MINOX CEO Thorsten Kortemeier (right) and Jens Kohlhase from Volkswagen Design. (Images: Christian Plaum)
MINOX CEO Thorsten Kortemeier (right) and Jens Kohlhase from Volkswagen Design. (Images: Christian Plaum)


Design Made in Germany

Some people say that design is just a question of taste. But for MINOX CEO Thorsten Kortemeier and Jens Kohlhase from Volkswagen Design its much more than that. In the 18 years they have been working together, their products have won 34 national and international design awards.

In Thorsten Kortemeier’s office, you won’t find lots of design trophies or certificates lying in state in display cabinets. The award-winning products are much more important. The CEO of the MINOX company has brought some of them with him, such as the MINOX BL 8x44 HD binocular (Red Dot Award 2014) and its little brother, the BL 8x33 HD (IF Design Award 2015). Next to him, Jens Kohlhase is spreading sketches and drafts on the table. You immediately notice that the enthusiasm they share has forged a firm bond between the two men.

W3+: How and when did the cooperation between MINOX and Volkswagen Design come about?

Thorsten Kortemeier: In the mid nineties we redefined the MINOX values. On the product side, we concentrated in particular on the compact cameras we were planning to launch. Design played an important role in this segment. At the same time, Volkswagen, who were conducting a benchmark project, approached us, prompted by the then chief designer Hartmut Warkuss, who had a close affinity to photography. So you could say we sought and found each other. But it was clear that we didn’t want to buy the label “designed by“, but simply a good design that set our brand and our products apart from our competitors.

Jens Kohlhase: I started at Volkswagen in 1997, in fact my job was created because of MINOX. So I’ve been on board from the very beginning. The first products we designed were the CD 70 and CD 25 compact cameras. Incidentally, the C stood for Compact and the D for Design.

W3+: But a car doesn’t really have much in common with a camera or a pair of binoculars, does it?

JK: Yes and no. You see, one of the reasons for the cooperation between MINOX and Volkswagen Design was the idea to “think outside the box” of our respective industries. In terms of organization and content, I belong to Volkswagen’s Interior Design department. And here there are almost natural points of contact, particularly concerning haptics, tactile stimuli and ergonomics. Take the rubber ribbing on the focusing wheel of MINOX binoculars, for instance – you can see a resemblance to the rotary controls in Volkswagen cars. Mind you, we’re not talking about the same components, but about the same idea that is implemented differently in the two controls.

TK: Let’s not forget that we had the rubber ribbing before Volkswagen did, though (laughs). The idea evolved from the cooperation between MINOX and Volkswagen Design. Conversely, we benefit from the tremendous expertise of our Wolfsburg counterparts in design and materials technology. Volkswagen Design has about 600 staff on the payroll and operates on a global scale. This applies particularly to current or future design trends. We just couldn’t do that at MINOX. All in all, the cooperation unleashes impulses that benefit both companies.

W3+: So it’s more than a matter of one design for various products?

JK: Yes, of course. Our products are obviously completely different. Much more important are shared values and standards that shape the design of the two brands and their products. You see, the design of MINOX products has always been an extremely strong component of the brand identity and tradition. Naturally, that makes it all the more exciting for us. On this basis we have developed a suitable design concept for advancing and re-interpreting the MINOX values without losing sight of the goals and the quality standards of Volkswagen Design.

W3+: Are we talking about design “made in Germany” in this constellation?

TK: It’s no coincidence, after all, that the cooperation between MINOX and Volkswagen Design is based on shared values and standards. We deliberately decided in favor of design “made in Germany“ all that time ago – and this competence is in demand all over the world to the present day. Besides being extremely popular with customers, it makes it easier for MINOX and Volkswagen Design, and for us two in particular, to work together. We’ve been successfully launching countless cameras and sports optics for 18 years and have won 34 awards for outstanding product design. German-made design goes into every single one of these products.

W3+: How important for the brand is consistent and continuous design?

TK: In our line of business there are many comparable products. So it’s all the more important to develop an unmistakable design language that ensures the customer can distinguish a MINOX product from all the others. We’re talking here about the famous “face in the crowd”. So consistent design plays a key role in our endeavor to stand apart from the competition in terms of design as well as optical and technical product features.

The issue of continuity follows on directly from that. There’s a basic difference between consumer goods. When I choose a jacket I know the cut, color or pattern might have gone out of fashion only one or two years later. It’s different with our products: we sell precision-engineered consumer products with highly precise optics, a very long life cycle and a 30-year warranty. So when we talk about unmistakability, we clearly mean high value and longevity. That‘s what our brand stands for, and that‘s what our design reflects: rather than following fashion trends, it traces a continuous line.

W3+: So there’s a kind of DNA or design rules that apply to all MINOX products?

JK: We’ve developed a design language for MINOX that’s not fashionable but reduced and puristic, leading to a durability of form. It’s based on a natural linear framework, a sort of raster that defines the scope of the product designs. Take the position of the focusing wheel, for example, which is a particularly important feature for a pair of binoculars, both from a functional and from a design point of view. The focusing wheel, in turn, is in line with the diopter ring. And then there are the graphics on the product and of course the look and feel of the materials right down to the phases at the end of the tubes. All these are design features that give MINOX binoculars and the brand a face. So there really is a sort of DNA. The design rules formulated in it are set, but are continuously cultivated and developed.

W3+: The old maxim “form follows function” comes from architecture. How do you make a product that can win over customers with unusual design as well as supreme functionality?

JK: The way I see it, it’s impossible to see form and function as completely separate. Obviously, a pair of binoculars basically consists of two tubes connected by a bridge. The shape of the tubes is dictated by the lenses – in 33mm binoculars their design is straight, whereas in 44mm binoculars it’s conical. Try as you might, there’s no easy way of designing round these basic functional or optical configurations. On the other hand, they may well generate exciting scope for creativity. For example, design features can decisively influence ergonomics, compactness and weight. I would even go as far as to say that design often actually supports the function of a product: for instance, when binoculars feel good in your hands and your finger finds the focusing wheel almost intuitively. In the case of the latest binoculars of the BL HD series, on the other hand, the scale on the diopter ring is concealed at first. You don’t see it until you actually need the diopter compensation feature and unscrew the eyecaps. These are minor details that are not only useful, but esthetically pleasing, too.

TK: Our customers attach great value to optical performance and optimum handling. The exterior design doesn’t have much impact on the optical performance. But it’s extremely important for handling. Even there, however, you have to test every single aspect. For instance, light-weight binoculars may be easier to handle, but just don’t give the impression of being so valuable. And if you want especially compact binoculars, they will not rest as comfortably in your hands.

W3+: In the case of the BN 7x50 binoculars for water sports, electronics plays a role, too. Does that tend to make design work more difficult?

TK: Totally different rules apply for water sports binoculars: you don’t normally carry them round your neck and you put them down upright rather than flat when you have finished using them, expecting them to stay upright even in choppy seas. As regards the integration of the digital compass, we adhered to the premise of simple design and easy handling here, too. That applies to the displays in the visual field of the binoculars just as much as to the controls.

W3+: How much do you think and design from the user’s perspective?

TK: Here at MINOX we follow a clearly defined innovation process. It begins with the idea and continues through pre-development, engineering and design to the stage when the product is ready to be launched. There are various phases during this process when we communicate with the market and listen equally to the opinions of customers and dealers. You see, things that are good for the customer may not necessarily be right for the dealer, and vice versa. We make sure to integrate the expert knowledge of yachtsmen, birders or hunters, depending on the product, and we use the feedback from the service department as well.

W3+: The legendary product designer Jonathan Ive has succeeded in making Apple products trigger a “must-have” impulse, so to speak. Is that something to emulate or an exceptional phenomenon?

JK: I think that Apple has internalized two main leitmotifs: firstly, a great idea that will work for decades, and secondly, unique consistency in uniting technology and design. Apple may have changed their product design over the years, but they have stuck to these two basic principles. I don’t believe that this “must-have” impulse is entirely design-related. But Apple has undoubtedly raised the bar in this respect.

TK: If I were a salesman, I would naturally be the happiest man alive if our products triggered a similar “must-have” impulse (laughs). But seriously, Apple is an inspiring example, of course, but it would be totally wrong to compare our product to theirs. After all, a laptop, smart phone or tablet has a relatively short half-life. That’s quite different for us, as I said. You don’t buy a new pair of binoculars every two years. Therefore our products are not oriented by fashion trends, but by a clear line. Altogether they stand for the principles that make our design stand out from the crowd: consistency and continuity, high value and longevity.


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