How Frank Nuovo is reinventing the speaker

When it comes to mobile phone design, few have been as influential as veteran designer Frank Nuovo. As vice president and chief of design at Nokia during the 1990s and 2000s, he led the creation of the company's first global design team, and helped usher in the global mobile revolution, resulting in Interbrand ranking Nokia as the world's sixth most valuable brand.

On leaving Nokia in April 2006, he maintained a role as principal designer at its luxury mobile phone brand Vertu, which continues today. He also opened his own design studio in Southern California called Design Studio Nuovo, which he operates with his designer wife and business partner, Trina Nuovo. And now his most recent big project, Spaced360, is set to shake up the world of audio equipement...

Stylish and high-end

Aiming to change ideas of how a Bluetooth-enabled portable speaker should look and sound, the Spaced360 produces a 360 degree surround sound from six 'radiators' via a new patented technology that takes advantage of 'sum and difference' audio signals.

And its aesthetics are just as ground-breaking, with Nuovo's elegant, three-pronged star-like design helping the device stand out in a crowded marketplace.

The Spaced360 harnesses "a new room-filling sound technology"

The Spaced360 harnesses "a new room-filling sound technology"

This combination of cool style and high-end technology is one that's always been central to Nuovo's design approach – and one he's unashamedly proud of, he tells us.

"Most industrial designers refuse to even utter the word 'fashion'," he says. "Fashion is generally viewed as a fast paced, fleeting trend association – a shallow 'surface only' side of design."

But Nuovo believes that's a false dichotomy: it's not a question of form versus function, but creating a synergy between them.

The right balance

Of course, by the same token, you can't get by on looks alone either. "Balance is required for the long haul," Nuovo argues. "If you want to make a quick impression, form will get you the attention but for me it’s about the long game."

And getting that balance right means staying true to your instincts and not worrying too much about what people say.

"The most profitable designs often don’t always make the greatest splash or get the best press," he points out. "I worked very hard with Vertu for many years to pioneer the use of Sapphire glass on phones so they wouldn't scratch or break easily. It was worth the effort. It’s both beautiful and functional: balance achieved."

The form specifically provides visual appeal but also is very functional: that feels like magic"

The form specifically provides visual appeal but also is very functional: that feels like magic"

And it's the same approach that informs the Spaced 360. "The form specifically provides visual appeal but also is very functional," Nuovo stresses. "When these things can be fully combined, that feels like magic to me."

Rethinking a classic

The project appealed to him personally as "an opportunity to rethink a classic product and work on something which is clearly focused on music," he explains.

"Everyone knows what a traditional speaker looks like," he reasons. "Audio is a very mature market so it was a wonderful opportunity to innovate and define the physical image of the new room-filling sound technology: a wireless portable solution in new form that represents the uniqueness of how the sound travels away from the device toward the listeners."

He's developed the Spaced360 speaker in collaboration with the engineers at Orbitsound, a British audio company. "They came to me with a simple prototype 'canister'," he reveals. "The vision I provided was to make a product that visually communicated the unique multi directional sound distribution.

"I wanted to design something that looked totally unique"

"I wanted to design something that looked totally unique"

"The airSOUND™ Technology inside Spaced360 effectively re-invents stereo by splitting existing two-channel music three ways and spraying it around a room, with full spatial quality. With such revolutionary technology, I wanted to design something that looked totally unique."

The process of designing and building the speaker was a long but fruitful one, he adds.

"We together worked through may iterations of the design. We built and tested multiple variations and stepped upward with improvements of the acoustical design while always fitting to the styling vision. There were innovative solutions created while shaping the passive subwoofers and highly tuning the balance between the physical volume of the enclosure and the specs of the speakers."


Personal passion

It's been a long road, but one fuelled by Nuovo's very personal passion.

"Music is central in my life – it’s about creativity and expression," he stresses. "I grew up performing music. My dad and brother were professional musicians who treated music jobs as a social gathering with friends as much as an opportunity to make money. I learned to enjoy all styles from Frank Sinatra, big band to fusion, pop, classical and Latin."

"I believe wearables are a critical part of the next wave"

"I believe wearables are a critical part of the next wave"

And that's made him passionate about the quality of sound dynamics. "It's critical," he stresses. "I like a range of speaker environments, sometimes built into the wall – total surround and occasionally with an extremely high quality headset. I am proud of the Spaced360 and how in almost any case inside or outside it delivers an extremely high quality experience." (You can learn more about Spaced360 in our sister site TechRadar's review here.)

The future is wearable

It's not the only project he's been working on lately, though. Nuovo has also been developing a new design for the Meta One Smartwatch, a unique smartphone, and a digital heath-monitoring device. And looking to the future, it's wearables that excite him most.

"I believe wearables are a critical part of the next wave - the integration of technology into our lives, in particular sensors of all kinds," he enthuses.

"Some tech will be highly integrated into existing devices, in some cases perhaps even disappearing into our clothing and classic accessories at times. However presented, for security, convenience, entertainment or health – wearables will be increasingly a part of our lives."

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.