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December 12, 2011

What are concept phones and why we should care

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Sometimes it feels like a day doesn’t go by without a new concept phone making headlines. Just last month Nokia Research celebrated its 25th Anniversary with the Nokia Gem. A swanky concept phone in which the entire body is a touch screen. But, have you ever wondered about the purpose of concept phones and why designers keep on creating them?

What is concept design?

To understand concept phones, we need to understand the principal behind concept design. Simply put, it’s an early phase of the design process, which explores wide-ranging design ideas, which although plausible, aren’t constrained by technology. Concept designers are sometimes referred to as visual futurists,” and it’s easy to see why. By letting their imaginations run riot, they give us a taste of what might be in five, ten years time.

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What are its origins?

Although a concept designer’s attention is firmly fixed on the future, concept design itself is a product of the past. It’s the car industry, which is often considered to have come up with the idea, way back in the 1938 when General Motors designer Harley Earl invented, the Buick Y-Job, the world’s first concept car. Later, in the 50’s, concept cars were unveiled at motor shows to gauge the public’s reaction to new styling and technology. Now concept design is applied to everything as simple as rocking chairs and as revolutionary as invisible cameras.

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Why are concepts created?

Concept phones like all concept designs are often beautiful and awe-inspiring. Yet they don’t overcome real world design challenges and rarely, if ever, make it to the production line and into people’s hands. So why do designers bother with what some people might consider frivolous exercises in exhibitionism? Are all designers simply narcissists desperate for us to ogle their work? Fortunately not.

Because concept phones are only limited by a designer’s imagination, they help them explore every possible angle. Like brainstorming, concept design encourages designers to think outside the box and reduce the risk that they might miss a great idea. Concepts are sexy, too. Just look at Italian concept cars. By mixing blue sky thinking with rich visualization, concept phones evoke strong emotions and thoughts from us, their audience. And despite their impractical nature, they do have a practical function. By placing ideas into the public consciousness and giving designers something to aspire to, sometimes dreams turn into reality.

Take the Nokia Aeon. Created in 2006, it featured a touch screen that covered its entire front. At the time it was nothing more than a fantasy. Five years later, it’s the industry standard.

So next time you salivate at an awesome looking concept phone, don’t despair that it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day. Because sometimes in the next few years, its fantastic features just might.