The Essence Of Monolithic Design

It is said that timeless philosophy sparks innovation. Home entertainment products have been welcome presence in our living room for years, and that’s why they must embody something essential and not look outdated as new trends emerge. Enduring qualities help these products blend in well and constantly satisfy us. But designers must also capture something new, something that makes us want to update our living room, and even our entertainment habits themselves. Sony’s quest to save the world from aesthetically boring products created by competitors has resulted in a new vision called Monolithic Design. In this interview courtesy of Sony Design, we learn from the members of Sony’s Creative Center about the meaning of this concept.

Matsuoka: From the beginning, Sony has stood for doing the unprecedented and staying one step ahead. These principles motivate us to strive for originality, inspire new consumer lifestyles, show the beauty of functionality, and emphasize usability—our design philosophy. All of this is fundamental to our work as designers, and they remain constant goals of ours.

Before designing home entertainment products for 2010, I wanted us to rethink design and take a fresh look at these elements of our philosophy. Our goal was design surpassing traditional trends and techniques, and design that can shape consumer values and lifestyles. In other words, design that can realign people’s values. With this in mind, we set to work.

In creative work, we draw on our own experiences and sensibilities to express ourselves. But groundbreaking inspiration rarely strikes if we face the same routine every day. That’s why our first step was to send some designers to other locations around the world to collect ideas for exploration. I knew that their inspirations, aesthetic discoveries, and exciting experiences there would expand their creative repertoire and prove indispensable in design development.

As soon as they returned, we discussed product qualities they felt people should appreciate. What design themes should be reflected in new Sony home entertainment products? We discussed many potential directions to take, many ideas for textures, colors, and so on. Yuki’s proposal in particular struck a chord with me—the concept of a single panel.

In its purest form, a panel or monolith has no extraneous elements at all. It’s primitive and directly conveys its inherent nature. For this reason, upright panels look attractive and powerful. As timeless, fundamental forms, panels don’t bend to fashion, so to speak. They can stimulate people, enticing us to update our décor and the style in our lifestyle.

The adjective monolithic is also used in reference to integrated circuits, which have various components integrated onto a single chip. For our own purposes, we reinterpreted the word as “something dense, intelligent, and high-performance,” and I think this matches the direction we’re taking in new home entertainment products. In the end, we built on Yuki’s idea of a single panel and distilled the overall design concept for these products down to our version of Monolithic Design.

Kubota: In television design, normally you start with the functionality for watching video images and then consider how to present it in an original way. This time was different. What I designed first was the sense of presence the physical object conveys. An attractive upright stance, and the aura of freshness and pleasant tension this evokes. Then I had to imagine how to encapsulate the television functionality within this abstract framework.

We faced two tasks. Narrowing it down to the purest expression of an instrument for watching video images, with all needless details gone. And then, ensuring it’s beautiful even when off. This meant rethinking what makes TVs look like TVs—the stand and bezel design. What I visualized at this point was the simple image of a glass panel resting on a solid metal bar.

Stand design generally entails making stands more compact and less noticeable. But through Monolithic Design, we abandoned these rigid preconceptions and chose a simple aluminum bar to support the screen. Other examples in this series of televisions express the gestalt of Monolithic Design more abstractly, as in models dominated by a glass screen in front. To make it happen, our engineers worked diligently to develop new production techniques. Thanks to this, it gives the impression of being a sleek, simple glass panel when off, and images seem to radiate from the front surface of the glass when it’s on.

Matsuoka: We have defined the following three elements of Monolithic Design.

First is something we call “On/Off Conscious.” We want to highlight the beauty of the device as a high-performance TV when it’s on. When it’s off, we want it to fade gracefully into the surroundings as an object of sculptural art. Whether they’re on or off, the sets exude high-performance and other desirable qualities.

Next is “6° Upward Style.” At eye level on a stand, large-screen TVs can be truly overwhelming. Ditch the stand, lower the screen, and tilt the screen slightly up instead (by 6°), and it’s not only easier to watch but it frees your living room from that overbearing presence. This may tempt you to update your living room in general—by replacing any old, worn-out stands with a stylish low cabinet, for example.

And last, “Contrast of Materials.” Here, we sought an alluring sense of contrast from a combination of different materials, which we hope you’ll appreciate. The base and the sides are aluminum, and the front is glass. We coordinated the contrasting textures and qualities of these genuine materials, which harmonize with each other.

Of course, in televisions as in other products, styling should be tailored for the particular series or category. That’s why some new sets may not present all three design elements. Still, Monolithic Design is the unifying concept for our line as a whole. Aesthetically, you’ve found a good solution if you’re looking for a consistent ambiance in your living room.

Suzuki: Monolithic Design appears in Blu-ray disc players, surround-sound speakers, and other home theater products. In all cases, our goal is the ultimate expression of the essence of the component. Excessive elements are avoided, as you would expect with subtractive design.

Making televisions and other products look nicely balanced together was something we were careful about. If other components are too slim—whether because manufacturers believe TV sets should dominate the living room or just because thin is in—they end up looking insubstantial in comparison. Instead, a sturdy framework is more natural and gives components a sense of presence. And besides avoiding excessive slimness, we must avoid what’s fake. We think this brings us closer to the essence of AV equipment and our goals in Monolithic Design.

The simpler product design seems, the harder we must sometimes work to arrange it with our engineers and adjust the production line. Other home theater components are produced differently than televisions. To be exact, we can’t use the same styling techniques. In pursuit of contrasting materials in these products, we might try plastic instead of aluminum, but with the kind of body involved, surfaces inevitably became a little warped. Maybe the materials just don’t support our original design goals. Normally we might overcome this by introducing a subtle curve or adopting special coatings. But smoke and mirrors are unacceptable in creating the “ultimate panel” according to Monolithic Design. So we reconsider the issue from the standpoint of production. We try several approaches as we come closer to the ideal texture and flatness of metal.

Eshita: How could we share these design goals and what excited our designers with people through Sony branding for BRAVIA and other home entertainment products? That was my role, and my work ranged from organizing the Monolithic Design concept (concept-building) to helping us tell the story of this development in promotional communication.

I asked myself many questions. What values of ours could we share with consumers? What exactly was this shift in values we sought? In each case, Monolithic Design yielded compelling answers. The first time I saw mock-ups, I sensed how promising they were as unprecedented products that could set a new standard.

I also anticipated that we would need a user interface that matched the product design better, and that we must develop a new image for the UI.

Nishizawa: You’ll notice the familiar Xross Media Bar (XMB) in the user interface, but it has been refined in subtle ways.

On the screen, the graphics seem to hover over the glass panel, supporting the Monolithic Design theme. Our product designers and engineers both applied a little ingenuity to make it happen. In the UI design as well, edges fade into blackness and other subtle visual cues make the displayed interface seem integrated into the product itself.

On-screen lighting effects give an impression of depth and direct your attention to what you should focus on (which seems to float). These touches make controlling the set enjoyable. Once you access Favorites, for example, the main screen drops into the background, and the illuminated options in front of you hover over it.

You’ll also notice that instead of a yellow glow to indicate selected items, there’s a new prismatic effect. The effect builds on colors in underlying images, so it’s both natural-looking and beautiful. You can see how carefully the glow is rendered, too. The selector seems to pulsate, as if breathing, and it changes color over time.

These and many other details contribute to well-integrated product and interface design, rounding out the Monolithic Design and sense of presence the sets convey.

Eshita: In promotional material as well (especially visual communication), we make sure you can appreciate the freshness of Monolithic Design and the values it represents, not to mention the attitudes of our designers.

There are many things to admire in the Sony entertainment ecosystem: superb picture and audio quality, Internet connectivity for access to much more content, and intelligent features that respond to the installation environment, for example.

To demonstrate that Sony home entertainment products have truly changed and excite you about transforming your own living room with a new television, we focused on how fresh Monolithic Design feels—a sense of presence that sets the tone for the room as a whole. Some promotional material draws on a study we conducted after expressing the ambiance of Monolithic Design visually, in order to convey how it can change a living room (and in what ways) clearly.

Maesaka: Specifically, we started by preparing hundreds of visual scenarios with the Monolithic Design product group. Using this material, we set to work verifying how it met our expectations. It proved how versatile this design approach is. The products obviously blend in nicely in home environments, but they even look beautiful outdoors, in natural settings. After adding models representing people to these scenarios, we saw the potential not only of demonstrating how elegant the products are but also of showing how these lifestyles are desirable.

Good examples of Monolithic Design are simple and minimalist, but they yield fresh and fulfilling experiences for us. Focus only on product appearance, and you miss highlighting this valuable quality. What gave us the complete picture was an idea that emerged after repeated study.

In advertising, we have used some key visuals to express Monolithic Design. One visual representing the resolute presence of the home entertainment product group is the figure of a standing girl (as seen in the first image in this story). We chose to have the TV on in the ad, which is our attempt to convey the kind of experience the television affords, so that people can recall some kind of story involving this kind of setting.

Other promotional material introduces what led to the conception of Monolithic Design. But whether in videos such as these or in the details of feature illustrations in printed brochures or online advertising, we ensure the same tone and style in a variety of publicity. We make sure our messages in advertising are consistent. Once you see what we’re trying to convey in stores or on the pages of brochures, we hope you’ll experience it for yourself in your own living room.

Matsuoka: We believe that Monolithic Design introduces new values in home entertainment and will motivate people to update the overall ambiance of their living room. May these products excite you about the new style of entertainment that can be yours.

Here is another incredible video from Sony about the 2010 Sony BRAVIA HDTV design story, of course heavily influenced by Monolithic Design:

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