Fusing Fashion and Design for Breakout Success

Fusing Fashion and Design for Breakout Success

How do you stand out in a crowded consumer electronics category? Take one microbiologist, add an accountant, a competitive snowboarder, and a former child prodigy, then steep them in strategy and design. Next arm them with an arsenal of Psycho-Aesthetics design strategy tools, and step back as they use their insight and talent to team up with a young but established brand that is already known for creating products rich in design.

In early 2009, RKS founder and CEO, Ravi Sawhney took a team of his most talented female designers and set them loose to explore blue-sky headphone concepts. The multi-disciplinary team included Soyun Kim, Leah Thomas, Young Bang, and Hojin Choi. Soyun brought both business savvy and creative talent to the team. With both a B.A. in Business Administration from Sookmyung University and a BFA in Industrial Design from the Academy of Art University, Soyun was recognized as one of the nation's top five ID students when she won the IDSA National Student Merit Award Winner for the Western District. In 2008, Soyun won the top tier Spark! award for the Vite Rescue Stretcher concept she codesigned.

Leah (the competitive snowboarder) earned her Bachelor of Science in Industrial Design from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where she nabbed a coveted full scholarship in transportation design from Ford Motor Company. It wasn't long, however, before Leah realized her true love was product design.

Young began by earning a BS in Molecular and Cellular Biology, Genetics at U.C. Berkeley, before earning her BFA in Industrial Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. In 2008, Young was chosen as IDSA Merit Award Nominee to present work the IDSA Western conference, and this year, she won an IDEA Gold award for her Cheers Menstrual Cup student project. Finally, Hojin Choi is the child prodigy who picked up a paintbrush and palette at an age when most kids are more focused on blocks and teddy bears. Hojin went on to earn an MFA from the Academy of Art University, and dual BFAs (in Painting and Visual Communication Design) from Hongik University. These four bright young women, with a total of eight college degrees and untold stores of enthusiasm between them, began their blue-sky exploration of headphone concepts. First, they used Psycho- Aesthetics to develop an understanding of the competitive landscape and identify new opportunities.

The team first mapped competitor products, which were largely sporty or technology-driven designs. Realizing that a woman's sense of style was clearly missing from these offerings, the designers saw a strategic opportunity to bring higher fashion to the headphone market. "We knew were looking to connect with people more interested in setting trends than following them," says Soyun. "To connect emotionally with fashion-forward young trendsetters these designs would need a classic elegance," explains Leah.

When our team presented the concept to Vestalife, Vestalife immediately put RKS designs on a fast track to market, and asked the team to tackle earbud designs. In this category, research again revealed a clear opportunity to bring a higher sense of fashion to the market. "What we really wanted to do was create designs that looked more like earrings than earbuds," Soyun explains. And they didn't focus on just the earbuds themselves. "With more traditional earbuds, the design stops at the body," explains Leah. "We chose to bring attention to the cord, treating it, too, like jewelry that was meant to be displayed, not hidden." Soyun agrees, "By wrapping the cord in fabric, it is transformed from ordinary of electronics into something that evokes the look and feel of a necklace."

In collaboration with Vestalife executives, the team settled on three designs. The first, Bumblebee, includes refined geometric shapes and defined radius details. The high and low rings add depth as they help focus attention on the sophisticated lens-shaped disk at the rear of the design. The clear cover protects the inner design as it gives the user a more comfortable grip for inserting or removing the earbuds. The rich shades of red in the earbud body are echoed in the braided, metallic-look cord.

Scarab evokes the rich history of the iconic Egyptian symbol of renewal and rebirth with a thoroughly modern feel. The gold back plate is visible through the translucent ear fitting, giving Scarab great point-of-purchase appeal. A ring of gold separates the earpiece from the body of the earbud, which features a sculpted pinch-grip to encourage removal by the earbud, not the cord. The leather-look insert is folded to form a natural cord-relief. Gold accents in the cord complete the look, which resembles a braided gold necklace.

Boa revealed its name when the wrap-around cord gently "squeezed" the housing. With its elegant, understated design and the natural fabric look of the cord, it has a classic, casual feel. Taking a cue from high fashion, all three styles feature the embossed Vestalife logo in a prominent location, highlighted with subtle color to harmonize with and enhance the design while reinforcing the brand.

Once the designs were completed, Hojin came in to help complete the consumer experience with packaging design. The packages themselves would have to complement the fashion statement being made by the earbuds and headphones. "The package designs have a modern vintage feeling to connect with the more sophisticated audience," says Hojin. Special attention was paid to every detail.

First a die-cut was used to create the impression of the product floating within a frame wrapped by a gold band, while keeping costs and materials use within specifications. The feel of jewelry packaging was even brought to the hangtags, as no detail was left untouched by this design team.

Fueled by the power of Psycho-Aesthetics to create the magic of emotional connection, the team's hard work has paid off. In previews, the designs have already piqued press interest and garnered retailer pre-orders far in excess of expectations. The Bumblebee, Scarab, and Boa earbuds debuted at CES this week, and they were just awarded Good Design Awards by the Chicago Athenaeum and the "Best in Show" Award for 2010 by iLounge today at CES.

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