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October 3, 2008

Top Nokia designer talks icons, devices, and freedom

ESPOO, Finland – We finally managed to sit down with Daniel Peterson, Head of Digital Identity from Nokia Design’s Service UI Design group. His team deals with the user interface graphics across Nokia’s software, services, and devices. The bulk of his team is split between Espoo and London and cover graphic design, motion and animation, symbols, and even the metaphors that define how symbols are understood.

Daniel’s team was the one who had the task to unify the icons used in Nokia’s products. I asked him how that came about, what the challenges lie, and what’s in the future.

About Daniel

Daniel has been at Nokia for about a year. He came from a car company where he was a Vehicle Industrial Designer, working on emergency systems and displays. When asked what he thought of Nokia, he mentioned that it was “chaotic and fast moving”. He was used to product cycles of 4-6 years. At Nokia, phone cycles are much shorter, and service product cycles even more so.

But he has found Nokia Design to be “fantastic”, with a very diverse set of interaction and industrial designers peppered with ergonomists, anthropologists, and psychologists, and rich with stories of how tech affects people lives. He finds the group to be hard to equal, and muses as if Nokia has the largest design agency in the world. And he finds that the environment provide plenty of opportunity for feedback, both within the organization and with customers.

The responsibility

Talking about the icons, Daniel pointed out the scale of what they were doing. If you were to just think that in the next three years, almost all phones will be replaced with newer models. With a few thousand icons going out in hundreds of millions of phones, that’s a lot of icons. And if you were to sum up the area of the interface in everyone’s hands, the area is huge.

He sees that as a big responsibility as they craft these icons not just for Ovi, but for all of Nokia’s devices.

The icons

There are hundreds of symbols that Daniel and his team had to make work across different devices, services, and cultures. Each icon had to communicate what they represented. Icons, Daniel explained, are like the language the device or service uses to speak to the user. It has to be based on the user’s understanding of what a phone or service can do, and be coherent througout. Also, icons need to take into account that the user’s understanding of the device or service increases with use.

Whereas a device can be made different through physical attributes, such as colors and materials, it is important that the symbolic language be maintained across devices and services. What’s more, this consistency makes it easier for users to pick up a new device or service.

The icons are spreading through Ovi and are already making their way into devices (the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic is the first) and services. These culturally universal icons required lots of user testing (China, India, Europe, Asia, and USA) to check that the metaphors and styles were correct.

As an example of how culture impacts the icon, Daniel mentioned the Map icon. It was found that a compass was a much better image to indicate directions than a map icon.

The struggles

While harmonizing icons across products is nothing new, this was the first holistic approach in the new organization, the leading edge of a long ongoing design-originated process. Indeed, Ovi, as a young brand, provided a fresh start. The designers were able to work within the Ovi brand and then work back to the Nokia mother brand.

For Daniel, the Nokia-wide re-organization in January simplified and accelerated the way for this project to be completed and executed. Also, he warns that top-down in not good enough for a company this size. It’s still important to communicate from the base – learning, discussing, and iterating to get things done.

What’s next

Next for the icons team is to get the icons in more devices and services. They will also evolve the icon set and start adding deeper layers to what they’ve already designed.

With what Daniel and his team has already achieved, it’ll be exciting to see the icons spread and grow and what impact it’ll have on how we interact with our devices and services in the future.