So, I paid all my bills for July. For what may the first time in my adult life, everything says "Current Balance Due: $0.00". Well, with the exception of my student loans, which I will be paying until I die. But other than that, I’m caught up, zeroed out, solvent, with a little bit of money to spare. So, I decided to treat myself to something.
I came to the world of cell phones only reluctantly, and only as recently as February of this year. Up to that point, I had thought people were being a bit silly about their cell phones. EVERYBODY has to have one and they’re using them ALL THE TIME. But then I ended up in a few of those situations. You know the ones. You’re supposed to meet a friend at their house and you get there and their car is there and it looks like they’re home, but they can’t seem to hear you knocking. You’ve knocked and knocked. The doors are locked. If you had a cell phone, you could call them and see what’s up. Otherwise, you have to go allllll the way back home and call them from there.
You’ve volunteered to go get dinner for you and a friend. The place you’ve gone is closed or doesn’t have what your friend wants. A change of plans is necessary. With no cell phone? You’ve got to go back and re-convene. Or guess.
You, like me, drive an old used car that exists in a permanent state of questionable health. You’re driving between towns in the middle of the night and the headlights suddenly seem…dimmer. Then the air-conditioner cuts out. Your ALTERNATOR is dying! With no cell phone? You’re stuck on the side of the road waving your arms hoping to flag down someone who DOES have a cell phone.
So, yeah. Right around six months ago, it occured to me that yes, if fact, it might be time to get a cell phone.
Trouble is, they’re so damn ugly.
Remember the dawning days of the digital watch?
This is kind of where I feel like we are with the cell phone. There’s a bunch of different companies, and yet their products seem to be so impressed with themselves for being phones at all that they’re content to do just that while being about as aesthetically appealing as a cold sore.
Which is what has made Motorola’s RAZR phone the most sought-after little piece of status technology in the country. It’s a cell phone that actually seems to have been designed to look cool. It’s matte. It’s compact. It’s kind of sexy. And for now, in spite of the fact that it’s notoriously fragile, user-unfriendly, and has dodgy speakers, it’s Number One.
And yeah, okay, they’re kind of cool. If you want the Same Cool Phone that Everybody Else Has.
And here’s where my truly obsessive nature comes in. I wanted a new cell phone. I wanted a cool cell phone. Not a Crackberry multiple-use interface, not a home video center and editing suite, not an MP3 player and fax machine. Just something that works and has a little style to boot. I looked at the options for upgrading through my cell provider.
Ick. No thanks. They’re all RAZR’s, home video editing suites, or what look like especially fugly pieces of extreme sports equipment.
So, I started just randomly browsing cell phone companies to see what I could find. And learned some very interesting things along the way, which is really the whole point of this post.
Nokia lost major market share to Motorola and an influx of new brands like Korea’s LG and the emergence of brands like Samsung in the cell phone market. Nokia’s original response was to see if they could design the next big Must-Have Luxury Item. Design head Frank Nuovo supervised the roll-out of Nokia’s super-thin, all-stainless, slide screen 8800 model. The phone? Lovely. Ring tones composed by Japanese avant-garde musician Riyuichi Sakamoto. Carefully integrated deluxe features. The price? $700. And there’s the problem. Nuovo seems to think elitist is good. In fact, he sounds like kind of a snotty prick in this 2005 NPR interview. If he’d said the word "premium" one more time, he would have sounded like a gas station cashier.
The phone was a mild success, but mostly tanked. Too expensive. Nuovo was taken out as design head and replaced by Alastair Curtis, a Royal College of Art graduate who brought in new designers and a fresh set of priorities. Meanwhile, inexplicably, the 8800 suddenly took off with a surprise population. The Russian mafia.
One of the things we observed [with the 8800] was the huge uptake in Russia. So we saw an opportunity to say, okay, why don’t we look at refreshing the product and making something very exclusive to Russia, understanding there is a desire in certain parts of Russia to express their newfound wealth. [As a result, Nokia created an all-black version of the 8800.] It’s been hugely successful.
"Certain parts of Russia" equalling "the Mafia parts" also known as "the only people in Russia who have any money at all".
Here’s the 8800, by the way:
(Russian mafia black)
Both of these phones are available on eBay if you have an extra $700 to kick around. I know, riiiiiiiight. If you had that kind of money, you’d be a Republican.
Clearly, the 8800 was a little rich for my blood. I do kind of wish I could buy my brother the black one, though.
And then I feel deeply, miserably, headlong in love. With up and coming Nokia designer Liisa Puolaaka, the company’s Head of Brand Visual and Sensorial Experiences, the person responsible for bringing you (well, not yet American customers) this phone, which she describes as "a souvenir from the future":
On the review board where I saw this one, all the commenters were saying, "UGH!! Horrible!! What’s with the keys being on the sides like that? It’s too much! Ridicuous!" Except for one person who, in fact, owns the phone, who said, "Actually, having the keypad set up like that, after a short learning curve, makes dialing and texting much easier."
Even today my work is still very much involved in understanding and recognising trends and the way people or societies are changing. One of the important things is to realise the difference between ‘long-term’ societal trends and ‘short-term’ lifestyle trends, but also to understand that some short-term trends have the potential to cross into the mainstream of society, where they become much more influential.
So a lot of my early work involved collaborating with product designers to incorporate that thinking into the starting point of their work, coming up with a design theme based on an understanding of the target consumer and the trends that would be influencing them.
In talking about trends you’ve described how Nokia studies them and reacts to them as they emerge. But isn’t there a risk that you end up copying trends rather than setting them yourself?
I think it’s an oxymoron to say any one person actually sets a trend. Everyone is affected by the same things that happen around us, it’s just that some people pick up on those things before others. The trick is to be inspired, rather than to copy, and to know where to look - at the leading edges of art, society, culture. Maybe that’s why a lot of people in this field come from the fashion industry, because fashion has always been very open and accepting of the notion of being inspired by what’s ‘out there’ and then translating it into product ideas. What’s important is a sensitivity to what’s going on, observational skills, and the creativity to distill those observations into stories, themes and product possibilities.
Now, is this starting to sound familiar to you at all? It’s called "Experience Design" and doesn’t it sound a little like, maybe, BLOGGING?! And how it’s affecting the political discourse now?
We’ll come back to that. First, I want to show you a couple of gorgeous phones.
Now, if I had $400, I would have gotten a 7370, which is a spin phone, which means it goes like this:
This is what happens when a company like Samsung does it:
Ho hum. Doesn’t that just scream "Armitron!" at you?
Here’s the Nokia version:
In warm amber on the left (for the ladies, I suspect) or manly coffee brown on the right.
Puolaaka’s team studied Japanese ceramics, engravings, different finishes of leather and steel. They want the phones to work well, but also to look good and even smell good. It’s part of creating brand loyalty and inspiring consumers to seek more out of their choices, to find things they love rather than something that’ll do.
You can also get phones with no keypad, which you control with buttons and a wheel like an iPod:
Or you can get one like I got, which is up at the top of this post, the 7260. Of course, it wasn’t issued in America, so I had to chase around all over the Internets to order one, and I’m taking my chances with buying a warranty, cos otherwise it isn’t supported in the US by Nokia. GAWD!! Why isn’t it here?! I ordered it more than 50 hours ago!!
The waiting is KILLING ME!!
If I’d had just a little more cash (and no need for things like gasoline and groceries), I would have splurged and gone for the dark brown 7370. It’s just so lovely. Still, until I get that big book deal, the 7260 is a very smart-looking little phone and I hope to give it a good and loving home.
My point with all this is really, "Oooooh, look. Preeeettyyyy…" but also to point out that Nokia is doing what most of us deeply wish the Democratic party and its calcified system of do-nothing strategists and media advisors would do. ASK THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT. And then give it to them. Supposedly liberal politicos are still campaigning like it’s 2003. They think the Feingold Iraq resolution is some lefty extremist position, when actually 60% of the American people back it.
I predict great things for Nokia in the years to because they’re thinking ahead, trying to anticipate what will be best for their customers and making it for them. They’re not taking former design head Frank Nuovo’s tack of dictating from on high what will be the Next Big Thing for us lowly proles. You see how that worked out. You end up only hitting it big with the Russian mafia.
Maybe Joe Lieberman could learn a thing or two from this. People like it better when you ask them what they think rather then telling them what to think.
Let’s roll that Puolaaka quote again:
Guess what, firedogs? That’s us!!
I think it’s an oxymoron to say any one person actually sets a trend. Everyone is affected by the same things that happen around us, it’s just that some people pick up on those things before others. The trick is to be inspired, rather than to copy, and to know where to look - at the leading edges of art, society, culture.