is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
When Apple acquired Beats in the spring, there was some confusion as to why; some people didn’t understand why Apple would want to get into the premium headphones market, while others (including myself) speculated that Apple was buying into the emerging streaming music market. This afternoon I found myself looking through Beatsbydre.com, and one possible reason suddenly hit me: Beats headphones come in tons of color combinations. Here are just four.
These aren’t just four colorways, or simple variants on coloring the same materials. These are four distinctly different combinations of plastics types and manufacturing methods, some distinguished by color, others by texture, and one by some kind of screen-printed graphic.
What’s more, these are just four options. The site’s headphones page lists—just for this product category alone—some sixty different color and style combinations across five or so different models. (All of which, by the way, sell for at least $179; not bad considering earbuds are given away free as a matter of course with smartphones.)
This reminded me immediately of what I wrote wrote last month about “Wearables, Fashion and iWatch”: iWatch, if it exists, will need to be more of a fashionable good than Apple has ever created before; fashionable goods depend in part on variability in order to satisfy individualized consumer expression; and creating variability at scale is the key economic challenge of wearables. It’s very difficult to successfully produce and deliver truly variable technology goods; that’s why iPods have never come in more than four or five colors and why Apple had such a hard time creating a white iPhone on its first time trying.
It seems that the Beats team has figured this out, at least in part. Sixty different SKUs for headphones alone is a lot of items to manage, a lot of materials to source in the pipeline, a lot of shipping logistics to orchestrate. This number also shows how finely Beats has been able to parse consumer desire and to create product variations that map to them—who knew hip-hop fans would want a matte black version with a German flag-like design? Beats knew, and they’re apparently selling tons of them.
If you take a look at Beats’ headphones product catalog, it looks a lot closer to, say, the Nixon watches catalog than any catalog of technology products. Beats’ headphones, like Nixon’s watches, are oriented such that the primary selection criteria are looks and style; you’ve got to wade through those before you decide which model you want. By contrast, on Apple’s site, you’ve got to choose your model before you can choose your style—or, put another way, you choose what you want it do, first, and then you get to choose what you want it to look like.
These differences reflect fundamentally distinct ways of thinking about products, or more importantly, fundamentally distinct ways of thinking about what customers want. One path leads to a company that makes technology that (they hope) consumers will find to be fashionable; the other path leads to a company that makes fashionable goods powered by technology. Apple acquired Beats because it hopes that its future will look more like the latter than the former.+