Online Extra: A Chat with Nokia's Alastair Curtis

The new chief designer talks about creating product love, identifying trends, and extra special ring tones

Alastair Curtis takes over as Head of Design for Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia at a crucial time. Nokia (NOK ) is the world's dominant mobile phone maker, selling 75 million handsets in the first quarter of 2006 alone, but some analysts and industrial designers say Nokia products aren't fashionable enough. Curtis' challenge is to maintain Nokia's reputation for ease of use and reliability while also conveying enough style appeal to avoid losing market share to the likes of Motorola (MOT ), Samsung, or Korea's LG Electronics.

A graduate of London's Royal College of Art, Curtis, 38, joined Nokia in 1993, moving to the company's design center in Los Angeles in 1997 and becoming design director there in 2000. In 2004, Nokia named him vice-president of design for the company's largest business unit, mobile phones, a position he held until becoming chief designer in April. In an interview with European Regional Editor Jack Ewing at Nokia's headquarters outside Helsinki, Curtis spoke at length about Nokia's design strategy and his own design philosophy.

How do you approach your new job?

It's more about providing signposts and guidance. When you're working with designers, you're there to guide them toward solutions that are appropriate for the brand and appropriate for pushing the envelope. Sometimes designers want to go too far, sometimes they don't want to go far enough. You have to drive them in the right direction so it's the right step for Nokia.

What do you mean by going too far?

It's about too radical colors, too radical materials, too radical application of key shapes. Sometimes it's about the complexity as far as manufacturability. You've got to balance.

Is there a Nokia look, and if so how do you define it?

We call it the Nokia DNA. It's not one specific feature, not one specific detail. It's a design language that is built from many different elements. Those elements are used in different ways from product to product to make them unique in their own right, but still when you look at them as a lineup you can see familiar attributes. It's a little bit like the new BMW. Even though the new BMW is very radical at one level, you can still look at it and see very traditional attributes that go back to the 1940s, like the kidney shape of the grill. You have to keep evolving but you also have to introduce revolutionary aspects as well.

What are some of those elements?

We talk about this looping element here [at the bottom end of the phone] which goes all the way back to the 2120. You've got a sort of curved smile…it's not literal, "here's one detail, there's another detail," it's about clever use of those from product to product. But design is much more than just style. Design is everything from the look and the identity of the product to the usability, the packaging, the way you use the interface, the retail experience. That commonality and usability is what has made Nokia so strong as a company, so strong as a brand.

What are the attributes of the Nokia brand?

There's a real sense that I know how to use it, I feel comfortable using it. You know it's reliable, it'll always be there, it will always work for you, it will always be very simple to use. That's something that was critical in the old days, but today and in the future [it's even more critical to] maintain that level of simplicity. Products are becoming more and more complicated. You have to make them simpler so the consumer doesn't feel challenged by the product but feels familiar with it. When you pick it up you say, "This is a Nokia product, I know how to use it." When you start to explore it you suddenly realize, wow, this can do so much more than I thought it could do, but in a way that is recognizable and intuitive.

How important is appearance?

You have to have that initial attraction, the lust for that product. The lust can't be superficial: You have to realize this is not just a great-looking product, it's great to use. And it's not just great to use once, it gets better and better. Ultimately the goal is to create product love. But it doesn't stop there. In many respects the real game is about creating that love so you want to share it with others. You're proud of the product and you want to share it, "Look at this!" That's when you've got a great solution.

Has Nokia management always recognized the importance of design?

Yes, design has always been at the heart of management, going all the way back. They're ambassadors for design as much as we're the leaders of design. That's a critical part of Nokia's success.

Do you have fights about design?

If there weren't battles we would have a problem. A little bit of grit creates the oyster. You need that conflict, that friction to create greatness. Our responsibility as a design organization is to bring technology alive in order to capture the imagination. It's the technology's job to make sure the product delivers.

Going back to what you said about Nokia phones looking friendly, how important is that?

Even though it's a serious product, you still have to make it approachable. That approachability can be as subtle as instead of a straight line you have a curved line. The consumer doesn't see it. You're not trying to say to people, "Look there's a smiley happy product." But it softens the product. It's about how you apply human-ness to products.

Tell us about some of the battles.

Every product we do is a battle. It's not a battle, it's more of everybody striving for ultimate quality. You want the best in class. That sometimes creates conflict of opinion. You've got to understand when to say "no, this is something we have to fight for." That's always the challenge.

Give us an example of how your approach to design works in practice.

With all products, it's about the experience, not just what it looks like. This is the 8800. We looked at every element. The ring tones aren't traditional ring tones. The ring tones were done by [musician] Ryuichi Sakamoto. This is a premium product, we wanted to give it that extra element of premium-ness by having sounds different from the traditional. We took the sound experience to another level by saying, when you open the product it should have a very distinct sound. Like certain car doors, when you open and close them, some feel good, some feel bad. We spent a huge amount of time trying to get the sound right. You can't put it into a technical term, it just feels good. If we took all the engineers into a room and turned all the lights off, and I opened up a Zippo lighter, everybody in that room would know I opened a Zippo lighter. You want it to be an iconic sound.

How did you arrive at that?

The engineers worked on different settings as far as the spring loading inside, also the way the dampening ball bearings worked. We wanted it to open with a bit of a thud, a sense [that] this is not just another piece of electronic equipment. This is something that is made out of stainless steel and has been engineered in a premium way.

Why was Nokia design originally centered in Los Angeles?

It was partly due to where Frank Nuovo [Curtis' predecessor as design head] was based. L.A . has always had a strong pool of design and creativity. Most if not all auto manufacturers in the world have an L.A. design studio. The speed of product development was slower in those days. You could afford to be farther away from the machine. As things have speeded up, we have more designers in Europe.

Where do you spend most of your time?

I spend as much time in London as I do here. The predominance of design is centered in Helsinki and London. But all over world: L.A., Beijing, Copenhagen. Our core is the U.K. and Finland; L.A. and Beijing are like extended family. We've also been establishing what we call design oases. At the moment we have two, one in Bangalore, one in Rio. They're not exclusive Nokia design centers. They're an open environment. A local creative university sponsors, it's an area where we can interact with local creatives in order to sort of look at the culture of that country. We can look at specific design issues we want to develop with them. We are a global organization and there is diversity in the marketplace. It's about being able to tap that better. What are those differences? Are the drivers the same? In many cases they are, but you may need to tweak products to make them more appealing from a Rio perspective or a Russian perspective.

Can you give us an example of localizing a product?

One of the things we observed [with the 8800] was the huge uptake in Russia. So we saw an opportunity to say, okay, why don't we look at refreshing the product and making something very exclusive to Russia, understanding there is a desire in certain parts of Russia to express their newfound wealth. [As a result, Nokia created an all-black version of the 8800.] It's been hugely successful.

What is the process of designing a phone?

The approach is somewhat different from product to product. It's difficult to create a process that fits all. The drivers and the needs are quite different. If you look at the E61 [a handset aimed at mobile e-mail users], it's a work tool. Your driver is to look at the users and try to get insights into how they work and what they want from work. People can't articulate it sometimes. By observing people you see the way that they interact, the way they do things, the strange rituals they have. It's understanding those things and being able to draw insights out of them in order to develop meaningful products. It might be about having two chargers, it might be about having one key [that leads] straight to e-mail.

[Clark holds up an example of the N Series multimedia handset.] If you look at the N Series, it's very much there to push the consumer envelope of technology. There is an element of putting a lot of technology in because you can. What we feel is important looking ahead is that media is moving into a social zone. How do you make it very quick and easy to share photos, sounds, videos? [One Nokia solution is to equip the phones with software allowing photos and videos to be uploaded to Yahoo!'s Flickr photo-sharing site.] These sorts of products are critical to our portfolio. It allows us to stretch ourselves technologically. How do you introduce the consumer to the capability of what mobile computers can do? You're paving the way for the future. This is the front end of the wedge of what people will be wanting two years from now.

[Clark shows how the N93's screen folds out and pivots for shooting videos, viewing videos, or sharing images with another person.]

We do extensive work looking at form factor. How do you make a form factor that's a meaningful part of the experience and not just for the fun of doing a weird form factor? Form factor should be driven by true benefit and need. If you look at the 3250 [handset], it has the twisting bottom. One of the things we talked about was how do we make it such that someone can go very quickly from voice to camera to music? It's not always about making more keys, in some cases it's making something quite analog. So you twist it half a turn, and it's instantly in camera mode. You twist it another 90 degrees, and the alpha numeric keys have disappeared and the music keys are there.

How do you stay on top of style trends?

We start off by looking three years out at weak trends. They're not weak as in 'bad' trends, they're weak in that you can see them on the horizon. They're trends we see by working with textile designers, fashion designers, paint specialists, material specialists. When we started work [on the fashion-oriented L'Amour collection] we knew that art deco and that style of clothing was going to be very influential in the fashion world and the furniture world. We took that and sort of twisted it in a way we could apply to products. We looked at this sort of decadence, this shabby chic, and how that was coming into the fashion world, and now you're seeing it all over the place. We said, how could we acquire that in a way that's contemporary for the phones? At the top end of the range we actually put leather on the products. We looked at ceramics and Japanese bowls, and we worked with plastics engineers to get this almost ceramic feel to the plastic. It's a critical element as we move forward, clever use of materials and colors. And how you apply materials and colors to create a different and emotional relationship to products.

Tell us more about how you identify trends.

We have a consumer insights team. They're constantly out there looking at new trends in architecture, design, color, social trends. They collect those in what we call our annual trends. We'll look at our annual trends and say, which trends are meaningful to us? And then we'll look at stretching those trends in a way that we can apply to products. It's a critical part of long-range process planning. The team is out there touching. They'll go to exhibitions. They're embedded into a network of trend specialists around the world. They'll observe certain people. Rather than talking to people sometimes, it's about observing them, the way that young people may be applying things in ways which you didn't expect.

It sounds like you also get very involved in the technology.

You have to. The design organization has the responsibility to bring technology to life. You can't bring technology to life unless you're engaged in what's happening, talking to the specialists in our technology organization, talking with the research group. Helping to understand what's out there in the way, way future.

Do you get out yourself?

I travel pretty extensively. Wherever I go, I'll try to take a day out or a half-day out just to go wandering, on the Tube, or just wander through the park. Rather than just the airport-taxi-office route that you do. Just go out and observe. That's always been my way of designing. Even in my days in college, being on the Tube was fascinating.

Nokia is the type of job where you can do that?

At the end of the day you've got to get out there. Nokia's a very progressive company. Design is a key part of its future. If the design organization, including me, can't be touching its consumer base, touching the people you're designing for, then that's a huge opportunity lost.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.