David Lewis, Bang & Olufsen’s chief designer, discusses the company’s unusual approach to design with The Wall Street Journal.

Along the way he reveals the pioneering B&O design team only spends 2-3 days a month at B&O headquarters and works externally the rest of the time, they never meet, they have no fixed process, and they build initial versions of products out of cardboard and paper.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: You spend just two or three days per month at B&O headquarters in Struer. Doesn’t this slow the design process?

MR. LEWIS: It’s a great, concentrated way of working. I come fresh and clean every other Friday all the way from Copenhagen and see things in a different way, because I am not at all part of the system there. I sit down with the engineers and go through 10 or so projects in various stages. There are thousands of things to discuss — the minutiae of angles, coloring, buttons, graphics and more.

This is not just my way of working. All designers for B&O — not just me and my team of six — are external. The company believes in it. My six-member team aside, designers for B&O don’t ever meet, we don’t have any cooperation with one another at all.

WSJ: How does the design process work when you are rarely on-site?

MR. LEWIS: Every time we design a new product, it’s like starting all over. Time frames, technology and demands are different each time. So we don’t have a process per se.

My designers and I do have an approach, though. Whether we are given a brief for a new product or we come up with an idea on our own — and it’s a fair mix of the two — we don’t sketch it. We model it out of cardboard, pieces of paper, little bits of plastic, whatever’s on hand.

B&OWe build it up little by little, the way a sculptor does. We stand around the object, have an open dialogue and modify it as we go along. Then, I bring that same model along when I go to Struer. That way all sides can see what the design is about and why it’s essential to do it this way and not another.

WSJ: How much does the final product depart from that cardboard version?

MR. LEWIS: Hardly. When it comes out unpacked at the shop, usually it’s exactly what was envisioned. One example: In 1993 B&O management said, “Make us a new speaker.” Just that. I had the idea to make something less present in a room, something that could offset the bulky television sets that still existed back then. Essentially, a loudspeaker that you could hear, not see. So we modeled ultra-slender column speakers with cardboard and plastic. Once it was in three dimensions that way, we could see all the details and really feel the design…

WSJ: How do you get your inspiration, your crazy ideas?

I often just sit and look out my office window for a long time, thinking. Why does this look so terrible, why can’t we do this or that?

I also visit art galleries and museums as well as Danish antique dealers with architectural furniture and the like, from the 1930s to ‘50s. I have a lot of it at home. It interests and inspires me.

Getting Real: Built-in seats in “A Pattern Language” [SvN]
Meetings Are Toxic [Getting Real]
Finding fresh inspiration [SvN]