Murphy’s Hypotenuse: Evolution in Design at Sling, Part One
By Patrick Murphy | 5 Minute Read
During the 2002 Major League Baseball season, brothers and die-hard San Francisco Giants fans Blake and Jason Krikorian missed seeing some of the best games of the year due to their travels across the country. Finding this an unacceptable way to live, they devised a solution. Two years later, the Krikorian brothers founded SlingMedia.
The startup banked its future on a technology that would allow a device to transmit or “sling” video from a static source to a mobile device – a concept called placeshifting. With placeshifting, users could watch their home TV programs on any mobile device connected to the web. Such a game-changing technology required an equally-appealing device to implement it.
To go from their refrigerator-sized prototype to a sleek production device, the company hired the talents of wunderkind design visionary Yves Behar and his Bay Area design firm, Fuseproject. Behar's Midas-like touch in the world of product design has yielded more revolutionizing and award-winning items than any other modern industrial designer (aside from Apple's Jonathan Ive). For those unfamiliar with Behar and his work,, here's but a short list of his palmarès: the SodaStream, One Laptop per Child, practically every Jawbone product, Puma's CleverLittleBag, numerous Herman Miller products, and PayPal's "Here" mobile device.
Behar answered Sling's call with his design for their initial placeshifting device: the Slingbox. Behar’s Slingbox featured a matte silver, three-section, trapezoidal box with a bright red connections panel and a perforated-font "mission statement" of sorts punched into the top.
Surprisingly, the physical first-gen Slingbox somehow wasn't as much the hit as the tech it incased. It differentiated itself enough to reflect the company's newcomer positioning, but it was a bridge too far in its cleverness, as critics described it as a "foil-wrapped chocolate bar."
The product wasn't ill-adopted by any stretch—Sling’s initial foray into the marketplace was met with great enthusiasm and the sales to match—but the imperfect execution of the initial box resulted in Sling jumping ship from Fuseproject to another Bay-Area firm, NewDealDesign. This move launched one of the wildest runs a product family has ever enjoyed, fusing a client relationship worthy of every designer's envy, and resulting in some of the coolest-looking objects you've ever seen.
Before delving into the design history of the Slingbox, it's important to note that an archetypal progression of a product line happens something like this: a company designs and launches a product. The marketplace demands an update or sibling product, so the company reacts with a design that matches, resembles, or otherwise compliments the original—staying true to the original design’s Visual Brand Language (VBL). The company then repeats this process, over and over again. For 5 years, NewDeal more or less employed this formula, but after that they began, well, slinging some pretty wild Slingboxes at the consumer marketplace.
Scarcely a year after the launch of the “chocolate bar,” and with NewDeal now at the helm, Sling unveiled a trio of Slingboxes: The Slingbox Tuner, for analog cable sources, the Slingbox AV, aimed at users with a digital cable box, and the Slingbox PRO, which could do all of this and control multiple audio and video sources. The family carries the trapezoidal theme over from the original, but that's about it: gone are the playful details, replaced with a unique linear pattern across the box’s top surfaces. The AV and Tuner get planar faces and sharp edges, a powerful stance, and bright pops of color revealed on the sides.
The flagship Pro is a near-complete departure, yet an absolute gem of an object on its own. NewDeal suspended its central enclosure in a textured translucent trapezoid; its bright red hue shows through at varying levels of transmittance, growing fuzzier as the two forms further separate. It's a wonderful example of the breathtaking harmony of form, light, and color that’s often seen in designer renderings, yet rarely makes it to the retailer shelf.
The uniqueness of the Pro is an early sign of the developing trust forming between client and designer. Clients with too much emotional investment in their own design instincts are the bane of many a firm, and can lead to deep compromises in design between the drawing board and production. No one but Sling and NewDeal know how the boardroom discussions (or battles) went during development, but it’s clear that Sling wound up quite comfortable with New Deal pushing the design envelope.
In September 2007 Sling released the replacement unit for the AV and Tuner with the Slingbox SOLO, also the company’s first international model. The update brings about further refinement to the design language of the Slingbox brand. Its signature trapezoidal shape is formed this time by two interlocking wrapped surfaces that terminate at their meeting edges, forming an object that is both elegantly smooth and bitingly sharp. Eschewing the pattern found on the three previous models, the upper surface is a finely perforated piece of brushed anodized aluminum, lending an air of luxury to the box’s otherwise techy look. The ends of this piece terminate short of meeting the feet of the unit, leaving a sunken gap revealing another feature carried over from the AV – a flash of brilliant wet red.
In September 2008, Sling released the SOLO’s big sibling, the Slingbox PRO-HD, the company’s first device for slinging high-definition content. The then top-tier model in the Sling family had a monolithic solidness to it, a very refined piece of equipment that could be implemented in any AV setup without sticking out too much. The only flashy detail is the perforated metal grill borrowed from the SOLO. The pattern integrates seamlessly with the light-up Sling logo, the only source of the signature red color to be found on the device. The grill motif carries over to the back in a think bezel shrouding the connector panel.
Up to this point, the design variations of the Slingbox had been masterfully executed, but fairly normal – NewDeal had fielded a handsome lineup of products, subtly unique as individuals, but as a whole reflective of the established brand aesthetic. Each had the core elements of the trapezoid, the color-pop, and a bi-material composition. The Sling collection was a composed family...but not for long.
Tune in next time for the latest chapters in the Sling design evolution.