The Sling design evolution
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.
Perhaps the most wildly innovative design in NewDealDesign’s Sling portfolio came with the 2010 release of the Slingbox 700u – a fully-capable Slingbox device developed solely for media provider distribution. The 700u marked the smallest Slingbox yet. The internals required a space barely larger than a pad of Post-It notes, only with the added complication of heat management capacity of a much larger vented box. NewDealDesign solved the issue with a different tactic – the chipset required a giant heat sink regardless of the form factor, so the team decided to make the form factor a giant heat sink!
The result is a true piece of shelf jewelry, reminiscent of missile grid fins and fine latticework, a marriage of extravagant ornament and the technological future. Surrounding the core is a thin outer band, the space in between laced with even thinner sets of interwoven fins of varying height – all composed in a single die-cast aluminum piece the size of a checkbook. An ultimate expression of form and function, the design brought home the bacon in 2010, sweeping several design and tech awards, including an IDEA "best in show." The design borrows nothing from its predecessor models beyond a penchant for interesting patterns, instead forging an identity entirely unique and intrinsic to itself. Such a divergence is often a dangerous deed for a brand with an established visual language, but the 700u has perhaps conjured more interest than any Slingbox yet, despite its lack of availability as an aftermarket product.
The 700u was a design anomaly. Unorthodox, yet surprisingly effective, the 700u was surely an isolated incident in the design evolution at Sling? Nope! It was three years before Sling released another product, but when they did, NewDeal had done something even more surprising than the 700u departure. They again designed a Slingbox with no connection to their established VBL, and they did it with a pair of simultaneously-released models in October 2012. The Slingbox 350 and 500 are the newest and current faces of SlingMedia, and they look more like different species than siblings.
The company touts the 350 as the "most affordable Slingbox yet," but unlike many entry-level offerings, its design wasn't watered down to boost the appeal of products further up the totem pole. The matte black rectangular box is covered on all sides by glossy diamond indentations, starting small and shallow at the back and increasing in depth as the pattern moves forward, gradually corrupting the flat surfaces until only a crystalline texture exist. Like pavé diamonds, the effect of light hitting the unit is mesmerizing.
The high-end 500 model by contrast has only smooth surfaces. It is essentially an extrusion of the same rounded right triangle, only the shape flips direction from one side to the other, creating a somewhat amorphous top surface with two defined peaks at opposing corners. The design effect is that of a simple shape grabbed at either end and twisted to form the final product. A glossy, wrapped band caps the right side of the otherwise uninterrupted shell, and perforated end caps deliver the only subtle throwback to Slingboxes past.
The duo is quite different on the outside, but they actually share a very important trait - the same trait that drove the design of the 700u--thermodynamics. The radical aluminum lattice of the 700u dissipates heat conductively from its core. The 350 and 500 dissipate heat convectively, each in its own neat way. Each faceted divot in the 350 actually contains a missing face - amounting to hundreds of tiny holes in the casing that dissipate the hot air within. On the glossy black case, the holes are practically invisible, requiring close inspection to recognize their existence. As NewDeal president Gadi Amit puts it, "It's an optics trick hidden in plain sight."
The 500 also sheds degrees in a unique way. The opposing twin peaks on its morphed upper surface are the highest points on the form. The hot air within rises, flows along the inside of the case, and exits at the openings on either end. So effective is the heat management in both models that they require no active cooling (fans), and are completely silent as a result –making each model a better playmate with home audio.
The design lineage of the Sling product family is not without its critics – it most certainly breaks the rule of compromising one's own VBL and risking the loss of brand equity. But Sling is now under the influence of a new VBL, one that’s actually defined by its own evolution—vivid progression—and I believe it's a good one. Regardless of the righteousness of their design decisions, it’s hard to criticize Sling and NewDeal as they've sold like a bazillion Slingboxes (unofficial figures).
As a designer, I really hope that NewDeal continues making each new iteration of the same product a statement in and of itself. Perhaps this vivid progression will persuade others to follow suit, ushering in a new era where VBLs and product families are seen as design crutches. With nothing to hide behind, each design would be considered and crafted to a higher level to embody its own being, instead of adhering to the strict aesthetic code of its predecessors. Whether or not this happens, one thing is certain—in throwing all of its inhibitions to the wind and all of its trust in the hands of NewDealDesign, SlingMedia has built a powerful empire of beautiful slinging devices, and my own vision is a lot better off for it.