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Design with Reason: An Interview with Kendrew Lee of Monster Headphones
Founded in 1979 on a whimsical attempt to enhance audio clarity, Monster Cable revolutionized the cable market creating a new product category through the development of a high performance speaker cable. Prior to Monster Cable, most stereo systems were wired with ordinary “zip-cord” – the same cable used for electrical household and lamp wire which restricted power, dynamic range and clarity. Over 30 years later, the California-based company is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high performance cables with sub-divisions producing studio-quality headphones, Bluetooth technology and much more. Offering some insight to its headphones segment, Monster designer Kendrew Lee speaks on the concept of good design, the original vision of Monster Headphones, and its future in an increasingly-saturated market.
Can you talk a bit about your story, how you got started in industrial design, and how you ended up at Monster?
Well, I graduated from Arizona State University in the mid ’90s and after that I moved back to Hong Kong. I first started at a company called VTech making educational toys but after a year I moved to San Francisco to pursue a Masters in Industrial Design. During that time one of my professors happened to have some contacts at Monster and he was the one who introduced me to the company. I started working for Monster part-time before making the switch to a full-time position.
What is your design philosophy?
To me, industrial design is about two things. One is reasoning and the other is communication. I hate to see designs which incorporate useless or unnecessary design elements or try to mimic already existing designs. The design must also communicate something to the consumer. I think all design is like a book and a successful design will communicate the designer’s story to the consumer.
In your opinion, what are characteristics of good design?
Continuing what I said earlier, a good design has to have good reasoning behind the materials used and the design elements, and it must also communicate a story. I usually find that great designs are almost like a detective story. It doesn’t tell you everything upfront, you will experience it as you use it, and in that process you will discover new features and meanings.
What serves as inspiration in your own life or in your design process?
Inspiration comes from all aspects of my life. Being really observant and questioning what I see is a big part of finding inspiration. I like to go shopping with my wife to see the details in things as diverse as handbags and jewelry. For example the stitching in a garment or the use of colors for a handbag. This kind of crossover brings new ideas and concepts to the table and allows us to advance our product designs.
How do you judge “success” in terms of design? Is it more rooted in functionality? Performance? Market acceptability? A mixture of both?
I would say that for me success is derived from market acceptability and strong sales performance. Industrial design is about making products that appeal to consumers and strong sales are indicative of this.
What was the original vision behind the Monster Inspiration headphones?
The Monster Beats headphones brought headphones to a new market but they didn’t take away much market share from companies such as Bose and Sennheiser. For the Inspiration, we wanted to focus on the traveling consumer but we wanted to bring in a sense of fashion. We saw the segment being dominated by Bose and we wanted to offer a fashionable and high performing alternative.
With the plethora of headphones in the market, how did Monster Inspiration look to separate itself from the other brands in the landscape?
The Inspiration is the first over-the-ear headphone from Monster outside of the collaboration with Beats. For our first over-the-ear headphones we wanted to produce a clean, metallic look that would appeal to fashionable consumers. The Inspiration comes with an interchangeable headband to allow for personal customization. We were inspired by the iPhone’s clean lines and its potential for customization with cases and covers.
In your opinion, how does the project take things to the next level in terms of the development of headphones or portable audio technology?
The Inspiration is the first headphone to have that option of customizing the product and making it your own. We are allowing the consumer to make the product an expression of their style and personality.