Designing the Audio Dock Air: An Interview with John Sundermeyer
Last year, we met Los Angeles-based industrial designer John Sundermeyer through a mutual friend. Call it kismet, but as it turns out, John was just wrapping up his first design commission for Audyssey, whose home audio products we’d recently developed an attachment to. John’s design was none other than the Audio Dock Air, which we launched in the store earlier this year.
As the founder of Pull Creative, a design agency specializing in user experience, and original author of one of our favorite water bottles, we knew John would have some interesting things to say about the creation of the Audio Dock Air, so we passed along some design-junkie-type questions and John helped illuminate his process for us.
[GI] Why are you a designer?
[JS] I’ve always been a designer. Meaning, I’ve always thought and acted like a designer, so I learned the necessary skills to make it a profession. I’ve always liked making things, but I was even more interested in the ideas and drawing. I grew up in Ann Arbor and was influenced by Detroit and the auto industry. My best friend and I would spend hours drawing cars, systems for mag-lev vehicles and buildings.
I eventually got into woodworking and wooden boat restoration; initially I would sketch-up paint schemes for boats and eventually entire boats. During this time I was influenced a lot by the Mid-West’s industrial past while I was growing up. I helped out at a relative’s workshop on the restoration of antique and classic boats and aircraft. Everything was about preserving the machine’s originality; we’d go to extremes to ensure that every detail was kept intact. So early on, I was fascinated by these machines that had been so well designed that they were worthy of painstaking resurrection 50 or 70 years after they were built.
[GI] How did you get hooked up with Audyssey?
[JS] I was initially approached by a member of their engineering team that I had worked closely with at a previous company. We had collaborated on a number of products that had reached the market successfully, so I was invited to bid on the AirDock program and that led to the long-term collaboration that we have now.
[GI] What was their design brief for the Audio Dock Air?
[JS] We knew from the beginning that we wanted to draw from the visual identity of Audyssey’s Media Speakers (which were about to launch at the time) and that we wanted to leverage the form factor of their wireless Audio Dock. It was important for us to create a strong identity that clearly communicated that this represented a new kind of “dock” while still looking like it belonged in the Audyssey family.
“… a lot of the devices in this space are too intrusive, a lot of contrast and gregarious forms, when the emphasis should really about usability and great sound.”
[GI] Were you inspired by anything or anyone during early development?
[JS] I was inspired by the end-user and their needs for a device that could live comfortably anywhere in their house or workspace. I wanted to create a design that would be very identifiable on its own, yet confident enough to live harmoniously in its given environment. I’ve always felt that a lot of the devices in this space are too intrusive, a lot of contrast and gregarious forms, when the emphasis should really about usability and great sound.
[GI] What was your starting point and how did the form factor emerge?
[JS] Audyssey already had a very unique form factor with their original wireless Audio Dock, which is narrow and deep, unlike the majority of docks on the market that generally have a very traditional “landscape” aspect ratio. We had a lot of positive feedback from end-users about this form-factor because its footprint is very efficient, especially in a space sensitive environments like a desktop or nightstand. This form factor also has some performance advantages, most notably the side-firing drivers which provide better stereo separation than traditional dock configurations.
[GI] What was your biggest challenge in designing the Audio Dock Air?
[JS] We knew early on that there were some caveats relating to performance that would influence the form directly. For example, we had to avoid sharp edges that would adversely affect the performance of the tweeters. We also had to be very mindful of how the device was constructed to ensure that the cabinet would be sealed/airtight.
[GI] How many iterations did the design go through en route to the final production version?
[JS] There were really two main iterations, the first being the original concept sketch direction, the second being its refinement and subsequent 3D development. Everything else can be classified as refinement/implementation. As with any product, details had to be honed and finessed as the design was being implemented by the engineering team and manufacturer, however, these iterations were very small and did not impact the essence of the device.
[GI] Are there any aspects to the design that you’re particularly proud of?
[JS] The final design/production unit is very true to the original design intent. Actualizing a minimal design like the Audio Dock Air’s requires a lot of attention to detail and shared vision by the entire team. Audyssey understood this innately and having everyone aligned on this vision was crucial to ensuring that superfluous details didn’t creep in along the way.
“…when I’m designing for music I’m designing for my friends and myself in a way that’s very personal.”
[GI] Why do you like designing for music?
[JS] People connect with these types of products deeply, whether it’s a device focused on music creation or playback, these devices play a special role in people’s lives. It’s also the most natural area for me to work in, when I’m designing for music I’m designing for my friends and myself in a way that’s very personal.
[GI] Let’s get personal for a bit. What inspires you outside of music?
[JS] Architecture. More products should receive the level of scrutiny and consideration that buildings are subjected to. Design should create special and memorable experiences for people and architecture does this for me most effectively. There is obviously the feeling you have when you’re viewing a structure or inside of a beautiful space, which fulfills the role of design on a cursory level, but more interestingly for me is the way buildings relate to their surroundings and how our perception of them evolves over time.
[GI] When you’re not creating irresistible objects or taking in architecture, what activities do you enjoy?
[JS] Exploring nature and staying out all night. I live and work in central Los Angeles, having a regular change of environment is important to me. I’ve always been drawn to the water, I do a lot of scuba and free diving locally because California’s kelp forests are very special to me. Local diving is also great for harvesting seafood and depending on the season, we have access to spiny lobster and divers scallops, I have a great time collecting the food and feeding friends.