GATESHEAD, United Kingdom – In an industry that moves at the pace of a child screaming downstairs on Christmas Day, Nokia designer Peter Griffith is one of the people that takes the time to focus on the details.
Peter has been with the company since 2005, and it’s his team’s role to craft designs that will turn heads. Because while features such as storage and camera size look great on comparison sites, it’s the beauty of the phone that people will fall in love with.
“We talk about reduction a lot in our work at Nokia design”, he said. “We want to take away as much of the clutter as we can. So you’ve got to be careful that you make the things you’ve got left as beautiful as possible.”
Peter was speaking to an audience at The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead as part of Nokia’s Amazing at Night event last week, staged as part of the launch of the Nokia Lumia 800 smartphone. The night also featured DJ sets from Tom Longstaff and Maximo Park’s Lukas Wooller.
Nokia has linked up with the BALTIC to bring the Turner Prize to the North East of England this year, and Peter got the chance to look around the gallery itself before his talk.
“It was good to see the exhibits in person rather than online”, he said. “One of the things that struck me is the pushing of boundaries by all of the artists in their fields. We very much believe in pushing the boundaries in our own field as well.”
“When you’re at design school learning to make things, one of the key things you learn, and I’m simplifying, is that there are two basic ways to make something. You either build it up from parts or you start with a solid and cut into it.”
He says this latter technique gives the Nokia Lumia 800 a “crispness and clarity”. When he thinks of this approach, he’s reminded of the craftwork of a watch he once picked up in a second-hand shop years ago.
“It was a beautiful 1968 Omega Seamaster, which used a similar technique of cutting into a solid. It’s an approach that’s been used many times over the years, but it’s somewhat novel for mobile phones.”
Rooted in the North East
Peter’s interest in plastics goes back to his studies, and was enhanced by an experience he had not far from this North East gallery. He studied furniture design at Nottingham Trent University before completing an MA at the Royal College of Art. There he won a bursary from the Royal Society of Arts and Formica, who invited him to their factory in North Shields, near Newcastle. He ended up putting together his degree show there, crafting with Formica while staying in nearby Whitley Bay.
“The first few nights, I would go running along the beach in the evenings worrying if I was doing the wrong thing. Work with Formica started slow, but then the interest began to build up and people started offering to help. Before long, the project was almost going faster than I could keep up with.
“I still draw on that experience now in terms of directing a team of designers.”
A partnership of engineering and design
Peter stresses that Nokia’s design process is a collaboration between designers and the engineers behind the technology, and it is this that makes the phones tick. There’s a sound lab at the London studios, for example, which looks at how the bleeps, beeps and ring tones fit into the overall user experience.
“A building is a collaboration between the structure and the beauty of the architecture. The same thing is true of what we do.
“The layout and placement of all the components isn’t just about making it work. It’s also determined by designs set down by our teams. Each component has an impact on the shape of the body and we need to keep things as tight as possible.”
Remember, this painstaking process takes place in a company that makes and sells 13 phones a second, and has a handset in the pocket of more than 1.3 billion people worldwide.
As smart design is crucial both on the high-end phones and the feature phones designed to take on the competitors, Peter is also proud of the little touches that go into the models with smaller price tags, like the Nokia Asha 200.
“We’re very pleased with this phone”, he said. “Achieving what we have with the Nokia Lumia 800 is a great thing, but we also take pride in bringing these same principles to something sold for less money. We take this approach to everything we do.”
image credit: James Tolley; words: John Hill