Designer Spotlight: Interview with Mike Norrie of Tembo Trunks

tembo trunks turn ipod earbuds into speakers

For this new series, we aim to bring you interviews from designers of products that caught our eye as being impressive, innovative, or just really cool. We spotted the Tembo Trunks design and were instantly curious as to how the designers came up with this idea and what the process was like. Designed by Mike and Scott Norrie, Tembo Trunks are a modern take on traditional “horn acoustics,” using special, non-electric, silicone speakers to amplify the sound coming from your Apple earbuds attached to your iPod or iPhone. The design was born while the creators were traveling and thus has a durable, waterproof, and packable design that makes for an audio solution that works just about anywhere you want to go. We’ll have a hands-on with the product in the near future, but for now we’ll give you some insight into how this product came to life as we talk to one half of the Tembo Trunks design team. Designer Mike Norrie gives us some answers about the project that all started on Kickstarter (with his brother and fellow designer Scott Norrie). 

What gave you the original idea for Tembo Trunks?

We were traveling through Africa and had music on our iPods, although we didn’t have a way to share our music in casual settings. Unlike traditional electronic speakers, we knew we needed something that could handle itself well as a travel speaker– something that was lightweight, did not require power or batteries, and was virtually indestructible.

To begin we started wrapping large paper cones around the earbuds to redirect and amplify the sound coming out of earbuds. This unwittingly became the first in a series of prototypes that would see us end up with a product that we are really happy with.

What made you decide to turn that idea into a real product?

We had a genuine solution to sharing music from our iPods whilst traveling, and we began to consider how we could optimize this solution. Before long, Scott was sketching and prototyping ideas. Soon we realized that there could be other people that would find our product useful. Coming from business and industrial design backgrounds, we had the skill set to complete the tasks ahead of us that we would otherwise have to outsource. With a healthy curiosity to see if we could bring a product from concept to market, we got to work.

How did you start the process? Did it take a few tries to get the Tembo Trunks just right to your specifications?

We started the process as soon as we got back from Africa. We both have day jobs but we made time to shoot ideas back and forth. Scott started prototyping concepts right away. There were no existing products to benchmark, so the product really did begin from a blank page. Scott experimented with different materials and constructions ranging from die cut sheet material to cast silicone and used CAD and rapid prototyping to resolve the critical areas like the earbud holder. With each successive prototype, we would learn something new–how to maximize the amplification, achieve a folding design, employ a one-part construction, etc. This process drove the project and after dozens of prototypes we arrived at something we were happy with. We were now faced with turning an independently designed prototype into a mass-produced consumer product.

From there you went to Kickstarter, what was your experience with that like?

Kickstarter was an amazing experience for us. It really is a great community. You have all your backers, other project creators, external companies and individuals all interested in your product and offering suggestions and their support.

The best thing about Kickstarter for designers is that it allows designers to communicate directly with their backers, and shows the journey of product development. I was so disassociated with anything that I bought in a shop before Kickstarter – it’s on a shelf and we pick it up and hand over some cash for it and that’s the end of the cycle.

Kickstarter allows backers to experience how a product evolves from an idea to sourcing suppliers, tweaking designs, making moulds, designing and creating packaging, bar-coding, and gives an insight into logistics including shipping, warehousing and fulfillment and the amount of work that is involved in this.

We have been able to learn so much from our experience on Kickstarter because unlike big companies who have design, IT, sales, marketing, and operations teams, we naturally had to wear a few caps.

What has the response been like from users of your product?

The great majority of our backers have received the product really well. We have had a great response from people using our product from all over the globe. People have contacted us wanting to buy more for friends or just to share images of their ‘Trunks in action. We’ve also started to have stores approach us to stock Tembo Trunks, with our first sets now available in design stores around Australia.

On the other hand, we’ve also had negative response from backers of our project. As is the case with any designer product, there will be some criticism from the wider community. Some of this has been excellent feedback and is constructive in the development process.

From the beginning it’s been a challenge to align the expectations of those who expect to receive amplification similar to traditional powered speakers. However, Tembo Trunks are much different to traditional powered speakers. They were designed as a new way to share your tunes, not to match the amplification of traditional powered speakers. Even though we used all media available to us to accurately describe the performance of the product (project description, comments, updates, comparison videos), unfortunately some people made up their own minds about how the product would perform. These people made the most noise when their expectations were not aligned. We have learned that you can never communicate product features too thoroughly online. Fortunately, we have found it easier to align expectations with in-store product demonstrations.

Overall, the response has been great and we are very grateful to our backers for helping to bring the product to market and to the people who have recently supported Tembo Trunks through our website.

What do you think makes Tembo Trunks a successful design project?

Tembo Trunks are a unique product and a new way to share music. They don’t aim to be bigger, faster, stronger or louder. Instead, through design, other product attributes have been achieved–such as being durable, waterproof, requiring no additional power, etc. From product usability (such as tactile user engagement) to design detail (such as the refined product surface texture and product packaging), every detail has been thoroughly considered, which is core to any successful design project.

Do you have any plans to improve upon the design?

We are always looking for the product to evolve and I am sure that there are ways that we can improve certain elements of the design. The difficult part is to achieve this without sacrificing the successful design elements. We are just as likely to evolve Tembo Trunks to meet the needs of niche users as we are to focus on a general product improvement. 

Did you intend to create something that was eco-friendly and non-electric or did that come about just because of the product you wanted to create?

We wanted a non-electric solution partly as a more “eco-friendly” alternative, but mainly because we realized the advantages that could be achieved by removing electronics from the product–the product could become lighter, not require power, become more durable, etc. Our first prototype was non-electric and there was something nice in this “less is more” approach– we didn’t need a stack of additional components to extend the function of a music device that we already owned. In our case, by removing the redundant parts we were removing the less “eco-friendly” components, the same way a clothes line is non-electric, has fewer components than a clothes dryer, but can be just as effective in drying clothes. So, the product was probably always destined to be a more sustainable solution considering the design intent.

Are you working on any other design projects? 

We would love to — we’ve been chatting about a few different things and we’ll be sure to let Digital Trends know about them when they are ready.