sudden you’re in business using credit cards. It’s fantastic. So we helped develop the second version, because the first version was kind of held together with duct tape and wire and kind of unreliable. So we built a new one. And then Jack asked us to do this project, which was the Square Stand. And what it really was about was taking this idea and redefining the cash register. And so what the stand does is you buy it for $99, take an iPad, Square Register software, sign up, boom. You a complete point of purchase terminal. But when we started working on this and working with Square, they really were into a very refined, beautiful, wonderful piece of product art. But there was something about that transaction that was very important to us when looking at this notion of when you use the reader with an iPhone, there’s a sort of very personal exchange that takes place. It might be a little unhygienic, but the person scans your credit card, puts in their transaction, then they hand it to you. You look at it, you sign it with your finger, you give it back. So we felt that was an important part of the Square experience. So when we developed the stand, it has this 180 degree swivel. So it sort of fosters that relationship between the retailer and the customer, of exchanging back and forth in that transaction. And that, we thought, was one of the most critical things. So I was asked to show some sketches. Here’s a sketch. But that one in the lower right [INAUDIBLE] start thinking of this idea of putting the card reader out in front and really floating the terminal, the stand, the iPad above it. So in our process, no silver bullets. We tend to like to build context and understand what’s going on and what people need, and so forth and so on and experiment with it, play with it how it works, et cetera. And then you can see here how the idea starts developing, and you start to move into 3D. And this thing is important because we were playing with what does this cantilevered arm look like. And I think it was this sketch over here. I was looking at it and said, that’s actually a section of the Square logo. So we thought, one of those little things– people in this room, we love that kind of stuff because there’s a story behind it– not a big deal. So we’re just going to take this Square thing and really go everywhere with it. One of the things we really wanted with it was when you look at the back of the product, there are no seams. It is absolutely perfect surfaces, because that’s where most people come up upon it in the store. That sounds easy. It’s actually incredibly difficult. So engineering the product– so virtually there were no seams on it, and how it would be constructed and assembled turned out to be quite a bit of work. We labored and labored over the right shade of white and the right shade of gray. This is part of– Jack Dorsey is amazing and he really wanted it just right, so it was unbelievable how many chips we handed out to get that right. So here’s the stand– very simple. And you can see the section, the profile, and of course the absolutely clean perfect back. So next little story is about revitalizing an American icon. So I started working with Polaroid ironically through Lady Gaga, because we had worked with her in Beats. She had this period where she was involved with Polaroid. We helped redevelop, or develop some new cameras. And fortunately, they never went to market. That thing kind of fizzled. And then one of their licensees who makes cameras got to know them. And they said, we want to do our own action camera, our GoPro. And we started looking at them and saying, well, we want to look back at what makes Polaroid special and the ideas behind it– simplicity, instant gratification, iconic nature, and said, well, let’s make it a cube. So this is the cube. And it’s a small, portable action camera, rubberized finish. And we wanted to bring in this little bit of DNA. So those of you who think that rainbow stripe comes from Instagram, you’re probably under 24 years old. It actually came from the original Polaroid One Step that, remember, that was an amazing camera and extremely, extremely popular. So we brought that little bit of DNA in. Here’s another sketch. This is how we first started with it. And I looked and said, no, this is too fragile. This feels a little too pristine. So we said, let’s just make it, like I said, a chunk of rubber. And so this is when it evolved into the thing that it is now. We have this little thing on the bottom where you get at the battery, but it’s also a little magnetic base. So here it is as it’s developed. Looking at sizing and so forth, it ended up being about a lower inch and a quarter square. OK again, that’s great– how do you make it? Harder than it seems to get everything into that little inch and a quarter square, make it feel seamless, durable, but here it is. Again, it’s a wonderful, cute little thing. And the thing I love about this, at CES, we just put it in the booth in a little case and it was on everybody’s top 10 list. All of this is a $99 camera, little action camera. But it showed me again the power of icons. It just really captured people’s imagination and that’s what Polaroids doing. So this is the little magnetic base. You can mount it on different ways, some different colors and so forth. So my designer working on this with me, Gregoire Vandenbussche– he’s French. And he’s a little silly. Not that that equates, but he’s a little silly. And so he’s always drawing characters of people. And he was doing these doodles, and I thought, you know, that’s really funny. Let’s make that. So we also make these little guys with metal parts in their heads so you can balance the camera on it and rotate it around and so forth. So we just thought that was pretty funny. So last story here– going to buzz through this. This idea– people are not hearing my music. When I first met Dr. Dre, that was the first thing he said in regards to what’s going on in the world. I spend all this time making wonderful sound, a year I’ll take making a song, and everybody listens to it on fucking crappy white ear buds. So– [VIDEO PLAYBACK] [MUSIC PLAYING] [END PLAYBACK] We need a better sound system. That was our first commercial. And actually, it’s my favorite. I could show you commercials for an entire 45 minutes. But I always love that ad. So Beats by Dr. Dre, really about this idea, this opportunity that Jimmy Iovine saw that it was really– first of all, they’re passionate about this idea of sound and not having a platform to put out sound that they felt the way it should be heard, based on all this music they had produced. Jimmy saw this business opportunity– there was no high performance audio brand for a younger audience. So this thing has been incredible. It’s the number one headphone brand in the world. It controls anywhere between 60% to 70% of the high performance headphone market. It’s well over a billion dollars, going to two. There was a period where every year the market doubled just because Beats was in it– amazing, amazing statistics. Some people ask, how did you do it? And I think a better question is, how did this dork end up in this hip sandwich, right? You know? And it was kind of a friend of a friend thing got involved. They wanted to make products. And interestingly enough, Mr. Weird Silicon Valley designer guy actually got along really well with the likes of Dre and Jimmy and Diddy and people like that. So it’s changed my perception of me to my children forever. So how did we do it? So really quick, because I’m running out of time. We rethought audio again. It’s not about what audiophiles like. It’s about what the sound that our audience likes. And it’s Dre’s sound. So it was really building products tuned to a specific sound profile and saying, it’s not audiophile sound, it’s club sound. It’s this emotional sound that our audience wants to hear and is really tuned to the specific songs that, again, these guys produced. They know exactly how it’s supposed to sound. That’s our silver bullet. My job was to rethink the headset. And when I looked at it, this was kind of an iconographic idea of a headset. And it’s very articulated. It’s very ergonomic. It’s very comfortable. It does what it’s supposed to do. But all that leads into this very complex, busy structure. And I remember just drawing a single line running from ear to ear and saying, that’s what I want to achieve, this sort of very clean, simple, sophisticated appearance and really build something that was not only iconic, but if possible, fashionable, that people would feel good about wearing. And the one thing that I think Jimmy understands is this notion of fashion. And I always say fashion in some ways is either the tribe you belong to or the tribe you want to belong to and how you create those ideas and aspiration. And so that leads to the third point– make it big. Make it big. So this was actually at a Super Bowl a few years ago and the Black Eyed Peas. And actually we didn’t even know– Will.I.Am is a friend of Jimmy. And we didn’t know they were going to do this, but they made the stage in the shape of our logo. But this is Jimmy. I don’t know if you’ve seen Jimmy. He’s crazy, kind of crazy brilliant. He once said to me– he has all these great quotes. He says, Robert, our marketing strategy is, a lot of people owe me a lot of favors. And it’s true, right? These are his friends. These are the people he hangs with. So let’s get them involved. And people like LeBron James is a big, big, friend of the company and helps us to promote the products. And he did something that was amazing. When we do our first product before the Beijing Olympics, his manager, Maverick Carter, called Jimmy and said, I’m here with the dream team. We’re at LAX. You’ve got one hour to get us 20 pairs of headphones. So they did. And then following that, virtually every interview, every warmup everything with the dream team, they were wearing their headphones. And it was an amazing event. So fast forward to the London Olympics– he said, that worked. So we held a party before the Olympics, invited athletes and gave And so throughout the Olympics, this is what you saw, to the point where the IOC called Luke Wood, the president of Beats, and said, stop it. Stop what? People listen to music. So we’ve continued on that theme. You may have seen the ads with Colin Kaepernick and of athletes [INAUDIBLE] hear what you want, very powerful. Some of the best sports marketing ever for a headphone company, and then continued the relationships with all Jimmy’s pals and really beginning to what [INAUDIBLE] was somebody that really knows how to market stuff and began a market color and so forth. So again, just everything blossomed. So I’ll just run through the products really quickly– the original Studio, the Solo, which is the highest selling headphone ever made. We’ve done a Pro series, which is sort of prosumer but more geared towards studio monitor. Our DJ headphone, the Mixer, which is my favorite. We really had to engineer this virtually indestructible head band. Hate this name, the Executive. You know how you start calling something as a project name and then Jimmy’s like, I like that. All of a sudden, that’s what it’s called. We’ve done a series of speakers. This was one of our first boom boxes. But then we did this thing called the Pill, which is a portable Bluetooth speaker. And we made this shape and it became kind of a joke– “just what the doctor ordered” kind of thing. And then again, it stuck. And then Omar Johnson, I think, with RGA created this advertising campaign with these animated characters called Meet the Pills. So we said, well, let’s make one. So we actually manufactured this as an accessory, and they sell surprisingly well. A larger version of it, in-ear products– and we’ve finally come full circle and redesigned, re-engineered the studio. This is absolutely, I think, the most amazing headphone ever built, from an audio quality, construction– all these years of learning and getting better and better at it, we put that to play. So I always like to say, one of my favorite brands in the world it’s Harley. Because company that gets their logo tattooed all over everybody is doing something right. So it’s like, to me it’s a measure of success. So one day in the Beats Facebook page, I saw this picture and I thought, gosh, she’s going to regret that. But it’s just– it’s starts to show when you’re actually doing something right culturally. That happens. So I’m all over. So I’m going to blast through this. The last thing– I never show charts. I have one chart. So this is, when you’re thinking about working with your clients or company in making stuff, there’s this chain of events that happens. Most people view design like this. It’s something you get requirements in and stuff out and then get out of the way. And then we talk about all those people we like to hold up on pedestals, like Apple, or pick your ones– BMW, whatever. They actually understand it very differently. They flip it on its side and stretch it out. And what that means is, the idea of design and that chain of events should be a topic of conversation, constantly. Everyone involved needs to understand what you’re trying to achieve and experience and how they play a role in it and what they do. That’s how you make great stuff.

But what I’d like to say is that if it was easy, everybody would do it. So anyway, I’ve gone over. But thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]

Comments (5)
  • Keshaw Gajadin

    Such a great one, loved it from start to end.

  • Stephen Lee

    Man, that was awesome..! I would have loved to listen to him for another 30 minutes..

  • ben

    Always a pleasure.

  • Domenica Genovese

    Giving credit where it’s due: your comments on branding are straight out of Marty Neumeier’s, “The Brand Gap.”

    • cruuze

      You say that as if the “brand gap” was the first and only book written on the subject. Nor is the idea actually that you don’t own a brand revolutionary – its simply a fact.

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