How landscape architecture and coffee makers have helped Microsoft’s Head of Phones Design lead the company’s colorful charge into its next chapter.
In a world where looks alone can make or break a new product, it’s no surprise that design is high on the agenda when it comes to creating a new device.
Peter Griffith arrived at Nokia in late 2005, working on premium and fashion-led devices and later heading the Mobile Phones Industrial Design team. In the near decade that has followed, Peter has seen rapid change in the mobile phone landscape and, more recently, in the company itself.
However, with the entire phones design now under his captaincy, Peter is adamant that design consistency needs to remain key – a view that still holds true since we last spoke to him, earlier this year.
“Everything we design is a part of an evolution and there needs to be a certain kind of continuity,” says Peter. “We aim to learn from everything we achieve, and refine it even further each time we go about designing a device.”
In our latest interview, conducted just days before the Microsoft Lumia rebrand, Peter reinforced a design philosophy called ‘Pure. Human. Advanced’ that he and the design team have worked towards for many years.
He told us that it remains relevant to this day in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design as well as hardware design.
“The idea of Pure on the industrial-design side has a lot to do with having mastery over the materials, so we can ensure everything is as perfect as can be. On a digital level, Windows Phone is a very pure graphical interface with minimal visual noise. From a UX perspective, the teams are looking at the relationship between the person and technology.
“Fundamentally, this isn’t technology for technology’s sake. It’s helping people to do the things that they want to do, making it relevant to their lives. Allowing people to become more productive. That’s the Human philosophy.
“From an Advanced perspective, we’re in a constantly evolving stream of technological capability that isn’t slowing down. Some technology becomes a big deal, some becomes irrelevant. We need to focus on the stuff that sticks, the things consumer want.
“We’ve put a lot of work into understanding this; selecting what people want and refining the technology so the experience becomes so beautiful that all you have to focus on is the benefit.”
You mentioned productivity; a theme that runs throughout Satya Nadella’s vision for today’s Microsoft. From a design perspective, do you differentiate between a business user and consumer Lumia user?
“This is where the Human idea comes back in; it’s the unifying element. We see it playing through the industry with trends like BYOD (Bring your own Device) – the lines are blurring between ugly and boring work machines and devices that we choose to own. For design, we’re creating generations of devices that people love to work on and like to own.”
Is this made easier now that Nokia Devices & Services business and Microsoft are one, meaning hardware and software departments can collaborate quicker?
“For some time there’s been a lot of integration – don’t forget we’ve been working with the Windows Phone platform for a number of years! Now that we’re all one company, we’re able to collaborate in new and more significant ways. If our focus is on the person using the device, we need to be able to orchestrate where all of these things come together. Reaching out to all areas of the organization is extremely important.”
Do you think we could reach a point where a software application or movement could drive the industrial design of a product? For example, in health and fitness, I might not want my large Lumia 1520 strapped to my arm, but I do want to benefit from Bing Health. Where’s the compromise and what area would lead the vision?
“We’re not a team that begins with the hardware or software. The important beginning point is the experience and the types of things that we can do. The toolbox that a design team has at its disposal is getting wider all the time – it’s only recently that we’ve even contemplated fitness tracking as a real-world consumer concept – the key thing in moving this forward is understanding the meaningful experience for people.
“We also need to adjust and change very quickly as technology is becoming more and more difficult to predict. We need to watch what we’ve done, to see how people adopt it, and adapt quickly.”
With that in mind, has your past experience in retail, interior, furniture and museum design contributed to your Lumia design outlook today?
“Very much so. The breadth is what inspires me! When I was a student at the Royal College of Art, one of the things I really loved was how the mix of the design department – from glass and ceramics to print-making and architects – showed a very similar creative process. The process of executing products is what really varies. I’m fortunate enough to be able to draw upon a range of influences and combine that with my in-depth understanding of mobile phones acquired during my ten years here.”
As consumers we want as many features as possible in our smartphones, while offering great value. How does the design balance work?
“That’s part of the delightful challenge we have. However, I don’t think consumers want absolutely everything; they want a particular set of things that are unique and individual to them. Part of the trick is understanding the right things to leave out as well as the things to include. As we plan our products, we need to be doing so with as much empathy to the end user as possible. Again, this comes from understanding what people expect from current trends and refinements from the last generation of devices.”
Right, so how would you like smartphones to evolve?
“The data adventure that the world is experiencing right now is going to create new and very amazing landscapes. The smartphone as an object won’t be diminished in all of this and the appreciation for something that’s well built and considered will remain.”
Ok, put another way; the one big change over the last few years has been an increase in screen size. Will you look to follow wider industry trends or rigidly stick to your design road map?
“We constantly watch and allow ourselves to be surprised by how people use our devices. Think of it as a landscaped park and the paths people chose to walk – these may not be what was intended but are the routes people have decided to use. If you’re a landscape designer, the idea of letting the grass grow over your nicely paved walkway and shifting your path to where people actually want it, can be tricky, but this is exactly how we want to design products; watching how people use them and making adjustments according to how people require them to work.
What are your thoughts on wearable technology?
I think the term wearable technology is a bit of a buzzword. You could argue that it’s not a new concept – Bluetooth headpieces and even wristwatches have been around for years. People like the convenience, when the conditions are right, to carry a piece of technology around with them, and there are various parts of our bodies that we might want to add this to. It’s a really interesting area and the fundamental is the same as the work we do on phones; we need to understand the real benefit and build a delightful experience around that.
But you still see smartphones as playing a key role in making wearable happen?
Yes. The most powerful piece of technology that we carry around with us is the smartphone. People are augmenting this with smaller, less-powerful devices where the experience becomes more significant because of the connection between them.
What’s your favourite product of all time; the one that’s influenced you the most? It doesn’t have to be a phone!
(Laughs) One of my all-time favorites is the Alessi Espresso Stove-top Coffee Maker by Richard Sapper. I’ve had it for decades and it’s something I still use every day and still enjoy using.
At the time it came out, most stove-tops were made from cast aluminum, but this is carved from stainless steel, which has formed its shape; it responds to the material’s characteristics in such a beautiful way.
So, I love it from a material point of view, I love it as an object – it’s really clean, reduced – but I also love it from an experience perspective – it makes really great coffee and works just as well as it did when we first bought it.
In my view, these are some of the fundamentals as to why people love their objects so much.
So, the relevancy of its form and function, today, is really important. Do you think the same can be said of mobile phone design or is that a futile concept because of the way smartphones develop so quickly?
Making coffee is simple enough that, fundamentally, not that much has changed . However, the mobile phone landscape is such a fast-moving environment, we’ve already seen the form change significantly in ten years.
However, within that, there are constants that will remain; appreciation of materials, the way everything comes together to make the final form and the experience of using it.
These will always be important to people.