Moving on from a series of phones made from polycarbonate, Peter Griffith and his industrial design team were ready to work with another material, aluminium, when they approached the design of the iconic new Nokia 515. And they wanted to develop new, better ways to use the metal to create a phone that stands out from the crowd.
“The typical, and easiest, way to make a traditional candybar phone is to create a sandwich of parts with seams between them. But we wanted to do something better and to work authentically with the material, bringing the principles of reduction and seamlessness,” Peter explains.
“We didn’t want to do it the obvious way and create a metal battery door that we put on a plastic case.
“Instead we chose to challenge ourselves and create a monobody design where the whole of the main part of the phone is a single piece of aluminium shaped from one sheet.”
“Anodised aluminium is very, very durable,” says Peter. “With it, you can create a thinner wall for the product body and make the whole thing slimmer.” The Nokia 515 measures just 11mm in depth.
But the choice of aluminium also created an immediate challenge for the product team right at the beginning of the Nokia 515’s evolution. Metal and radio antennas are not a good mix unless you’re very careful about the placement of both – otherwise you’ll face reception problems and dropped calls.
But, as always with Nokia phones, the design isn’t an add-on once the product is technically finished. The design and engineering teams collaborated closely from the very beginning.
“We created a solution we call ‘pockets’ to let the signals flow freely. There are sections of polycarbonate – which is transparent to radio transmissions – at the rear of the phone, and at the top where the headphone and USB sockets are placed.”
Peter draws attention to the detail of the Nokia logo and the graphic that’s next to the camera.
“We didn’t want something that was printed on afterwards. Instead, those details are masked before the metal is sandblasted, so they are the original polished metal. What you’re seeing is the real material, a reduction rather than an addition.”
The raw metal goes through a series of stamping operations to form the shape, after which precision machining creates the openings in the part. The part is then polished and sandblasted to give it the beautiful, fine texture. Finally it is anodised, a hardening process that gives the body of the phone its resilience, and also, with the black version, its colour. Another act of deliberate reduction yields the white version:
“The white model is actually the natural colour of the aluminium. Nokia has gained market recognition in recent years for bold colours, but here we wanted to focus on the quality of the material and not add more than necessary to distract from that.
“It’s lovely to work with aluminium in its natural state. It brings a very clean and reduced design.”
The keymat received full attention, too, changing the way the keys are made entirely.
“We began by creating a set of plastic tiles, and then applying a top-coat of scratch resistant resin.”
“But we weren’t happy with the miniscule build-up of top coat on each key, it’s a tiny issue, but it was looking slightly ‘blobby’ and taking away from the crispness. We wanted to do something different.”
“So the keys are moulded from a new, harder type of transparent plastic resin that doesn’t require a top coating. We evolved this from our experience in polycarbonate manufacture and we use it for the first time in the Nokia 515. The symbols and numerals are applied to the rear, so they can’t get scratched off.”
“So then the rear lighting for the keys also came under scrutiny. It’s normal in the industry to scrimp on that, so there are light and dark patches on the keymat. We didn’t do that: we put in more lights than usual so that there’s even illumination across it.”
Every last detail has been scrutinised and refined. The speaker holes are mechanically machined. “They are very crisp holes,” says Peter with happiness. The rear of the phone opens up with a key and can’t pop off by accident. “There’s something very satisfying,” he says, “about using your key to get into the phone.”
In terms of its ingredients, the Nokia 515 is quite different to recent phones from the company. So what makes it distinctively ‘a Nokia’?
“To me, it’s not about the individual ingredients,” says Peter. “It’s not only the colours or the materials or the shape.
“What makes a phone look like a Nokia is the approach. It’s how we build things.
“We start with the engineers and the materials, and we have a fascination and love in developing mastery over those materials. That’s the signature. The Nokia 515 is the result of using aluminium in the purest, cleanest way.”