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How I got here: Bang & Olufsen design guru Gavin Ivester

Words by Rob Chilton

He spoke to EDGAR about crazy ideas, secret warehouses and how technology should make us feel

Once a forklift driver at Apple, Gavin Ivester worked his way up the ladder and helped design the first PowerBook. Following stints in the creative departments of Under Armour, Gibson Guitar, Puma and Nike, the 56-year-old became VP of Design at Bang & Olufsen in 2018. Ivester began by recalling the early days of his career at Apple just after graduating from high school in California.

First step

“The start of my career was very odd. I started with Apple two weeks after finishing high school, driving a forklift for minimum wage. I was employee number 2,454 so you can imagine it was pretty early days. I deliberately took the job to find my career direction. I moved through a number of roles in the company: forklift driver, truck unloader, engineering clerk, junior draftsman, mechanical designer and industrial designer as I went through university. It was a buzzy place; the Steves [Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak] were famous locally. Fast forward to 1987 and shipping my first Macintosh.”

Big break

“In 1987 everything at Apple was influenced by Hartmut Esslinger and his German company Frog Design. When Steve Jobs left Apple he hired Frog to design his NeXT machine, which violated Frog’s exclusivity deal with Apple. So Apple fired Frog. That meant Apple suddenly didn’t have any industrial designers for the Macintosh, which I had worked on as part of the mechanical engineering team. I saw the opportunity and asked to take a shot at it. It was a perfect storm of right place at the right time and I jumped on it.”

M5 speaker

Dream job

“If you’d told me in 1987 that I would have this job at Bang & Olufsen someday, I would not have believed you. I was a huge Bang & Olufsen fan back in the day. Nobody at design school at that time could ignore the brand, we all put it on a pedestal because it was the pinnacle of clean European design.”

First encounter

“I remember the first time I saw a Bang & Olufsen product move, it was a CD player with glass doors that opened as you approached the cabinet – it basically said hello. It was a light bulb moment for me because of the surprise. But it wasn’t a cheap trick, it had meaning. The true magic behind it was that the product was making itself ready for you and the movement felt human.”

User experience

“Ease of use has been at the core of everything I’ve been interested in around design. Our goal is to get the product out of the way for users. We take unnecessary details out of the picture to make things as easy as possible for you. We try to make our designs extremely forgiving so any guess you might have about how something works is probably right. One of our rules is that if you learn how to use one Bang & Olufsen product you’ll be able to use all of them.”

Edge speaker

Design mantra

“A mantra I repeat at work is ‘confusion is not a luxury experience.’ When things don’t work the way you expect, it can be very frustrating. We want people to walk away feeling they’re smart and empowered by the product.”

Day to day

“Every two weeks in our office in Denmark I have a giant internal design staff meeting of about 20 people. It goes all day and nobody from outside the design department is in that meeting. We’re helping each other, everyone can comment and feedback is encouraged. People might have problems they’re trying to solve. It’s the best few hours of every month.”

B&O head office in Struer

Bringing the crazy

“Do people in my team show me leftfield ideas? I hope so! They sometimes bring me something informally on their laptop and ask for my advice. Often I’m the person bringing in the crazy ideas, but there’s always a method behind my craziness.”

Danish roots

“My design team is mostly Danish, which is vital because of the Danish heritage of the brand. Bang & Olufsen is the pride of Denmark, you see it in any Danish person’s eyes when you talk about the brand. Having that emotional connection to the history of the brand is super important.”

Beovision Harmony

Moving forward

“I’ve been through the Bang & Olufsen museum in Denmark and I’ve read all the books. I’ve seen the secret warehouse staffed by volunteers who are retired employees, which contains one sample of everything the company has ever produced plus prototypes, some of which never got made. At the end of the day, my conclusion is that this is a brand that is all about moving forward and being innovative. It’s never been a nostalgic brand, which I find very freeing.”

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