What Does a Man (or Woman) Have to Do to Get a Coloured Smartphone Around Here?

By Kat Hannaford on at

A long time ago, phones did actually come in colours other than black. Was it the advent of the smartphone, and the two-year contract, which made manufacturers (and we, the people who don't want to be lumbered with a novelty red phone) lose its edge when it came to colour? While black is accessible, simple and goes with almost everything, black however is...also pretty boring.

We're starting to see the fruits of head-strong designers' lobbying trickle out onto store shelves. Certainly Nokia’s bold and colourful approach to the phone market is almost like a sigh of relief amongst the sea of monotonous smartphones, and if anyone had been left puzzled by our re-introduction to this thing known as "colour," HTC's recent unveiling of the 8X and 8S, in colourful block hues and stunning dip-dyes, will smack those doubters around the chops with their acid yellow booties. Sure, both handsets are also available in bog-standard black, but what's important here -- as with Nokia's Lumia range -- is that these colourful options don't come with dumbed-down specs. They're part of the main line; HTC's only WP8 offerings.


But are people buying these things?

I certainly don't see much colour on my daily travels, unless it's in an iPhone user's case, or in the Hello Kitty phone-charms hanging off a Samsung device. After years of using anonymous black slab-phones, my first delve back into the pot o' colour came when I tried out a cyan Lumia 800 for a couple of months, to re-familiarise myself with Windows Phone prior to the WP8 announcement. I'll be honest here -- I don't usually care much for how people think I dress, or present myself, but when it comes to gadget-use, I was much more hesitant.

In fact, I was dubious as to how people would react to seeing such a vivid hue stuck (more often than not) in my hand. Would I become a mugging target, with the blue beacon standing out more than my previous phone, which was a white HTC One X, and various black phones before it? Would strangers cast me off as someone who knows little about gadgets and technology, typecasting me as a woman who chose her phone merely for its pretty colour? Perhaps unwisely, I coupled the cyan 800 with a pair of matching Monster earbuds -- if you're going to lean on colour, go for the Zandra Rhodes approach, I thought to myself.

Any concerns I may've had over sporting such luminous gadgets on my person would put me in the minority for my gender, given half of women across Europe (according to Strategy Analytics) choose a phone for its colour rather than its OS, compared to 64 per cent in China, and 71 per cent in the US. Perhaps you could argue that women do not buy a phone just because it’s pink, but rather because there is actually a choice out there for them. Because women buy colourful devices, more women feel comfortable buying them too. You must remember that my hesitance in picking up such a "girly" phone is down to my day-job as Editor of Giz UK, more than anything else. Men, while they do like colour, just don't appear to like colour as much as us womenfolk, with the numbers not even getting close to those above percentages.


The network challenge

Speaking to HTC's Manager of Product Strategy Eric Lin several months back, Lin told me that while white phones, such as the One X I sported a couple of months ago, aren't aimed at women, they certainly help "open up women to smartphones," given smartphone usage is still more prevalent among men than women. Pointing at the case ecosystem as an easy way to inject colour -- indeed, a different colour every day, if desired -- Lin explained this also allows companies to circumnavigate the tricky waters of dealing with networks.

Case (pardon the pun) in point: With Orange's "colour" being orange; T-Mobile's pink; O2's blue; Vodafone's red, and 3's green, how do you convince each network to sell a phone in its rival's colours? It's a bigger problem in the US than it is here, of course, given US carriers have a firmer grip on manufacturers' balls than networks across Europe, what with their carrier exclusives and all, but it's something that unfortunately affects us too.

While Nokia's been loathe to give away sales figures, in an interview with Nikki Barton, Nokia's VP of Design, it's obvious colour is doing well for the company: “People do want it,” says Nikki, adding that “the magenta version of our N9 was the biggest seller, and we’re constantly out of stock of the cyan.”

Perhaps not quite as famous as another certain designer, Barton uses her background in typography and other interests and passions to meld in with the current principles of modern day Nokia-design (slim, barebones; to the point), and apply them to gorgeous devices like the Lumia series. Are designers such as Barton finally being heard properly by their companies' CEOs? Perhaps it's the Jonathan Ive effect, and Steve Jobs's now-famous quote of people not knowing what they want until you show it to them, which is allowing the big cheeses at companies to actually throw their market research findings out the window, and listen to their designers' risky suggestions?


A phone for designers?

A story Barton told us of one of the first sightings of an early Lumia 800 by Nokia's design team shows how it wasn't just us punters who were taken by surprise:

“There’s a story that Stefan Pannenbecker, the VP of Industrial Design at Nokia, tells us about one of the portfolio reviews within the team they had when they were all in Finland -- it was one of those grey days, where they’d had two days going through things...it can be quite tiring. And then one of the team said, ‘Oh, we haven’t talked about this’, and got out this wax model that was basically the Lumia 800. And everybody just screamed in excitement, because it was so different. They were all designers, and they just got very excited about it, and it lifted up the whole two days.”

The Lumia 800, and the N9, was a change of focus for Nokia. A refocus rather, that didn’t look at features, apps, or a multitude of different things on a phone -- instead, a refocus on design, as well as Nokia’s principles, which are visible in all of the marketing and advertising (such as this ad) they've done around the Lumia range.

“I think now, the industry has just moved on, and I think that if you compare how black everything else is, and black is the best selling smartphone colour; it’s something that is very accessible,” says Barton. “But we just looked at what was out there, and thought that we really needed to do something, true to our principles as well, and my principles. True to my typographic background, and black, red, rubrication, it all fits in with the whole design.”


How does it make you feel?

The whole palette of different colours has been a purchasing driver for Lumia customers, as according to Nokia’s own internal consumer research, the colour of their smartphone plays a part in how they see themselves, as well as how their peers perceive them. According to Nokia, consumers who choose a Lumia 900 in cyan, magenta, or even white, tend to be seen as the influencer in their peer group, as well as being active in the digital space. In fact, according to a Nielsen study on the Lumia 900 purchasing experience in the US, nearly all of those new phone owners believe that it has an attractive design, is fast, and is easy to use, and would recommend the phone citing these specific three factors.

Within the rather colourless market, there are many questions that could be raised -- why aren't more companies making bright devices that offer something different, and more importantly, choice in the market? And no, Samsung's pebble-blue Galaxy S III doesn't count.

Is there too much risk involved with launching a phone today? Do manufacturers not want to take the gamble of launching a multitude of different colours, in case the device flops? Perhaps it is the cost involved with mobile devices today, and the risk of people disliking their bright red phone in 12 months’ time? Can we blame the recession for this, like everything else?

According to Barton, Nokia “wants to produce things that people want, and people want colour. The results speak for themselves.” It'll be an interesting ride over the next year, as we see how Nokia and HTC's colourful array of phones fare, and whether more companies jump onto the rainbow too. The one thing I know is that after my brief stint at owning a phone more colourful than anything else I possess, I'm hooked -- but what will it be, the Lumia 920 or HTC 8S?

This week, we're celebrating the many facets of modern design on Gizmodo UK, with a design theme week. Bookmark this page for all related stories, features, interviews and competitions, or contact us here with tips.