How Uniform created a device that plays music printed on postcards

Uniform's futures director takes us through how the agency built a Postcard Player, currently on show as part of the Design Museum's Designs of the Year show.

Pete Thomas from Uniform takes us through the evolution of its Postcard Player, a box connected to a speaker system that plays music from postcards. Conductive ink printed onto the postcards tell the box which songs to play. The Postcard Player can be seen at the Design Museum currently as part of its Designs of the Year exhibition.

We started work on the Postcard Player at the end of 2011. We’d agreed to take part in a panel presentation at SXSW alongside some of the people form the Product Research Studio at the University of Dundee. We were working with them to develop some demonstrators responding to the provocative question “Can printed electronics save the music industry?”.

Just before Christmas that year Mike Shorter, one of the researchers at Dundee, created a prototype that blew us away – an interactive party invite that people could bring along to a gig and then ‘play’ like a Theremin alongside the band.

This thing was just great, but what really excited us was that, rather than try and integrate the electronics onto the paper, Mike separated them completely and unapologetically. We really liked the practical simplicity of Mike’s insight and wondered how we could develop it.

Pete developed the Postcard Player in conjunction with Martin Skelly.

Use the slideshow controls above and right to follow our creative process from concept to what you'll see in the Design Museum.

In the Uniform studio, once we’ve identified an insight we work through an ideas stage – developing as many ideas as possible in a short space of time. 100 ideas in 100 minutes is a good aim and easy to remember!

Out of this session came the idea that Postcards could provide a great platform through which to buy, play and share music. Buying a postcard is around the same price as you might pay for a single song download, and we thought it would be cool to celebrate artwork in the same way that we used to with Vinyl moving it away from the screen.

Sometimes thumbnails and coverflow in iTunes just doesn’t cut it.

With a clearish idea in mind the next stage was to play with the technology. Armed with some Bare Conductive ink we started to do simple tests to see what we could achieve from painting and screenprinting with it.

We set ourselves some really simple incremental technology goals from getting an LED to turn on and off to playing a drum kit. While these didn’t relate directly to the Postcard idea, they helped us understand how we would make it work and both the limitations and the opportunities of the conductive ink.

Advertisement. Article continues below

One of the key elements of the project was having very tangible deadlines. We’d agreed a date to demo the Postcard Player to the public at a talk in Edinburgh before taking it to SXSW.

Alongside the tech play we started to think about the how we could connect the postcards to a dock and how the dock would work. Initially we’d hoped to embed memory into the cards themselves but we quickly realised it wasn’t going to happen in the timescales so instead we developed a system that would enable the player to recognise different cards.

We also started working on an inexpensive and simple way to build the prototype player. Keeping things inexpensive and simple is really important during prototyping as things will go wrong. That’s much easier to accept if they didn’t cost too much and they didn’t take too long.

Demonstrating the player in various stages of development has been a key part of it’s evolution.

The first demonstration in Edinburgh was to a room of about 100 people who’d signed up to listen to a talk about the project. We knew we had an interested and knowledgeable crowd who weren’t afraid to offer their criticisms. This allowed us to see first hand how users reacted to the design, what confused them, what irritated them and what made them smile.It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough to show to people and learn from it.

Showing unfinished, imperfect things can feel uncomfortable to many designers but it’s a critical part of a playful approach. As long as people know what they’re looking at, that it’s a prototype, they’re very forgiving when things don’t go to plan.

The next milestone was SXSW itself. For this we knew we wanted to be using content both audio and visual that had no copyright issues. Luckily our local indie record label Fence Records had been part of the team who’d pitched for the SXSW panel and we were able to start using their music and images. When it comes to prototypes the better the content on them the more believable the premise – so having access to their music was great for us.

We also wanted to move away from the typical play and pause controls we’d been using and explored a few different options on how we could design the cards to make the buttons an integral part of the artwork – from incorporating them to making them part of a photographic frame. And we tweaked the design of the box to make it a little less hacky and slightly more resolved.

Advertisement. Article continues below

After SXSW we were invited to show the player at London Design Festival. This is the great thing about putting prototypes out there in front of people; even if they aren’t perfect they have the potential to create conversations and opportunities that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

For LDF, we wanted to create a different experience and we moved the platform at the heart of the player from Arduino to a Raspberry Pi in order to connect to cloud based audio content.

For this iteration of cards we wanted the visual elements to be something that we had created. We were dealing with much more abstract concepts like SoundCloud playlists for which there wasn’t a straightforward visual representation. To address those issues we created a set of abstract images to reflect the services and content the cards would link to.

Alongside this we returned to a more intuitive and straightforward user interaction to control playback.

For the player itself we wanted to move away from the glossy black acrylic that we’d been prototyping with which started to feel a bit too resolved. We thought Birch faced plywood could be interesting to try out – referencing both the wooden veneers of vintage stereo equipment and the vintage prototypes from the original makers and hackers of the late 1970s.

We also added in an LED to let people know the player was thinking, as there was a lag while it accessed the cloud based data. In the end, we showed both versions of the player at LDF – and it turned out that the black player was much more popular.

When we found out we’d been nominated for Designs of the Year we knew we’d need to change both the cards and the player in order that they could be used by people throughout the four months of the exhibition without fear of it breaking or getting damaged.

We worked on the development of the cards and the box in parallel. With the cards we wanted to stick with something slightly abstract but also something that indicated their function quite clearly from a distance. We also knew from showing other versions that the simpler they were, the more people liked and understood them, which worked well with moving to a simple one-colour screenprint. This approach also meant we could used some lovely GF Smith Colorplan paper which we knew would express the tactility of paper electronics brilliantly.

We worked through loads of designs and tested lots of different configurations of screen printed buttons to work out what kind of effects we could achieve with a one colour print using conductive Ink before deciding on a really simple aesthetic with a playful nod to a few design classics. 

Advertisement. Article continues below

We also knew we wanted to redesign the box using a more considered construction process that would be both more robust and more visually appealing.

The interlocking panels we’d used previously had been great for prototypes particularly because it makes them easy to pull apart, replace parts and rebuild. But we were concerned about how robust it would be in the exhibit and it had to sit alongside some of the world’s best design – it had served us well but it didn’t really feel up to the job.

We explored a number of prototypes with matt black frost acrylic, which doesn’t show up fingerprints and is cheap to work with. However, none of these really achieved what we were trying to do. At the last minute and after lots of staring at Hi-Fi separates, we saw sense and redesigned the case in sheet metal.

The new postcard player was considerably stronger and designed to be more intuitive to use – the slot in the top was clearer and it had a simple LED to the front to make sure people knew when it was on.

The Player is assembled from two parts; a frost acrylic base plate which also makes up the front and back, and a powder coated stainless steel top that wraps around to form the sides. This approach meant we could hide all the fixings on the base and we designed out any messy edges with carefully applied shadow gaps to the front and rear faces.

After lots of tests we orientated the speakers downwards, raising the player off the ground to get better sound quality which results in a pleasingly ambiguous feel to the player itself focussing all of the attention onto the cards. All of the other components are assembled to the base plate allowing good all round access if the top is removed for maintenance.

It’s always good to de-stress a project as much as possible. On this project we actually built three Postcard Players just in case anything went wrong. We delivered and installed two of them to the Design Museum the day before the international press viewing and the nominees’ party.

Seeing it in the museum definitely made us pause and think about the journey we’ve been on to get there. Looking back you can see where we could’ve done things better, made things more resolved, tweaking and styling until we got it just right, but it wasn’t that kind of project.

It was never our goal to make it to the Design Museum, we just wanted to work with good people, enjoy the process and make something great. If you approach a project with that kind of mentality, whatever else happens, it always takes you somewhere interesting.

Advertisement. Article continues below