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Making the colours work

GLOBAL – It’s not just plastic, it’s “a single piece of polycarbonate plastic.” And they’re not just colours – they’re the most “saturated, intense colours” you’ll find on a phone, according to Tiina Aarras who works at Nokia as a colours and materials designer.  

Aarras gave up a career in fashion to spend two years crafting the best colours for the new Nokia N9 and Lumia series. Before phones she worked as a fashion designer and editor.  

“Working with a hard material was very appealing to me,” Aarras says.

The Nokia N9, Nokia Lumia 800 and Nokia Lumia 900 are moulded from a single piece of polycarbonate plastic. Unlike most phones, the colour isn’t skin deep – scratch one and you’ll see it’s black, cyan, magenta or white right through.

“There are hundreds of colours to choose from,” Aarras says, “But it’s not just about picking a colour. The start of this project was dominated by working on which colours work with the right materials and finishes.”  

From the beginning, designers focused on the story of Nokia Lumia and Nokia N9, which Aarras says, was one of reduction.

“These products are about what you hold in your hand, and what you see on the screen. It was about taking away everything that is not needed, and leaving you with the best.”

Making the Lumia

The focus on producing something pure and whole defined the choice of material: “We knew that we wanted a great antenna, so we wanted to work with a premium plastic. And plastic gave us colour options we’d never have with a metal. We could get the best colours ever.”  

Aarras and the team studied over 100 colours, and the process of narrowing 100 colours down to four was a long one. “We worked with several studies looking at which colours supported the identity of the product. We wanted colours which expressed that unique identity.”

Aarras worked with models of the materials and colours – and discounted darker tones, and silvers. “I was sure that wasn’t the direction for these phones.”

Returning to the idea of purity, Aarras was inspired by the CMYK colour group (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black) which was invented as a primary colour group for printing when newspapers began to produce colour comic strips in the 1890s.

“Those colours are pure, defined and exceptional. They’re distinctive modern design icons and people recognise them. Because these are primary colours they contrast with each other – put them together with a black glass screen, and they are ideal for producing a bold and confident approach.”


The white Nokia N9 was inspired by CMYK’s association with printing and white paper: “So you have the purest white body which creates a nice contrast with a black glass screen.”

With a set of colours in mind, Aarras worked with engineers to choose from a wide selection of materials with different finishes and shades. “These devices have soft shapes and sharp shapes, and we needed colours that highlight both these forms in the right way.”

Ensuring colour permeated the whole product required an intense final crafting and design process with chemists and dye suppliers.  “We had to work hand in hand with each other,” Aarras says. “Making sure we had that powerful penetration and saturation of colour meant working with our partners to find exactly the right pigment  – and then crafting it to the highest technical grade. That was actually the hardest part of the process.”     

Aarras says the choice of colours has shaped the story of the Nokia Lumia series: “Magenta is a provocative colour.” It was actually one of the first synthetic dyes to be produced back in the 1850s – and the human eye is particularly sensitive to the colour hues in the magenta range. “Cyan is classic, and fresh.”  And black? Well, “black is both classic and pure.” 

Above all, colour experience depends on context, Aarras says – and the context is the person. “The beauty of these phones is that different people can use these colours and give a totally different expression to them.”