Audio product designer Hiroki Oka joined Sony in 1979, just after the release of the original cassette Walkman—a device that forever changed the way the world listens to music. His career at Sony was full of awards, including a 2007 iF Design Gold Award for the PCM-D1 high-resolution, portable professional audio recorder. Oka went on to design the digital cinematic camera used to shoot Star Wars episodes II and III—a watershed moment in the industry’s transition from film to digital production.
Now, as a design director at the Nichinan Group, an automotive and consumer-goods manufacturer, Oka’s work goes far beyond traditional product design, venturing into protoyping, 3D molding, and all aspects of production. His latest collaboration is with Cleer, a US-based consumer audio company, creating “audio first” designs to elevate the user experience.
The world is a different place than it was at the outset of his career, but Oka believes that “good products are universal,” and he strives to harmonize form and function in his designs.
Do you think your design process from idea to product design has changed?
When I started working at Sony, I generated marker renderings—we discussed the designs at an internal design council, then we created a drawing. Now I jump into modeling in Fusion 360 with design requirements, render a photorealistic image, then 3D print it at actual size. The process is much faster.
With the digital tools available today, I don’t sketch a product; we can just use renderings and mock-ups instead of sketches. But a rendered image gives you a slightly different impression, and it’s difficult to convey the color or tactile feelings.
Digital tools became available over these past 20 years, but as designers, we still need to pay strong attention to the details.
It seems 3D printing has become a part of your design process.
When we were working in 2D [by hand], the drawing was at actual size, so we really understood the size of real products. Looking back, that was probably the best part of it. If you really know how big or small something is, you’ll never feel uncomfortable when you first see the mock-up.
With computers, it’s so easy to zoom in and zoom out. When I am designing an earphone, for instance, the product is zoomed in so it occupies the full screen. That makes it easier to design the details but difficult to feel the actual size. We can grasp it once it’s 3D printed. I’ve been working with computers for a long time, but the rendering size still sometimes surprises me. I hope VR immersive design will enable us to work at actual size.
Many of your clients have mentioned that you were so fast to come up with design ideas.
I think it’s important as a product designer to visualize what’s in my mind, then share it with a client and hopefully it resonates. When I get an assignment for a product design, I tend to have several ideas immediately. I can start modeling at a high level, then visualize by rendering. I can make that happen very quickly, but I then need to work with mechanical and electrical designers, and that takes some time.
You’re not limited to product design these days.
I think package design is also very important. Opening the package is always an exciting experience, so user experience is indispensable. I sometimes create animations for a client in Fusion 360 to show how a package will open. I model a product package or carrying case as instructions for vendors in China. Sometimes I propose how the component should be placed in the packaging. As a product designer, there are so many things you can do to improve user experience.
The latest 3D CAD software is so integrated that a product designer can also do graphic design, engineering, and even simulation. Now you can do much more than you used to.
Cleer is primarily for the US market. Does that affect your design process?
Not really. I think good products are universal. And Japanese designers are very good at design quality and ideas. We are delicate but also daring. I think Japanese designers know a lot about manufacturing and how to handle mass production.
How do you design great-sounding products?
Cleer STAGE, for example, is a portable Bluetooth speaker. I think most AI speakers are in a vertical shape, but I proposed one that’s horizontal so that it has better stereo imaging. It’s also designed to be “audio first”: It’s important for speakers to have a good balance of shape, style, sound quality, and how they push air. This particular product has passive radiators at both ends to improve bass response. By tilting it, we can see it vibrating with bass frequencies when you look at it from the front. My concept for this speaker is “visualize the sound.”
Ongaku—“music” in the Japanese language—means “enjoying the sound.” And that has been changing for the last decade. It’s getting more compact, higher resolution, wireless, AI-equipped, and wearable. Plus, many cultures prefer certain genres. Matching the product design with that will create a brand. The first thing I ask a client for is an example of who the customer segment is for this product. Without proper targeting, design cannot focus clearly.
Your position has changed from being a product designer at a manufacturer to being a prototype vendor for a manufacturer. Does that affect your way of thinking?
At Sony, I always enjoyed visiting the Nichinan Group to check the shape, color, and other aspects of any product prototype I ordered. I take a hands-on approach to design, so I’m always in the market, studying user experiences and manufacturing sites every day. My belief in design is that the answer is always in the market and at the site where products are manufactured. It’s great to work at Nichinan, as we own cutting-edge equipment and have the skill to create even a concept car for a motor show from scratch.
With 3D printers, prototyping, molding skills plus large molding machines, and even manufacturing capabilities, we can generate our ideas at the site. I’m very lucky to be in this environment. Although I’m currently very busy working with a lot of clients, I plan on working for our own SPIRAL brand in the near future.