Creator Conversations

Oliver Grabes

Interview by Carl MH Barenbrug

Oliver Grabes Head of Design at Braun

The simpler and more intuitive you can make something, the better. Most of us know the feeling of being overwhelmed by technical complexity, but lately also by endless possibilities within the virtual world. Values can help here to guide us in what is right—for society and for us personally.

Growing up in Germany surrounded by iconic Braun products, Oliver’s view on design has been biased from the beginning: Make products meaningful, functional, easy to use and with quality.

Intrigued by the opportunity of reconnecting the Braun brand with its world famous design heritage, Oliver joined Procter & Gamble in 2009 to become the Head of Braun Design. Under his leadership the design team established the design strategy of “Past Forward” with contemporary and innovative products that put Braun’s core values of simplicity, quality, and good design back into the centre of the user experience. Since then, a wide range of products following this philosophy create strong global business success and have been awarded with a record number of international design awards, reestablishing Braun’s unique brand equity.

Upon completion of a Master’s Degree in Industrial Design from the Offenbach Academy of Arts and Design, Oliver has lived in Germany, the Netherlands, England, and the US, working for several leading design agencies. Many of his products have enjoyed huge success and are the result of almost 30 years of international work experience.

Holding numerous patents for design innovations, his products and design concepts have been recognised with over 140 international design prizes. He is teaching as a visiting Professor for Design at the University of Wuppertal, bringing his international experience to one of Germany’s leading Design & Innovation programmes while exposing himself to explorative learning in various fields of design and technology, smart devices and interaction design.

Oliver’s focus is on joyfully simplifying the way people interact with products and systems in today’s increasingly complex world. His passion is in building best-in class emotional product and brand experiences that leverage the power of “Good Design“. We spoke to Oliver to discuss Braun’s LE Series of speakers, the brand’s direction, and the importance of education to ensure good design of the future.

Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection
Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection

To celebrate the return of Braun Audio, you led the reinterpretation of the timeless LE speakers from 1959. A perfect reintroduction to the heritage of the company. Why and how was this return to the audio space realised? What is different?

It has been a very intense and exciting journey. I remember this magic moment during an early discussion within our small Braun Design team when we started to think about the come-back of Braun Audio. We simply realised how powerful and unique this opportunity to re-connect Braun to the idea of minimalism and simplicity in the field of audio could become again.

In the German language, there is this special word called “Haltung”. It perfectly describes a determined mindset and strong values. For Braun, it is rooted in the fundamental belief of creating truly meaningful and useful products that build everything around the product’s functionality and ease-of-use. It is not minimalism as a design style, it is the uber-focus on what is really meaningful and relevant. To bring this to life again with the new LE speakers series, we felt it would be the right statement for the new Braun Audio.

As you ask about the reconnection to our Braun design heritage: Max Braun started this mindset when he founded the company in 1921. His sons, Arthur and Erwin Braun, inspired by the Bauhaus and the MOMA in New York then truly revolutionised the way you thought about products and appliances in the 1950s. Within a competitive field of decorated and ornamented radios and record players, they together with the University of Design in Ulm and Prof. Hans Gugelot created a set of modern, honest, and minimalist audio products and introduced them at the international fair in Düsseldorf 1955. These were radically different to anything else that was existing at the time. Radically simple. And radically new. And then Dieter Rams designed this wonderful modern design object in 1959, the large, flat, and angled LE1 audio speaker on its metal feet, like a modern furniture piece. We wanted to connect to this vision, staying true to the Braun values and interpreting those for today’s very different technology context and the way we experience music.

As a consequence, the LE speaker design centres around the product’s purpose. It is about what the product does for you, expressing this in a very simple, user-friendly, and visually enduring way with best-in-class audio technology. Minimalism for us is about doing very few things really well, using what is best and composing it in the right way. This is when everything comes perfectly together and you end up with what we call “Good Design”.

You also asked what is different. While the vision and the visual reference relate to the original LE01, everything else about the new LE series is different to the original speaker, in every detail. As we all know, audio technology has improved dramatically over the last 70 years, not only in terms of audio quality but also how we experience music, including the convenience of selecting and enjoying any music we like at any moment, instantly. As an example how different the new speakers are in comparison, we designed the interaction with voice technology where we offer users the ability to issue voice commands as a way of control. As it’s important to always offer a choice, we deliberately maintained the user interface with the typical Braun buttons but with a very different functionality to that of the past. We highlighted today’s relevant voice on/off button, replacing what used to be the power switch in the past as this one is no longer needed.

Additionally, the large original LE speaker came only in one very large size and colour. With this new reinterpretation, we have expanded this to a range of speakers to include various sizes both in black and white to accommodate to today’s different living environments. So for instance, you use the LE01 with the metal legs as a large standalone design feature giving it a timeless and classic object appearance in your living room. Or you can use the LE03 as a small tabletop speaker, which you can easily move around and integrate in different ways, making it more flexible, accessible, and relevant for many use cases.

Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection
Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection
Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection

You are celebrating a significant milestone in the company’s history: 100 years. Braun’s legacy in audio design is already well established through the iconic work of Dieter Rams, but how do you see Braun Audio’s direction in the next years, while maintaining the distinctive Braun DNA?

Over the past 20 years, audio and speaker technology has evolved dramatically. Before, you needed to have big components, today we have small devices that can distribute high quality sound, along with voice technology and seamless interconnectivity. It is hard to predict the future in terms of what technology will bring us exactly, but I assume audio will continue to be heavily supported by artificial intelligence tools and eventually will read our minds to determine what we enjoy listening to. Is that good or bad? It really comes down to individual preferences. We should always look to offer people a choice. In terms of Design, we want to bring our values and design principles to life, offering different ways and product formats to enjoy music and sound with our distinct approach of a user-focused, meaningful minimalism.

You have previously mentioned that you want to guide the future through technology by amplifying the right things. What are the right things?

The simpler and more intuitive you can make something, the better. Most of us know the feeling of being overwhelmed by technical complexity, but lately also by endless possibilities within the virtual world. Values can help here to guide us in what is right—for society and for us personally. Focusing on what is relevant and useful. What is making sense. If Design can help support or amplify this through honest and well-crafted products you want to have around for many years, I think this is a good direction to bring into the future.

Regarding the 100 year anniversary we are now in 2021: These fundamental values of Braun are what we are looking to reconnect with, particularly for our 100 year celebration, remembering what values Max Braun started this company with and also what helped sharpen the brand to become democratic and modern in the 50s. Now we don’t want to only look back, we are convinced these values are highly relevant in today’s and tomorrow’s world, guiding us forward to shape what product design should be about in the future.

Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection
Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection

What is the current shape of your design team? How does it operate?

Our small team is located in Kronberg, close to Frankfurt in Germany. We work in the same studio where Dieter Rams and his team had created hundreds of iconic Braun products in the past. Some of our team members have worked with Dieter Rams in the 90s, and while the studio has been updated with the latest CAD/CAM tools and digital technology, it still has a very similar culture in terms of working closely together as a team, trying to make anything we create very considered. It is a group of friends, strongly united by our understanding and principles about Braun design.

Within our design process, virtual and physical design is seamlessly integrated. By designing physical products, we utilise whatever makes most sense at that moment and what helps us to understand the final outcome best. Model making and evaluating product design in reality is for us a must. In an increasingly virtual world, it has actually become even more important and special, as it manifests the actual result of our thoughts, not just a temporary idea on screen. You need to touch and feel materials, shapes and finishes, have the product around you before you decide to make it reality. In terms of scope, we are responsible for the Design of all Braun grooming products, but also work closely with our licensing partners, like recently with audio and in particular the LE series. While we developed the Product Design for the speakers, we worked in daily connection with engineers and audio experts from Pure, our valued Braun audio partner in the UK.

Simplicity has been a constant approach to Braun’s designs over the years. To you, is simplicity a tool or an attitude? And how does simplicity as a concept relate to you personally, your work, and your philosophy?

We always look to express the functionality, quality, and the way you use a product. Simplicity and focus is in any and all of this. Visual simplicity that corresponds more with minimalism as we leave off what is not needed, but also simplicity in terms of how one is using and interacting with the product.

As to whether simplicity is a tool or an attitude, for me personally, it depends on which area in your life you’re looking at. You can live your day in a very simple or minimalist way, and you can enjoy the simple pleasures of nature for example, but in fact, nature is the opposite of simplicity. It is very complex. There are many joyful experiences in life that are not driven by simplicity that we would miss out on. I think it’s about finding the appropriate positioning of something in its context. For me, appliances should be simple. They are there to help you, they are there to help you achieve something you want to do and shouldn’t be overly expressive. They are thoughtfully designed, simple, quality tools.

Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection
Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection

You teach as a visiting Professor for Design at the University of Wuppertal in Germany. What role does education play in the future of modern design?

I do believe it plays an important role. With teaching you basically try to excite others about your view of the world, your values and your approach to design. When I speak with students, I ask, “Why are you creating this? And why are you designing it like that?” And when asked to think about these questions, they begin to understand what responsibility and at the same time opportunity they have as designers. And what they can bring into this world with their unique, personal story and point of view. We also need to consistently experiment and learn. This is why we are still launching the BraunPrize every third year, for over 50 years now. It is about giving back to creative minds, about supporting radical different thinking and experimentation, fostering good design and innovation based on Dieter Rams’ 10 principles. We want to pass them on to the next generation, to all these young, up and coming talents in the hope of making a better world.

Is “Good Design” subjective?

I think good design is subjective for every individual person in the sense that everybody has to decide for themselves whether or not a particular design is good for them, in terms of liking the look, its colours, or a particular shape or style. This is different if we look at design from a group perspective, when “Good Design” describes fundamental aspects of design that we agree to as a society. For instance the environmental aspects of design, excluding harmful materials, making a product or packaging recyclable. Or having something that is universal enough, is simple to use, and understandable, making it accessible to many people. Again, we have Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles for “Good Design” and I find this definition highly relevant for designers today.

Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection
Braun Audio LE Speakers Collection

At this point in your career, do you feel creatively satisfied?

Everyday there are new creative challenges, consistently trying to improve things, making better products with better functionality, making them more sustainable or making new technologies easier to use. Or (smiles), simply convincing others in management creatively to go forward with a great design idea.

Having the chance to be able to work for Braun with its unique and iconic heritage and to take the brand into today’s world is a privilege. I am closely immersed in the design process of all our products, reviewing and discussing all projects with the design teams. It is a lot of fun. I really enjoy it.

Putting design to one side, how do you enjoy your free time? Where do you find a sense of escapism?

In this very special last year (2020) with the pandemic situation, one has to be thankful to be healthy and happy at home, close with the family. As I spend a lot of my day sitting in virtual meetings as I guess many of us do, I appreciate getting outside into Frankfurt’s Nidda park area, running with our dog, feeling the cold and fresh air. It is also great to clear your mind and put things in perspective.

What are 3 things you value most in design?

  1. Not a surprise: Having values and to bring them into your design work.
  2. Working in a team of talented designers with an openness of ideas. Everybody contributes and builds on the ideas of others.
  3. Outcomes that make sense and last. Creating products that are worth existing.

What are 3 things you value most in life?

  1. Family and friends.
  2. Design work and its creative process.
  3. Freedom to think and create.
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