During the last 20 years of my life I've been a fan of producing electronic music. In this article I'd like to write a bit about one of my favorite companies, their products and how they blend design, music and fun into a magical package.

Teenage Engineering are a Swedish company that creates consumer electronic products which generally have something to do with audio or music. Think synthesizers, speakers and audio modules. Their products offer a unique vision for executing design in a delightful, opinionated and consistent way.

I own and love several of their products. I would even call some of the things they do magical. This inspired me to start looking at them from an interaction design point of view. Below I list some things that I discovered make them feel magical.

1. Beautiful look and feel

Materials, build quality, onboarding experience and packaging are exceptional. Combining solid colors, clear typography and simple geometric shapes with retro screen graphics, quirky iconography and a masterful use of proportion in shape, they feel like  bauhaus filtered through videogames. They're unmistakably teenage engineering and this makes them look both aggressively original and beautiful.

2. Small variety of core input types

The main interaction inputs on most products are a set of encoders (infinte knobs) and a grid of digital buttons. This sits in contrast with other manufacturers where more controls equals more features. Even though it might look limiting, they make it work as an advantage (less controls to learn how to operate, cheaper to do).

3. Emphasis on combo-like gestures

Echoing videogame controls, many of the functions are triggered by combining button holds and actions on other controls. Performing or recording music on an OPZ or a Pocket Operator soon feels like playing a video game. A similar experience happens while actively listening music on the OB4. All special functions of this radio (like rewinding and looping) work by combining a button press with a move on a knob. The results are often unpredictable but (almost) always super nice.

4. Playability over control

Most settings are abstracted for ease of use. Many things happen in the background that can be influenced but not fully controlled by users. In an exercise of opinionated design, only the most playable and impactful settings are exposed, leaving synths that can make awesome sounds without the user understanding exactly how things happened. This requires giving up control in favor of trusting the machine and embracing the uncertainty.

5. Designed for improvisation and expressiveness

A big part of the design seems to be geared towards improvisation. Many of the functions provide unpredictable results but are tuned in such a way that they rarely sound bad. There's a lot going behind the scenes that calculates things like scales and rhythms automatically while executing towards the "intention" you might have.

6. Multi modal operation

There are usually 2 or more "operation modes" that can be switched on the fly. This increases the versatility that the controls have as there are multiple functions assigned to the same controls, depending on the modes. You can tweak and program music while it's playing in the background and play while you're programming it.

7. Interaction consistency across devices

Once you learn how to use a Pocket Operator (the simplest and cheapest of the devices), you can quickly pick up any of the other products and things will make sense easily.

The B-Side

Even with all their magic, Teenage Engineering products are also polarizing.

For starters, they're expensive products with a strong appeal to style conscious people. You can get more features for less money somewhere else but it's hard to get them in such a stylish self contained package.

Second, they have a very particular signature sound, workflow and feel. If it's not your cup of tea or you can't work with it then a more traditional brand is probably a better choice. If it works for you though, you just need to learn the basics once. Afterwards, the interactions become second nature.

Finally, they thread the line between consumer electronics, design studio and a music instrument company. Purists might prefer their instruments coming from dedicated, traditional synth manufacturers. Other people love that they do speakers, video game consoles, IKEA products and other things. I think their experiences on the different areas translate and feed into each other to remix and create even more interesting products.

I personally think they're awesome and they represent a great example of intentionality in design with masterful technical and industrial execution, always delivering a bit of magic in a box.