How long has this been going on?

24th November 2006 by Tim Jarman

One mark of good design is that it doesn’t have to change – the famous quote is that “good design is timeless”. A useful, well designed object remains so over a long period due to the care taken in its design. Truly great design remains attractive long after the novelty of a new product launch is forgotten. Like VW Beetles and Barcelona chairs, B&O products remain in production visually unchanged for far longer than is usual in the fast-moving electronics industry. This is due to the care taken in the initial design.

An early example of a long-running success is the Beomaster 3000. This mid-range FM receiver was sufficiently well equipped to satisfy the serious listener without being too big or complicated. Its format and concept were well suited to its role as the centrepiece of a quality audio system. Although the sources changed, all variations of the Beomaster 3000 (the 3000-2, the 4000 and the 4400) looked much the same as the original. It is interesting to note that when the Beomaster 3000 was launched there was no such thing as a “hi-fi” cassette deck, but when the 4400 was finally dropped the CD was only a year or so in the future.

On a larger scale, the Beosystem 5000 and its 5500, 6500 and 7000 successors enjoyed a long period as the B&O audio system of choice. The blend of familiar 4-box separates format and B&O’s sleek detailing created a system that was easy to relate to; it was both obviously a quality hi-fi system and obviously B&O. Ever-changing technology lead to countless detail revisions but colouring aside the first systems looked nearly identical to the last, produced nearly ten years later.

The design of B&O televisions is also noted for its timeless quality. The theme of a slim wooden cabinet, edged with metal trim and fronted in black with the screen occupying as much of the frontal area as possible runs through from the first colour models in the late 1960s to the final LX models of the mid 1990s. This styling theme might be dismissed as obvious and generic, but just compare B&O’s consistent designs with those of rival manufacturers whose sets show how many fashions have come and gone in television styling over this period.

The traditional TV sets demonstrate the development of an idea, but the MX range shows how a skilful piece of design can emerge fully formed and not need to change during the life of the product. Launched in the mid 1980s and current until B&O no longer produced CRT based televisions, the MX series demonstrates most clearly how well though-out designs defy ageing. The original MX 2000 may not have been up to much technically but as the series developed and B&O designed their own chassis to fit into the pretty, compact cabinet, some truly great sets resulted. True, the MX cabinet is easy to find fault with: the loudspeakers are too close together, the contrast screen attracts dust and the controls are awkwardly placed, but the advantages of the design more than compensate for these weaknesses. It is compact for the screen size, attractive from all angles and offers a flexibility of placement unmatched by any other full-size television set. Furthermore, it is distinctively a high quality product without being too showy or crass. The styling works best with the smaller 20 and 21” models which have prefect proportions, though the larger ones also do a fine job of disguising the bulk of a 28” tube.

There are long-running successes in the current range too. The Beolab 8000 dates from the early 1990s—a loudspeaker developed with the otherwise forgotten AV 9000 system in mind. The BeoSound 9000 has also had a long run, as has the recently discontinued BeoVision Avant. Can one expect more designs along similar lines? Perhaps.

Recently B&O have introduced models into new market areas where a fast-changing product line is not just expected, but required. The BeoSound 2 MP3 player and the Serene mobile telephone both compete against ranges from rival manufacturers where new additions appear monthly, so it will be a challenge for B&O to establish a timeless design here.

The larger products are also in a delicate position. B&O is increasingly reliant on third party manufacturers to provide the basis for their products. The DVD 1 had to be completely redesigned when the Philips model on which it is based was discontinued. Although it remained outwardly unchanged, the large cabinet was not actually necessary any more as it was mostly empty.

Televisions also represent a problem as the industry adapts to changing display technologies. The modern compact displays require very little cabinet work and offer limited scope for differentiation. Almost every manufacturer settled on the “correct” answer of a thin silver frame around a large black screen at the same time.

Taking the range as a whole, the manner in which audio and video material is stored and retrieved is changing. CDs are in decline and VHS and audio cassettes have all but disappeared. The medium on which music and video is stored defines so much of a product’s design – its size, its appearance and how a user interacts with it. The increased use of hard drives and the wider availability on-demand broadcasts are setting the trend for how we’ll store and use our music and video collections. Although the means of storage and delivery may change, it seems clear that computers will replace simple, easily understood mechanics in the systems of the future. The current interfaces are cumbersome, awkward and even obstructive. If B&O can make them as easy to use as some of their great designs of the past then maybe they could come up with another timeless classic, even in these difficult times.