Industrial design has always been a core element of JBL product development. From the very start of Bill Thomas's tenure in running JBL, he realized that developing a image for the company and its products was paramount to the firm's success. Thus began a legacy of excellence that has kept JBL in the forefront of industrial design in the loudspeaker market for over 50 years.
That legacy begins with the famous industrial designer, Alvin Lustig. He was first engaged by Bill Thomas in 1950. His involvement began with graphic design for JBL's product literature and extended into enclosure designs and even transducer design. He was responsible for such distinctive enclosures as the S36 Viscount, the S38 Baron, the C34, C35 Fairfield, C37 Rhodes and the C40 Harkness. He was also responsible for the famous "Jim Lansing Signature" script that graced every transducer from the 1950's.
Growing business demands, and subsequent failing health, cut short Alvin Lustig's involvement with JBL. Into this void stepped Arnold Wolf. Starting in 1955, Arnold defined the image of JBL for the next 15 years from such groundbreaking designs as the Paragon to the red logo that remains the cornerstone of JBL's corporate identity. His contributions are detailed in depth in a separate section of this site.
Arnold Wolf left his design practice in 1970 to assume the presidency of JBL. His former assistant, Douglas Warner, took over Arnold's firm and imprinted his own vision on the look and identity of JBL products throughout the 70's and into the 80's. His distinctive designs for speaker systems like the L300 and L250ti would become instantly recognizable symbols of the company.
Since 1985, the mantle of excellence in industrial design at JBL has been taken up by Dan Ashcraft and his firm, Ashcraft Designs. The remainder of this article is a profile of his involvement with JBL and the current role of industrial design within Harman International
Dan Ashcraft - Beginnings
Dan received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Art Center College of Design, specializing in industrial design. Initially he worked for a couple of local Los Angeles design firms before establishing the partnership of Komenko ???? Ashcraft Designs in 1978. That firm specialized in product and interior design. In 1983, one of their clients was Dr. Sydney Harman who engaged the firm to redesign his office at Harman International's Northridge headquarters. Dan worked closely with Dr. Harman and related to him his firm's background in product design. Nothing further was pursued by either party until Dan established his own firm, Ashcraft Design in 1985. He decided to renew his contact with Harman International in a letter announcing his new firm and capability. This was passed on to JBL's engineering department which resulted in a phone call a week later inviting him to participate in a new project. That project would be JBL's first statement speaker in over twenty years - the DD55000 Everest.
Everest would prove to be groundbreaking in both design and engineering, but was a particular design challenge given the circumstances. The project had been languishing for two years after a number of changes in concept and key personnel. By 1985, the engineering had been pretty much finalized, but little had been done in the way of aesthetics. Dan was brought in and given only two weeks to come up with design renderings in advance of the 1985 CES. A delegation from Harman Japan would be attending and expected to see a finalized concept.
The major issue from a design perspective was the sheer size of the engineering prototype. Originally, that prototype stacked the three drivers in a vertical array. Dan experimented with moving the high frequency driver from the top to the side of the enclosure in an attempt to reduce the height and overall scale of the enclosure. This placement required that the driver be angled for proper coverage which led to an angled face along the side. This proved to be the key to the overall design and set the product architecture. Other angles were introduced for the front baffle for the low frequency driver and edge chamfers. These changes broke up the monolithic proportions of the previous box design. They also provided a visual tie to the angular, asymmetric midrange horn that was the heart of the system from both an engineering and design perspective.
The result was a visually striking design that belied the huge dimensions of the overall system. Placing the low frequency driver on an angled baffle that departed from the plane of the massive midrange horn resulted in two distinctive visual elements instead of one massive shape. The final system was a remarkable success as both a sonic masterpiece and visual statement.
After the success of Everest, JBL called upon Dan Ashcraft in 1988 to undertake the industrial design of their next statement speaker - K2 S9500. This time, Ashcraft Design was brought in at the at beginning of the project and was to play an integral role in its evolution. The concept of a symmetrical, dual woofer array was developed by Bruce Scrogin, the President of JBL International. However, its implementation was the responsibility of Greg Timbers, Doug Button, Francher Murray and Dan Ashcraft.
As with Everest, the primary market for K2 would be east Asia, and Japan in particular. In preparing for this assignment, Dan traveled to Japan to meet with a number of prominent audio magazine reviewers and went to the homes of a number of audio enthusiasts. This first hand contact revealed aspects of how loudspeakers were used in the Japanese home environment and the qualities that were important to those customers. It was noted that there was great interest in the components used in a loudspeaker system and not just its sonic attributes. It was not uncommon for either reviewers or customers to dismantle a speaker system to examine its construction in detail. Audio magazines would publish detailed photographs of transducers and networks. From this observation, Dan would develop the overall theme that would become the basis of the architecture for K2 - a system defined as the sum of its parts.
Whereas Everest was all about the enclosure, K2 would be about discrete, individual components interacting to create a whole. This architecture resulted in K2 being broken down into four primary subsystems. Each bass driver would be installed in separate enclosures. The horn would be designed as a monolithic piece of acrylic that would physically separate the two bass enclosures. Finally, the whole system would be founded on a massive, independent concrete base. The inspiration for this was the observation that many Japanese audio enthusiasts mounted their speakers on cinder blocks to raise them to ear level.
The emphasis on component detail extended to the transducers. Unlike Everest, which used off-the-shelf drivers, K2 would used specially designed transducers. This allowed an opportunity to address the aesthetics of the woofers and compression driver. The result was visually elegant drivers that accentuated the perception of quality in the details.
In its final production configuration, K2 was hailed as a stunning visual work of art in addition to setting new standards in sonic performance. It was the most highly regarded speaker yet produced by JBL. Not only would it influence subsequent speaker designs from JBL, it would also be copied by the competition. Ten years after its 1990 introduction, Harman Japan was developing new systems that were specifically designed to evoke the visual legacy of the K2-S9500.
It would be 12 years after the development of K2-S9500 before the next statement speaker would be introduced by JBL. There would be a number of false starts that would end prematurely due to changing market conditions in Asia. However, in 1999, work began in earnest on what would become K2-S9800.
In this case, the name is a bit of a misnomer since the system bears little relation to the original K2 series. There would be two focal points to the engineering design. The first regarded the development of a super tweeter with extension to beyond 50khz. Demand for this type of driver was a direct result of new DVD based audio media that had the capability of recording ultrasonic frequencies. It was decided that the new statement speaker must take advantage of this capability. The second focal point would be the development of an Alnico magnet woofer. Such drivers had long been out of production by JBL due to cost and an operational constraint whereby large current signals would tend to partially demagnetize these drivers. A technological breakthrough by JBL allowed this problem to overcome. Thus the engineering parameters were set, but the implementation was yet to be defined.
Again, Ashcraft Design was brought it at the start of the project to undertake the industrial design. Initially, Dan wanted to use this system as an opportunity to radically move forward the state of loudspeaker visual design. In Dan's own words, the first conceptual drawings were "wild". However, this met with resistance from the more traditional minded Japanese market. It was decided that the system should take on the feel of the classic two-way JBL monitor with a 15" woofer and compression driver/horn. However, the addition of the super tweeter dictated a three-way system, and its incorporation would define the product architecture. The system would highlight the tweeter as an extension of the classic two-way design. Thus, the tweeter housing would be visually distinct from the overall enclosure that housed the woofer and midrange.
The main enclosure proved challenging, Engineering considerations demanded that the midrange horn extend beyond the front baffle. The grill over the woofer was used to tie the horn back into the same curved plane of the overall enclosure, while allowing a recessed, flat, front baffle to mound the 15" woofer.
The system was released in September of 2001, and again, has proven an outstanding success. One year after introduction, the system remains back ordered in Europe and Japan, which has delayed a domestic release.
Ashcraft Design's services extend far beyond the statement speakers described above. While these projects allow an unparalleled opportunity to showcase the state-of-the-art industrial design, the creative opportunities offered in designing JBL's mainstay products are equally challenging and rewarding.
Ashcraft Design has had involvement in virtually all of JBL's consumer systems for the past 15 years. From the Control 1 series to the current Northridge and Studio Series, Dan Ashcraft has imprinted his unique stamp on JBL's broad consumer products. The design of these systems is distinctly different from that of the statement speakers. The domestic consumer market largely views audio systems as a means of augmenting their lifestyle instead of being an end to itself. Consumers want technology that is compatible with their environment and products that present an obvious statement of their function and use.
These consumer products represent obviously divergent design
goals compared to the no-holds-barred Project speakers. Nonetheless, Dan
Ashcraft takes a common design approach to both types of systems. At its
heart is developing an understanding of the customers requirements. This is
accomplished through observational research of the customer's use of such
products. From these observations, Dan attempts to define an overall
architecture that embodies the design and functional goals. The first
manifestation of this architecture are hand drawn sketches that attempt to
stretch the imagination while meeting the overall objectives. Though an
iterative and consultative process, design options are refined and analyzed
until an optimum solution is derived. All the while, a myriad of issues must
be addressed in the process. In addition to the obvious engineering and
aesthetic requirements, there are cost, manufacturing practicality and
marketing issues. All of this requires a comprehensive, holistic approach -
something at which Ashcraft Design excels.
© 2002 Don McRitchie
© 2002 Don McRitchie