The Future of Mobile Design, as Told to Us by a Nokia Luminary

By Gerald Lynch on at

You may not know his name, but you’re almost certainly familiar with his designs. Frank Nuovo headed up Nokia’s first global design team in the 90s through to 2006, responsible for some of the brand’s most well-loved designs including the iconic 3210 and 250 million-selling 1100. He’d also go on to form the Vertu luxury phone band before opening Design Studio Nuovo.

Nuovo helped make the mobile phone an everyday device for people around the globe, so when he talks about mobile design, we’d all do well to listen. Ahead of one of the busiest periods of the year for smartphone launches (what with IFA and Apple showcases just around the corner) we caught up with the lauded designer. And it’s “the phone from Cupertino”, the iPhone, whose weedy durability frustrates him the most.

“People desire its very beautiful and sexy thin form,” says Nuovo.

“But there is an unfortunate brutality of real life on the street. You can’t send a gorgeous super lean fashion model into a rugby match. You can’t ask the other players to change the rules and behaviour to respect your delicate bones.

“Pushing aesthetics so far above reliability and robustness was not acceptable while I was design chief at Nokia. To achieve such global success, like Nokia, in so many markets and with so many product lines and such high volumes, was an achievement that has yet to be repeated by anyone. I don’t believe it would have worked out at Nokia with as many broken products as seen today. It’s incredible that marketing execs have managed to minimise press about [broken iPhones] as if it did not even exist – people actually joke and commiserate about it and move on like it’s a required cult initiation or something.”

The rumours of a sapphire display in the iPhone 6 obviously caused raised eyebrows in the Nuovo household too: “Every Vertu handset used Sapphire from the start – something I drove hard and we pioneered in phones, not because it was expensive, but because it would not scratch and it was amazingly robust. Apple has studied my Vertu case designs carefully and they have employed a few ex-Vertu specialists over the years.”

If you’ve grown tired of the constant stream of samey iPhone leaks and cookie-cutter smartphone releases, you’re not alone either. When it comes to mobile innovation, Nuovo describes an industry that’s more or less stalled.

“Compared to my years at Nokia it’s easy to see that phone design today is relatively flat – literally and figuratively,” says Nuovo. “During the 90s it was the wild-west and we were innovating every aspect of the mobile experience.”

“Most of today’s smart phones are dominated by a common minimalist hardware approach with the most distinct difference between interface and ecosystem offerings. Design will continue to be influenced by technology and it all evolves slowly. However, I believe that people also want increasing individual personality in the design of their devices.”

Personality was a key draw to the most successful Nokia phones, believes Nuovo:

“To me, they are all like little creatures – we designed them purposely to have friendly and expressive features and personalities to match our human centered interface approach. Easy to use, simple, elegant and dependable. They were 'phones'. I often hear that people wish for the simplicity and incredibly long battery life of those products. But we are way past all that now and there’s no going back.”

Nuovo’s latest hardware project, the Spaced360 Bluetooth speaker, is certainly not lacking in personality. The three-pronged star-like speaker looks unlike any other out there, with a well-balanced sound (powered, surprisingly, by two six-inch drivers), and battery life and durability to match Nuovo’s Nokia days. In development for two years, Nuovo blind-tested initial focus group users before letting them see the speaker.

“Spaced360 might have success on its unique audio quality alone, however the opportunity is rich with inspiration. Ultimately, the aesthetic solution must amplify the desirability,” explains Nuovo. As such, the decision was made to leave the three main speakers exposed, allowing the listener to view the source of the music so that there is "no mistaking the powerhouse of sound that it is."

“Of course it’s inherently a sculptural work -- it looks great sitting on the table –it’s quite a conversation piece [...]Through the design process we were able to enhance both performance and design together in a complimentary manner. I have learned to work this way and it is in my view the best approach.”

Smartwatches and wearables, the unavoidable hardware buzz categories for mobile manufacturers at the moment, haven’t passed Nuovo by either. The designer has been working with the MetaWatch team for their smart timepieces over the past few years. But it’ll be a slow road to the mass market for smartwatches, believes Nuovo.

“We are still working to bring the masses closer to understanding the benefit of smart watches, but it will happen. We need patience with all of this,” he says.

“Technology will continue to shrink in size, offering more design flexibility along with an increase in performance and features.

“The generation that never wore a watch, for example my own kids, will begin to accept wearables as they become more fashionable and as the benefit proves worthy of the effort it takes to maintain one. We call our approach to the smartwatch at Meta the 'art of the glance'. The idea is that through Meta we have an opportunity to be socially more attentive to those around us by accepting 'micro-bursts of information'. We promote glancing upon the mobile feed rather than getting wrapped up in it. That’s also fashionable because it can actually enhance your personal and social style – one fewer person looking down all the time to check up on their social status couldn’t hurt.”

Sci-fi expectations work against the smartwatch, according to Nuovou (“It’s likely impossible for any organisation to meet the expectations set by press and media these days”). For Nuovo then, the current wave of smartwatches only hints at the possibilities of wearables in the future, especially if the Internet of Things takes off in a meaningful way.

“The new catalyst for change surrounds the creation of a seamless connection to the Internet of Things. It’s about sensing and connecting, in the most elegant and meaningful way possible, with all things technically 'smart' in the world around you. Your personal area network will be interacting and responding to the Internet of Things as you move around. For instance, my Meta smartwatch will interact with your phone and with my design for the Spaced360, controlling the streaming of content.”

As the rise of KickStarter has proven, it’s easy to take a look at what the big hardware design powerhouses have built and believe that you can do better, and even find funding yourself. But, as Nuovo stresses, “nothing great comes easy.” Nuovo shares these tips for the budding industrial designers of the future:

“Know the difference between the attention received with flash and the true long term reward of design with substance. It takes an extraordinary amount of hard work and long hours to make something truly special with long lasting success. We live in an age of instant gratification – allowing ideas to be developed quickly with CAD tools. Try to avoid a design by numbers approach. Pick up a pencil or a pen. Draw it out. Finally, learn as much as you can about business, marketing and yes, sales.”

Image Credit: Brad Scruse -- Flickr, modified under Creative Commons License