Harman Kardon creates premium, innovative audio systems for both home and automotive environments, including the Polestar 2. We spoke with designers Philipp Siebourg and Jan Geisler about the in-car audio landscape, design challenges, and the importance of high-efficiency hole patterns.
Could you please introduce yourselves?
Jan: My name is Jan Geisler, and I’m an industrial designer working for Huemen, Harman’s in-house design agency. I’m mainly responsible for the Polestar account, among other OEMs. I work with their design teams on car audio integration.
Philipp: Jan is in my team. I lead car audio design within the Huemen global team, across all the brands we have in the Harman portfolio: Harman Kardon, JBL, AKG, Revel, Infinity, Mark Levinson, and Lexicon, in addition to collaborations such as Bang & Olufsen and a few others. It’s my responsibility to make sure we’re aligning on the DNA of those brands.
What are the challenges when designing an audio system for a car, and specifically an EV?
Jan: That’s a good question. Designing an audio system for a car is always challenging, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether it’s an EV or not. It’s about acoustics, it’s about placement, and most importantly, it’s about marrying those two types of design DNA so that you have a happy couple in the end. Polestar 2 is minimalistic, timeless, and precise, not only with the overall interior lines but also the materials. WeaveTech, for instance, is ahead of its time. That’s why it matches with Harman Kardon so well, because our approach is always to be sophisticated, timeless and precise. A challenge we encountered during the design process was that we only had one space to place our 60° pattern logo, which was the centre speaker. Depending on where you were sitting, you wouldn’t see it as 60°. Together with (Head of Interior Design) Lisa Reeves and (Interior Design Manager) Juan Pablo Bernal, we came up with the idea to straighten this pattern to make it a little more symmetrical. This was the very first time we have tried this. In other cars we’re very strict about having the 60° pattern, but for Polestar 2 it matched so well in the centre. And then we came to this (door panel) button, which I personally like very much. It’s a very sophisticated and subtle easter egg which you might not see at first glance. I think that was definitely the most challenging part, to bring those two worlds together and to make sure our brand is represented, in a car that doesn’t want to be too flashy. The button is a very nice way to do that.
Philipp: I think one of the challenges we’re having when designing systems for EVs is the overall energy consumption. An audio system, with all the amplifiers and speakers, is definitely a case where you have to handle the energy use with care. We contribute with our high-efficiency hole pattern. We talk about this a lot, but in the end, it’s pointless to have very expensive speakers, with a lot of power and energy, sitting behind a grille that doesn’t let the sound through. We work with parametric modellers to achieve the most efficient ratio between the open and closed areas of the speaker grille as possible. We also work closely with the suppliers to make sure they can produce these grilles. I’m very proud of how we can have such an impact in the production development process by improving the efficiency and design, together with the acoustic and mechanical engineers. This precision is something Harman really stands for.
What did the design process between Harman Kardon and Polestar look like?
Jan: Talking about detail obsession (laughs). There were many iterations. It started with the 60° pattern. I’d been to Gothenburg many times to sit in the design buck together with different 3D prints (including one with the pattern going in the other direction) to see how well it worked in both left-hand drive and right-hand drive models. We took care with literally each and every hole that is the closest to the periphery of the grille: extending and shortening them manually, making sure they look good from every angle and that they follow the outline perfectly. On this level, where we were pushing holes back and forth, we had a couple of iterations until we found the right one which we sent to Lisa and the team for sign-off. Then their engineering team made it manufacturable, adding draft angles and all that and sending the spec to us. Then we have a final review, making sure even with the added draft angles that we still have the acoustic transparency we need. It was the same with the button. There was always supposed to be a button which I think had some sort of function to it, and then in a very Harman Kardon fashion we brought design and function together in one space.
Which similarities do you see between the two brands?
Philipp: Harman Kardon is a brand with a certain maturity to it, reflected in the choice of materials and the way it’s being presented. It’s not an old product, but it comes with experience, it’s something that’s already achieved something. I think this experience is something that’s shared across the brands.
How much do you work with sustainable and/or recycled materials?
Philipp: Harman is not the producer of the speaker grilles. We don’t have any production facilities. So, we can only have indirect influence when it comes to physical components. We do, however, establish a strong connection with our suppliers, so they know how to achieve the 60° pattern and so on. We’re trying to come up with alternative solutions, together with these suppliers, that we sometimes show in the form of a concept. We’re also looking ahead to what Harman Kardon could be in the future. Within Harman, there’s an R&D team called EPIC. EPIC stands for…
Jan: …Early Pursuit with Innovative Concepts.
Philipp: That’s it. It’s a team of engineers who develop ideas and technologies, since there are so many requirements for materials and parts in an automotive environment. We have a team of material specialists as well, who analyse new materials and push them through that automotive requirement filter. It’s like a triangle: the EPIC team, the supplier, and the design team. We’re the creative agency, and some of our competencies are going hand-in-hand with EPIC, because we can only develop the speaker grilles to a certain extent.
Harman Kardon is known for design. Are there any other design details that are particular to the Polestar 2?
Jan: One other interesting detail is how we executed the logo. Usually, we’re talking stainless steel or steel grilles, where we would apply a diamond cut to the logo. Since the material for the centre speaker was plastic, we had to come up with a better way to have the Harman Kardon logo the way we wanted it. So, the Polestar Design team suggested using stamped foil to achieve a similar look. From a manufacturing standpoint, it’s easier because you don’t have to mask the entire thing and then just chrome the Harman Kardon logo. It’s one part. Therefore, you only need one tool, you only have one part integrated with the air outlets which is also a reduction in parts. And I cannot stress enough that this was a collaborative process. That’s what I love about this job the most. Not only being able to leave a footprint in a car like Polestar 2 which, as a designer, is awesome because that car will be around for a long time. Especially working with awesome designers like Lisa and Juan Pablo. Bringing all that design power together to produce a great product.
Philipp: The door speakers are covered by fabric. So, there we’re actually making use of the fabric of the door. That’s not supplied by us, it’s a case where the supplier has made it happen. In a traditional approach, we’d cut it off and apply a grille to it. In this case, for a more embedded audio system, the fabric has been approved by our engineers to stretch across the speaker device. We ensure that all the visible components that you see in the car truly speak to the brand. If the customer pays for a premium system, the speakers’ appearance should speak to that. That there is a representation of the power of the audio system. If it’s just the base level audio system, then you might want something more naturally embedded. But the more outstanding, the more powerful it is, the more attention you pay to audio, the more you like to see it.
Can you tell us more about Huemen?
Philipp: We established Huemen about two years ago. It’s a global in-house agency for Harman, with up to 250 designers. We have people with very diverse competencies in the team, and our strength lies in that diversity. We founded this agency and for some time we weren’t sure what to call it. We had an internal competition which generated some interesting presentations of names, with logos and backstories and everything. We wanted to stay true to who we are. We don’t design for fun, we do it for the people out there. This is what led us to our agency name: Huemen. And if you look at how we’re spelling it, you can see a little creative deviation. The word “hue” basically means tonalities and facets.
Jan: The system actually won an IF award. That’s another thing that’s interesting. This award is a product design award. It’s been around for decades. A couple of years ago we started submitting car audio products as well. And the interesting thing about that is that it’s not a product by itself, it lives in another product, yet the jury found this noticeable and worthy of an award. Which is also quite cool.
Philipp: We’re the only ones in the market winning awards for car audio systems. There’s no-one else
Everything we produce today has an environmental footprint. EVs are no exception. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Over time we can change how cars are made. And you can influence that progress. Because what you choose to buy is what the industry becomes. To enable us all to choose the greenest path, we all need to understand the scope of that footprint.