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October 23, 2013

Material mastery: Nokia Asha 500, 502 and 503

The affordable end of the smartphone market is “the most exciting and fast-moving” part of the mobile industry, according to Peter Griffith, who oversaw the industrial design of the stunning new Nokia Asha 500, Asha 502 and Asha 503.

While the market demands that phones in this category be delivered at an affordable cost to customers, nobody wants to feel like they’ve ended up with a compromise: “it’s really important that these devices are ones that their owners can love,” says Peter.

Building and beyond

The device builds upon the experience Nokia Design has acquired over years of working with polycarbonates. But at the same time, “every new device provides an opportunity to innovate”.

Grace Boicel and Peter Griffith

The closest relation to the new family is the Nokia Asha 501, released earlier this year. “With the Asha 501, for the first time, we were able to bring a monobody design to the Asha touch-screen family. That’s actually not just a good thing when it comes to the visual design, but is also a more robust way of building the device.

“Polycarbonate tends to be our first choice of building material because it’s nearly invisible to radio signals.”

Grace Boicel, who worked on colours and materials for the phones, adds, “We love working with polycarbonate and we try to evolve our mastery of the material with every new model.”

Cross pollination

“We work closely alongside the team that works on Lumia smartphones, and their use of layering this year, with the Lumia 620 and Lumia 625, to enrich and amplify the colour. We wanted to pick up on that and take it in a new direction,” says Peter.

“But this new family of models, with its use of a transparent layer, can be traced back a lot further in Nokia’s design heritage. So it’s very modern and new, but also part of a tradition. The Nokia 5130 from 2008, for example, had translucent layers over a textured surface.”

Clear benefits


“The transparent layer adds depth and a stronger construction to the devices. That layer is actually a different depth around the surface, thicker at the corners than it is at the sides. This was pretty challenging to do on the engineering level, but the way it captures the light and the beautiful effect of that on the inner colour layer makes it very worthwhile,” says Peter.

Grace reveals that, “In the Asha 502 and Asha 503 the inner layer is made of an elastomer that can stretch and be made extremely thin.”

“Then, the challenge is to make sure that the colours are really strong,” she continues. “We had to make sure that the layer was completely opaque.”

Contrary to what most of us would think, it was the red colour that was trickiest to master in this regard. Previous products have given the team a lot of experience with creating opaque whites.

“The transparent layer has allowed us to use stronger, more vibrant colours than we would be able to if that layer was on the surface.”

Industrial practise

Making the new Nokia Asha 500 family took the design team well outside their normal environment, but in a way that was true to the normal Nokia approach. “We’ve always worked closely with our engineers – it’s part of how we define the Nokia design approach. But this family’s design depended on us getting out of the design studio and into the factories to work on the designs using the actual construction tools. We couldn’t tell whether our ideas would work without actually trying them out,” Peter concludes.

“It’s a material-led, production-led approach.”