Redesigning Headphones: Building Electronics to Last

One of the winners of the Design for (Your) Product Lifetime competition talks about redesigning headphones for sustainability.

This is the third post in a series from the winning designers in the Design for (Your) Product Lifetime competition. Previously, we featured stories from the designers of a smarter mobile phone and a microwave.\n
For the audiophile, there are few experiences more rewarding than buying a pair of brand-new headphones and enjoying your favorite tunes. However, with advances in technology and high-fidelity sound engineering, the personal audio market has become flooded with comparable, mid-range headphones that lack flexibility and individuality.
From their inception, headphones have remained largely unchanged, with a design consisting of ear cups that house the audio drivers and a headband to string all of the components together. This is a tried and true design language that has withstood the test of time, but has also proven to be wasteful and indistinct.
With such a wide array of complex gadgets available today, I never imagined that I would be rethinking a simple pair of headphones when I first set out to design a product for the Design for (Your) Product Lifetime competition sponsored by Autodesk, Core77, and iFixit. But the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that headphones were due for a bit of thoughtful innovation. My goal for the competition wasn’t only to create a more sustainable product and purchasing environment with my Able Headphones concept, but also build a product platform that has the potential to elevate a simple idea to world-class levels.

In the beginning phases of my design process, I worked to isolate many of the problems current headphone designs possess that were the most irksome, eventually causing the end user to dispose of that particular peripheral. I identified the audio drivers and the headband as key points of failure in current headphone setups, with the audio drivers serving as the focal point for my subsequent design decisions.

I can recall several occasions when one of my audio drivers would fail on my headphones, leaving me with two choices: continue to listen to my music with one ear, or scrapping my headphones all together and purchasing a new pair. The headband was another area of interest because either through personal experience or through someone that you know, everyone has come across a pair of headphones with a damaged headband that is carefully held together by a delicate wrapping of tape. These “special” headphones general live out the rest of their unused days hidden away in a drawer waiting to be replaced, or buried in a landfill with fully functional electronics wasting away.


Rethinking everything that is essential to a pair of headphones required that I work from the ground up, so I decided that part interchangeability in my design would be the best solution. However, the biggest hurdle when designing a product with interchangeable parts is the end user; some users would be comfortable replacing the parts, others would not. I aimed to decrease the complexity of repair to create an emotional experience that is immersive, simple, and intuitive. Material selection is extremely important when trying to create that user-product connection, so I selected quality materials that were familiar to the user and highly recyclable.

Naturally, with part interchangeability, there is potential for customization. Taking full advantage of the ability to easily change/upgrade any part in the headphone design, right down to the audio drivers was important to my design. This allows the headphones to continue to evolve and match the users ever changing needs, further extending the product lifecycle.
Through smart design and ingenuity, I hope to create an impact and an iconic brand, forging lasting relationships with the tools we utilize in our day-to-day lives.
Images courtesy of David Ngene\n
via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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