Even while Nokia was in its transition phase that began in early 2011, one division of the company was putting forth some of its best executions in the history of the company. What started with the ill-fated N9, Nokia’s design team defined the company’s path ahead with its trend setting industrial design and breaking industry-wide shackles of boring colors and experiments with metal and glass. Nokia brought color back into smartphones and how! While the market trendsetter offered smartphones in black and white, Nokia made blaring loud yellow as hot as the summer sun. It made plastic premium and decreed that an affordable phone doesn’t have to look cheap. Also Read - Nokia Clarity, Comfort, Micro, Go Earbuds Series with ANC launched: Price, features
A six-year vet at Nokia, Stefan Pennenbecker’s earlier stints include Philips and as a design consultant in the US and Hong Kong. “Currently I head the product design team, meaning that my team is responsible for all Lumia, Asha and Gear devices and some of the UX design for smart devices, which is all the experience we build over the Windows Phone and integrate with the camera,” he tells me on the sidelines of Nokia World in Abu Dhabi. On November 1, Pennenbecker took over the helm from Marko Ahtisaari as Nokia’s EVP of design. Also Read - Nokia C30 budget phone launched with price under Rs 10,000: Check specs, price
We discuss what is Nokia’s design language, his thoughts about wearables and smartwatches, and much more. Read on for the complete interview. Also Read - Nokia XR20 rugged 5G phone launched: Check specs, price, India launch details
In the past couple of years we have seen Nokia’s design become uniform across devices. Can you please define what is Nokia’s design language?
We started three-four years ago, when we said we really want to rethink our design approach and we started a couple of things. We basically said we wanted to build better products and that was a starting point for us. What we meant by building better products was in terms of building more simple, more pure in a way. We wanted to get away from all the ornamentation and we really just wanted to focus on the device and the main elements. The reason being, the world is a noisy place as it is and you could argue that when you have a product like this on the table, it should look beautiful and fantastic. But the moment you turn it on, nothing should distract you from the screen. This is what purity is all about. Reduce it to its most important functions and execute it very beautifully. So ‘pure’ was really a big part of the story.
Another part of the design strategy was the idea of human. We wanted pure but not minimalistic. It should feel human with things like it should be soft to touch and there should be choice of color. But human for us also meant that it should be really fun and engaging to use. So for example the Nokia Camera app, which provides incredible level of functionality, we designed it to feel human as well as engaging. It is fantastic technology, but it is presented in a pure, fun and engaging way. And that is important to us. We go to a lot of lengths to achieve this, by say reducing the menu on top, to make it simpler and give people that choice in terms of how they want it to interact. So the human element was really important to us.
The last element for us was ‘advanced’. What that meant was that we create advanced technology and we really are building some sophisticated products. In terms of the miniaturization, the technology that goes into the 20-megapixel camera modules, clear black displays and these kind of things. So we wanted our products to be human and pure, but at the same time we didn’t want them to feel toy like. We wanted them to feel like very incredible pieces of technology and at the same time we wanted that technology to make a difference and use it in a advanced way. For example, wireless charging, we put that idea out in such a way that people use that technology in a much human way, but at the same time not forgetting that it is a very advanced technology. so those elements rightly summarize the whole story around it.
So human, pure, simple, straightforward, fun to use, and very advanced. The advanced part is also about what we call extreme product making, so we build these products with mono bodies, which are quite difficult to do as well as bold thing to do and we believe that it is a great way to build a product. But it requires us to think a lot of things. Those are the three principles we are using across the portfolio, which includes the Lumia devices, Asha devices, the tablets and the gear.
Can you take us through the new Asha design language, with its use of crystal finish which gives it a completely new look to the device? I have the Asha 501, and I find it very warm, in a good way. It feels premium and very human with its curves and everything. But with the new Asha I feel it’s a bit cold and somehow I find the corners to be a bit sharp. So what was the reason behind the completely opposite design?
The one thing that we like to do when we look at our products and the design strategy we like to think how we can keep it fresh and interesting. So we talk about a consistency and continuity, but we also want some development and we want to refresh what we do. One thing that we thought was interesting about this, was that the resulting product using this layered depth-effect/clear-effect is that the product feels quite rich in terms of the materials used, but it is still pure in its construction. So we love this juxtaposition and the final result.
The other thing is the two-shot mouldings, which creates a nice solid feel on the back cover. So in a way, the construction exudes a positive feeling. Then we also felt that this visual effect, which gives the product some level of impact, was very exciting. The fact that the colored layer under the clear layer actually allows us to execute some of these bright colors in a very consequent way, which we couldn’t do if that layer was exposed. So all in all, we felt that this was a really exciting direction to take.
At the same time it’s still a part of the family and doesn’t feel alienated to what we do. It is still very compatible, yet has its very own character and we felt that is very interesting, especially for people who are little expressive. In terms of geometry, we felt that it really emphasized this clear effect and what you see is that we have different wall thickness, which is for a plastic engineer a nightmare to do. So plastics engineering is all regular wall thicknesses, otherwise the material behaves funnily and rejects the moulding process and we said we would not be doing that. So it took us a long time to do this, and we believe it’s quite nice. So this is where it comes from and though this new geometry is quite different, we checked and it still feels great in hand and it emphasizes the effect. But overall, we are still using the pure, friendly, human expression and that is why this works.
Typically it has been a trickle down effect where design elements from Lumia come to Asha. Can we expect this new Asha design coming to Lumia devices?
Actually that is an interesting point you make. There is basically just one design team, and the the designers influence each other, which is great. So we have the team in Beijing, which influences the Calabasas team, which in turn influences the Finland team, and this team again influences the others. So in terms of knowledge sharing and in terms of influencing, it is quite dynamic.
Actually, to some degree this new design was influenced by the Lumia 620, so you can say that some of that design trickled down here. You can also argue that maybe this design trickles to somewhere else. So basically we like to build on the knowledge we create and then we let it flow where it becomes relevant. So let’s see where this ends up, but some of this is really exciting and we have had some great feedback. This in turn encourages us to take this a step forward.
What is your sense on wearables since at this time there is everything from eyewear, to smartwatches to watches that can substitute as a phone?
Talking of wearables, we pretend it is a new thing, when it isn’t actually. A Bluetooth headset is actually a wearable and when we created a Bluetooth headset, we created it with NFC to pair with other devices. It again comes to the inter-dependency between different elements. I think, people expect from wearables that the products and interactions will actually blend into their lives seamlessly. That is in a way, a promise from the wearables. Then the question is what kind of product, it could be glasses or watch or something else. People kind of tend to look at very specific solutions and we are currently thinking about it quite deeply because I think there is a real promise there, but I also think that it is a new ground. It forces us to think how we design things.
Could that be another case, like the iPhone, when Nokia was a bit late to the curve when actually they had touch screens for much longer. Is it always the best strategy to wait for the market to stabilize than when it is actually defined?
I wouldn’t exactly call it playing safe and you could also argue that Nokia was very early with touch-displays. But the question is \, do you make it meaningful and that is what we do. This also doesn’t mean we need longer than others, it’s just that we have a different kind of take on whether it is wearables or something else.
Again when I look at these kind of things, for example Storyteller is something that is more meaningful to me. It takes something like images and rearranges it in a way that is actually more meaningful. Taking metadata, geo tagging data and use them to tell a story. that too is actually a big design effort. I’m looking for these kind of angles.
This also means that our design meetings are sometimes less tech focussed and more people focussed. We ask questions like, “What am I really trying to get out of this?” Sometimes it is about simplicity as well and this guy (pointing to my Nike FuelBand) is really good at this thing. Sometimes we think about wearables in terms of smartphones that are all of a sudden attached to your wrist, and I think that’s an angle we can take, but another angle could be that it is more discreet in the things it does. (I’m sure you must have seen the Nokia prototype watch with eight panels.) We do a lot of such work and file a lot of patents, but that doesn’t mean we are doing a product like that.
A lot of stuff has been happening in Korea with curved displays, free flowing form factor with curved batteries. What are your thoughts about it? Do you see it something happening now, or is it something for the future as far as your team is concerned?
We experiment with all kinds of technologies, and we look into some components, display technologies, material technologies, and other things as well. Generally, what we want to do is make something meaningful and we aren’t very excited about having a certain display technology as such. We believe if we apply some technology, then it should provide some benefits and so we are quite careful about introducing such things. We don’t want to do technology for technology’s sake and that is quite important for us. So when we do a product with a 20-megapixel, we not only believe it can take great pictures, but also that people can get really creative with it. Thus we look at that kind of inter-dependency, rather than saying that it just has a curved display. But there are also things we jump at, like for example if we feel Gorilla Glass 3 will help us make a better product, then we immediately apply it. So we are very nimble in that level.
Talking about materials, Nokia is big on colors and polycarbonate plastic. Do you see this as a long lasting trend or do you see bringing back metal. The 8800 was all metal. Stunning phone. Do you see polycarbonate lasting, considering almost everyone now is getting on the same bandwagon? What next?
I think we have this materials-based design approach. So first and foremost, we look at better ways to build a product and that starts with the materials we use. Then we design with those materials in mind. We have built quite a knowledge base around polycarbonate and we kind of unified the portfolio around it. That’s actually quite an important thing and we are planning on using polycarbonate in the future as well, but also evolving the use the polycarbonate. For example as you see here with the clear layers we are interpreting the use of the material in different ways and we will innovate. They call it the ice-like, but I like to call it clear design.
So we did a product like the Lumia 925, which had metal and the question for us always is when we use a particular material is it has to be meaningful and we build the product with the material in mind. We will look into how we refine our approach around the use of metal and then we will keep our eyes open for other materials as well. But polycarbonate is such a strong material in our portfolio, since we understand very well how to build products with the material. The element of color is very important to us and our current design strategy build around it.
A personal observation. Why don’t we have a flashlight in your DC-16 charger? It has a perfect form factor and it would have its own battery too, and with LED lights, it won’t consume a lot of power. It has a brilliant form factor.
Thanks for that idea, it is brilliant. I will bring that up again. We have the flashlight on some of our phones and then there are also apps which can do the same, but I agree it is a good idea.
Disclosure: Nokia sponsored my visit to attend Nokia World.