The Roots of the iPod Classic’s Design Language
Updated: May 11, 2021
by: Bill Buxton
The history of design follows an age-old tradition of standing on the shoulders of giants. The genesis of the design language of the Apple iPod Classic is a wonderful example. By way of illustration, I have chosen the four devices below, shown in chronological order, left to right.
In the previous photo, I positioned all of four devices in a vertical posture with their rotary control at the bottom. This was to simplify comparisons with the iPod. In contrast, here are the same four devices in the orientation intended by their designers. Notice how similarities are less obvious. This speaks to the need for designers to look through the superficial and see otherwise less evident relationships, relationships that may point to new opportunities. Such is the nature of creativity!
The Ancestry of an Icon
My story spans 50 years. It starts in 1954 with the launch of the world’s first transistor radio, the Regency TR-1 (shown on the far left). The story ends with the 2004 launch of the 4th generation of the iPod Classic (seen on the far right). In between we have the 1957 TR-65, the first Sony transistor radio released outside of Japan (but the second they produced), and the Braun T3, another transistor radio, released in 1958. (You may have noticed that in the first photo, the TR-65 is attributed to the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Co. At the time of its release, Sony was the brand rather than company name. It was only after becoming so successful that Sony became the company name.)
It is rather well known among students of industrial design and Apple products that the Braun T3 was an inspiration for the design language of the iPod Classic’s form. The similarities are seen in the relative proportions of the case and the positioning and scale of the common circular dial control. Notice also the clean, minimal design of each. Not only is the circular control flush with the rest of the face, but the colors are muted and there is no decoration to speak of.
That it was the T3 that provided the inspiration is not surprising. The T3 is a classic of design of that era. Deservedly, it holds a place in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Jonathan Ive, the design lead at Apple, had made no secret of his high respect for the work of Dieter Rams, who was Braun’s head of design at the time and the lead designer of the T3. Finally, the spirit of the T3’s design fits the specific project and Apple’s new brand identity. Its adoption as a model was appropriate, not gratuitous.
Riffing Off or Ripping Off?
To dig deeper into this topic, I would like to pursue the following question: Is the kind of relationship reflected between these two products the exception or the rule?
I hope to convince you is that it is unquestionably the rule. Consider Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones quoting a passage from one of his guitar heroes. If he plays a line from Chuck Berry, for example, is it riffing off or ripping off? Is it a sign of respect and tribute, or plagiarism?
Richards would expect true fans to recognize the quote. That is what makes it special. Why that quote? Why there? What came before? Where is he going to take it? It is in such questions that the musicianship and creativity of both listener and player emerge.
Apple’s riffing on of the T3 in the design of the iPod should be seen in similar light. And as we shall see, in doing so, Jonathan Ive was not doing anything Dieter Rams didn’t do himself in designing the T3. To illustrate, this is a prime reason for including the Regency and Sony radios in my story.
Look again at the Regency TR-1. It was designed by the Chicago-based design firm of Painter, Teague and Petertil. Notice how strongly some of its design features are echoed by the Braun T3. These include a flush-mounted circular dial control, the rounded corners, the use of a square array of circular holes to define the speaker grill, and those holes being directly in the face of the radio, thereby retaining a clean, flush surface. You might think that such features are obvious. But to my mind, the act of creativity is the act of making the obvious obvious before it is obvious. It was Painter, Teague and Petertil —through the TR-1—who made those circular grill holes obvious. All of these features are reflected in the Braun T3. (1)
Beside the Regency TR-1 sits the Sony TR-63. It was released just a year before the Braun T3. While it was the second Sony transistor radio, it was the first to be released outside of Japan and the first to imprint the Sony brand on the world. Again, we see a large rotary dial control prominent on the front. Likewise, we again see the use of round holes to define the speaker grill. However, in contrast to the TR-1 and the Braun T3, the front dial is not mounted flush to the front face, and the speaker grill’s holes are much smaller. Note also the bright red of the side power/volume dial and the main dial highlights. While both the Braun and the Sony radios drew on the design of the Regency TR-1, each took a very different direction from that starting point.
Coupled with the addition of a metal speaker grill, the Sony brings a level of bling that is in marked contrast to the Regency TR-1, and especially the Braun T3. The T3 pursued a very different path, one toward an ever more clean and minimal design— a path the iPod took even farther. The design of the T3 adheres to the aesthetic of objective simplicity, which
characterized the International/Swiss style of design that emerged in the post-World War II era, especially in Europe. (2)
Compared to the Regency TR-1, the T3 design elements of note include uniform color and materials in the control wheel and body, the absence of any brand name or logo on the face, the discrete placement of the power/volume on the side rather than the face, and the elimination of any indentations on the surface of the face other than the grill holes. There is one other difference of note—one that may surprise those who have never seen all four devices side-by-side: size.
If one searches the Web for images of the Braun T3 and iPod together, they are most commonly shown as if they were the same size and orientation, as in the adjacent image. This is clearly a distortion. After initially only knowing the T3 through photographs, on first seeing the physical object, it was the difference in scale compared to the iPod that most surprised me. Size matters. It speaks to values, intent, and market. Diving a bit deeper into the history of these radios and the different worlds from whence they emerged may help explain.
It was not until 1950 that Texas Instruments produced the world’s first commercially available silicon transistor. It was not until 1952 that the first transistorized product became available in the U.S., a hearing aid from Sonotone (not a product that was going to set the consumer world on fire and launch huge demand for transistors.) The Regency TR-1 came into existence, in partnership with Texas Instruments, largely to create a “killer-app” that would prove the merits of the transistor. Prime among those merits was the potential for miniaturization. So size was a prime concern—a key value proposition.
This was not missed by Sony. To explain the importance of this, we must address the role of corporate culture in driving design. In 1946, Masaru Ibuka wrote a set of guiding principles for the company he was founding. Paul Kunkel writes in his book Digital Dreams: The Work of the Sony Design Center (New York: Universe, 1999): “Even though his firm had no products, no customers and scant prospects for success, Ibuka wanted his new company to have an ideology that stemmed from his own beliefs and character. First among these principles was to ‘always do what has never been done before.’” (p.13)
In keeping with this principle, what Sony dearly wanted to do was bring the world’s first transistor radio to market. In that the company failed. As we have seen, Regency was first past the post.
But if Sony could not be first overall, it needed to target some other first or else fail in terms of being true to its primary founding principle. Thus, making the world’s smallest transistor radio became the revised target. More specifically, the company’s design objective was to produce a portable transistor radio small enough to fit in a man’s shirt pocket. However, in this Sony also failed—but only just.
Having come close, Sony was reluctant to lose the PR value of that objective. Hence, it hatched a plan. At the launch, the Sony representatives all wore custom-made shirts with enlarged pockets— large enough to hold a TR-63. Thus, doth marketing make some claims “true.”
Cars, Music, and Size
Besides being a reminder of the nature and importance of the relationship between design and marketing, this focus on size provokes another question: If a key benefit of transistors was to enable things to be made smaller, why is the Braun T3 so much larger than the earlier two transistor radios?
The answer is a consequence of following a key design rule: Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. Having enumerated a range of diverse possibilities, a “correct” design choice depends upon considerations such as Why you are making the product? Who is your intended customer? Where and how are they going to use it? If you don’t know your customer and market, you might as well make your choice by rolling the dice and trusting in luck. To avoid that, let’s briefly do some retroactive market analysis.
In the United States, the diminutive portable transistor radio— such as the Sony TR-63—was as much (or more) a lifestyle accessory as a music listening device. This was the era when the recent notion of the teenager emerged.(3) It was 1951 when the prototypical angst-ridden teenager Holden Caufield was introduced to the world in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In 1954, the year the Regency TR-1 came out, Bill Haley and the Comets had their most famous hit, “Rock Around the Clock”—the song that is largely credited with being the origin of the term “rock-and-roll.” It was also in 1954 that Elvis Presley signed his first record contract with Sun Records, and in 1956 alone he released, among others, “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Love Me Tender.”
It was an era of baby boomers with their newfound postwar wealth and mobility. The notion of high school for everyone was relatively new. The extended gap that it created between childhood and becoming a working adult gave room for North American teenage culture to flourish. Car culture was a key part of this. American teenagers had access to, and a fascination with, cars. The National Hot Rod Association was founded in 1951, and the year that the T3 was released was the same year that one of the icons of custom car design and construction— Ed “Big Daddy” Roth—started doing so full time.
Meanwhile, Across the Atlantic
Germany, the home of Braun and the T3, was very different. The T3 was not designed for German teenagers. Statistically and sociologically speaking, there were no German teenagers. None of the key factors that led to the emergence of the teenager were present—not rock-and-roll, not universal high school, not mobility (especially cars), and not the money to support the lifestyle.
When I moved to Germany with my family as a nine-year-old in 1958, the cities of the industrial Ruhr region still had buildings that existed only as WWII rubble. The country was still rebuilding. Insofar as wealth and mobility are concerned, cars (much less customized cars), were out of reach for many families. Not a few families still got around on a motorcycle with a side-car, or a car that was essentially a motorcycle wrapped in a car body. But even if your family had a car, you had to be 18 to get a driver’s license—right at the end of your teens. (Contrast this with the U.S. where the minimum driving age was generally 16, but even now there are states, such as North Dakota, where one can get a learner’s permit at 14 and a restricted license at 15). At that time, the only motorized vehicle a 16-year-old German might aspire to was a moped of less than 50 cc. And, just in passing, 1958 was also the first year that a German woman could get a driver’s license without needing the permission of her father or husband.
As for education, rather than the universal notion of high school prevalent in the U.S., German students at the time were streamed into one of three systems at around age 12. About 80 percent went into the vocational stream where they got exceptional training (arguably the heart of the country’s post-war recovery), but nevertheless were in a work-oriented stream right when Americans their age were entering the freedom of their teens. At the other extreme, the 8% or so who were in the top academic stream—and wanted to stay there—had to exercise scholastic diligence quite at odds with the average focus on academics practiced by those in the universal access of American high schools. And, by the way, even those 8% were streamed into either the scientific or humanities Gymnasium, depending on aptitude.
As for music, the airwaves were dominated by state-owned stations, and the music played was conservative. In Germany, rock-and-roll was anything but a staple of this reality. It was deemed uncouth—something that “decent people” frequently would not admit to liking. If heard it on the airwaves at all, it was largely through stations set up by and for British, American, or Canadian forces stationed in Germany. While in Germany, as part of NATO, the war was still so recent than many still considered it the music of occupying forces.
In a word, Germany at the time was more serious, a world away from the seeming limitless opportunities enabled by the newfound wealth and security of the United States. It was classical music that constituted a significant part of what was offered by official German broadcasters. And, unlike most youth in North America, German kids both listened to and were literate about such music. Yes, there was “popular” music as well. However, it was of a genre known as Schlager. This is also what was in the jukeboxes in German Gasthofs and played at school dances. If you have ever heard the treacle-laced music that passes for pop in the Eurovision competition, you have a sense of it. Let me put it another way: Your parents liked it too, and at a dance you could comfortably speak while the band was playing. Such were the contrasting cultural worlds into which the Sony TR-63 and Braun T3 were launched, respectively, and which can largely explain many of their differences in design.
Form vs Function
Now let us come back to the question of size. Unlike the Sony TR-63, which was largely a lifestyle accessory symbolizing independence, mobility, and youth, the T3 was designed for listening to music. (Remember, never assume that anything is obvious!) Sound quality took priority over image, and this is reflected in its size. Having a larger speaker and size meant wider frequency response and therefore better, deeper sound. Rather than trying to shrink it into a shirt pocket, it was as large as possible while still being able to fit into a coat pocket, for example—larger, but still portable (rather than merely luggable). It was designed for adults rather than kids.
All the while, what I find fascinating is how the Regency TR-1 provided a significant part of the DNA of such different radios as the Sony and the Braun, their similarities notwithstanding. Like children from the same parents, they evolved in different directions. Yet we also see that a dominant gene could pass on through successive generations, such as from the TR1 to the T3 to the iPod. Such is the essence of design and innovation. With the long nose of innovation, each successive generation of giants stands on the shoulders of a previous one.
If you ever find an example where this is not the case, chances are you just haven’t looked hard enough! Statistically speaking, nobody invents anything alone, or from scratch. If there is a single lesson in all of this, that is it!
Finally, what of the rotary scroll wheel that the iPod inherited from this lineage and constituted one the most iconic features of its design? In the long run, this turned out to be an Achilles’ Heel. While the sequential search dictated by a rotary dial was effective for accessing the limited set of stations on a radio, its efficiency decreased as the number of music titles inevitably increased on successive generations of the iPod Classic—a problem that was addressed by the greatly enhanced interactive capabilities subsequently offered by the multitouch screens of the iPod Touch and the iPhone. (4)
1. The Braun SK 1 Desktop Radio, which was in production from 1955 to 1958, also employed circular drilled holes in the speaker grill. However, these were not in the front face of the radio itself, but rather on a separate plate. And the SK 1 came out the year after the Regency TR-1. It is difficult to imagine that Braun did not know about the TR-1. By the same token, Rams would obviously have been intimately familiar with the SK 1. 2. To put this in further context, the font Helvetica, a poster-child (so to speak) of International/Swiss design, emerged in 1957, the year before the T3. 3. The first use of the term “teenager” in print appears to be in an article by Edith M. Stern in Popular Science Monthly: “Denver Students Learn Movie Making in the Classroom” (April 4, 1941, p77-80, 228). 4. I am indebted to one of my oldest, most literate, and closest friends, Wolfgang Bautzmann, for his contribution to my research and understanding of this period in Germany, especially with respect to music.