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SI: Interview With The Designers Of The Ultra Thin KDL-40ZX1

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At a mere 9.9 mm thin, the BRAVIA KDL-40ZX1 is the one of the world’s slimmest LCD TV’s around. But the facts and figures fade when you see it, as analysis gives way to simple amazement. That’s the strength of its design. After the KDL-40ZX1, claims to thinness based on specs will seem flat. This great piece from Sony Design tells you more about the story of this unbelievably thin and gorgeous LCD TV.

Fumiya Matsuoka

Fumiya Matsuoka, Chief Art Director

Yuki Kubota

Yuki Kubota, Producer and Designer

Letting technology shine through design

Fumiya Matsuoka

Matsuoka: In the KDL-40ZX1, we’ve reached a destination in the quest for thinner and thinner LCD TVs. It’s only 9.9 mm at its thinnest point. What makes this possible is a new “edge light” backlight system. White LEDs are arranged along the edges of the panel, and we have eliminated lights on the back of the panel itself. That’s why it’s slimmer than ever.

The front is also more seamless. Traditionally, the panel in LCD TVs is supported by a metal body and covered by a molded frame. This prevents the bezel and panel from being flush. Designers conceal the unevenness, but you can notice that the bezel and panel are usually about 6 mm apart. In contrast, the panel and frame of the KDL-40ZX1 form a nearly flat surface. That’s because the frame both supports and encloses the panel.

With the kind of technology applied in this television, any designer could make it thin. And that’s exactly why we had to ask ourselves how we should present this thinness. How could the thinness amplify the messages of design? How would people recognize it as a Sony product? I left these tough questions to Yuki Kubota, one of the designers I trust most.

Kubota: I was in for a surprise when I first saw the developers’ demo model. It was so slim, I doubted it was a working model. When the screen came to life, I was truly startled. It was the thrill of seeing something extraordinary. I knew then that I wanted an ultimately simple design, to convey that feeling as directly as possible.


The power of design inhabits an unseen realm

Kubota: My first impression of the demo model was of a glowing board. I thought, wouldn’t it be intriguing to reduce it further, to a glowing sheet of paper. That’s why we designed the frame with sharp edges. This way, when you view the product from the side, for a moment it seems to have no depth at all. Like a floating sheet of paper.

Sharp frame edges were essential to this idea. Unfortunately, regular fabrication inevitably produces dull edges, preventing the sharp image we sought. We decided to use extruded aluminum.

The frame has quite a sophisticated cross-section, although you’d never know it by looking at the finished product. For one thing, the thickness is not uniform. It’s about 1 mm at the base of the panel. Other areas are thicker, and the edges are even thicker, which makes the frame sturdier. Without a very rigid body, products this thin and large would be pliant and easily warped. In retrospect, it was by creating thicker edges that we solved this issue. Just bending thin aluminum into right angles doesn’t make a frame this sturdy. Somehow, after years of TV product design projects, I often find design ideas and engineering necessities fitting neatly together.

The frame joints were particularly challenging, though. When you cut extruded aluminum of this shape at an angle, you’ll end up with corners that are a little too thick, unless you’re careful. It took repeated attempts until our manufacturing partner accepted the fabrication process we sought. After a lot of nerve-wracking work by our team of designers and engineers, who proposed a series of intricate 3D structures, we chose a numerically controlled lathe to produce the ideal shape.

A slim television that even looks great from behind

Yuki Kubota

Kubota: This is a wireless television, and owners can install it wherever they choose. We even anticipated unusual cases where it might be installed right in the middle of a room. That’s why the set looks attractive from all angles, even from behind.

The first trick was to conceal screws, as much as possible. And that’s actually another reason for using an extruded aluminum frame. Build a slot into the frame at an early stage, and you can slip the back cover into it, eliminating the need for screws. Vents for the electronic components are also inconspicuous, thanks to some hard work by our engineers. As a result, the back surface looks beautiful.

The connection interfaces you expect to find exposed on the back of most sets are covered. Cables connected to peripheral equipment or the power outlet are routed through the arm supporting the panel, and they emerge at one position. Hiding the cords preserves the neat appearance in back.

The arm itself is slanted instead of rising straight up. This keeps it out of view when the set is viewed from the front, which makes the screen seem more buoyant. The mirror finish on the arm has a similar effect. By reflecting what’s around it, in some conditions, the arm fades from view.

Matsuoka: Designers should stand up for what they care about—a vision of a great-looking set from behind, a way to conceal interfaces, how the arm rises from the base. The kind of dedication to details that makes a designer insist cords be hidden. Here, all these preferences are expressed naturally, in uncontrived shapes, by applying ideal fabrication techniques. It’s a good example of Yuki’s work. His vision inspired our engineers to help us make the back of the set this beautiful.

Irresistible lines and shapes, inevitable throughout design

Matsuoka: The speakers are separate from the monitor itself. Two types are available, each for a different mode of installation, and one type is integrated into the stand. By nature, speakers must open out toward the front, but boxy speakers would look bulky and unbalanced with the thin panel. To keep the stand as compact as possible, we adopted a round shape. Owners can also choose a bar-shaped speaker when the set is mounted on a wall.

Designing speakers for flat-panel TVs often involves a tradeoff in audio quality. But in this case, the design we adopted offers exceptional sound while complementing the thinness of the panel. Designer proposals made it possible.

Come to think of it, any way you install the set and from any angle, it’s free of unneeded lines or elements. There are no embellishments, and everything you see represents concepts that proved inevitable. It’s as if we tried to convey our design message as succinctly as possible. That’s Yuki’s style.


Completing your living room

Kubota: To me, televisions are a means to the end of viewing images. We give consumers what they need to do this. Again, they are a means to an end, not something to be desired for their own sake. That’s why I strove for a buoyant appearance that blends into your living room.

Indicator illumination in the KDL-40ZX1 required a special touch, for this reason. Although blue LEDs below the screen glow for a moment after operations, they go off automatically and stay off at other times, so that you can focus on viewing. No light passes through the indicators when they’re off, which makes it easy to forget about them then.

Feature Design BRAVIA KDL-40ZX1

This time, we also wanted to offer unique body color options. These have a special lacquer coating developed by our engineering group. Lacquer colors are not something you can just order from a set of standard color chips. The sophisticated patterns are handcrafted by experts, and each is one-of-a-kind. I saw great potential in combining highly advanced electronics and traditional artisan craftsmanship. Ultimately, it was a better fit than I had ever imagined. I think the set goes well in Japanese homes and looks great on traditional furniture or next to lacquerware.

It’s available in black or silver (fitting Sony colors), or blue or red with the lacquer finish. Choose the best color for your viewing environment, and the set will look right at home.

Reflecting values that make mere specs seem flat

Yuki Kubota Fumiya Matsuoka

Matsuoka: In LCD TVs today, thin is certainly in. Manufacturers are racing to introduce slimmer models, but I think KDL-40ZX1 owners will be satisfied with the appearance of this set even if next year’s models are a few millimeters thinner.

There’s something that embodies Sony ideals here. If the set weren’t a Sony, you’d see the thinness of the panel expressed differently. Other manufacturers would probably show off the svelte profile in a direct way, in the thickness of the frame. Or because it’s such a thin television, they would trim the bezel to make it seem less substantial. If we hadn’t created the edges on the frame of the KDL-40ZX1, that’s how it would look. But because Yuki acted on his vision of a screen that looks as thin as a sheet of paper when viewed indirectly, we avoided this. We were willing to accept a slightly larger set overall, and this helped us convey what we wanted to convey in design. That’s why the appearance will remain fresh, and the set will stand up well to any thinner products that are eventually released. The KDL-40ZX1 isn’t about being the thinnest; it embodies values and style that are permanent and somehow universal.

Bring home a television created under these ideals, and it may well change your lifestyle in some ways. Why not restyle your living room a little to match the set? Consider a new chair, for example. Introducing design that inspires thoughts of a better lifestyle is a goal of ours, and the KDL-40ZX1 is one of the products that brings us closest to this goal.

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