By Ina Fried and Bonnie Cha

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Smartphone Design Takes Center Stage in Barcelona

The importance of design was a common theme at Mobile World Congress, but smartphone makers are taking some very different approaches.

When you talk to LG’s chief designer, for instance, today’s styling is about the little things. As a giant screen dominates the modern smartphone, companies like his need to find a way to add their own touch at the edges.

Chul Bae Lee

Chul Bae Lee

“I am trying to say this is an LG phone, even if it is (with) a small voice,” LG vice president Chul Bae Lee said in an interview in Barcelona last week.

For Lee, that often means things as small as the chrome around a speaker, or the LED light that glows in different colors to indicate an incoming message.

At Nokia, by contrast, it is about being bold — separating itself from the Android pack. The company’s product line — from feature phones to the high-end Lumia 920 — center around bright colors and bold curves.

“It’s a point of view,” Nokia design head Marko Ahtisaari said in an interview. “These are very expressive objects.”

Beyond making a statement, Ahtisaari said, color helps create an emotional connection between Nokia’s devices and its customers. Plus, he said, its research shows that people with the brightly colored phones are more likely to recommend their device.

As a testament to just how big a role design is playing at the new Nokia, it was Ahtisaari, rather than CEO Stephen Elop, who presided over the bulk of the company’s Mobile World Congress press conference.

But while Nokia goes for yellow and cyan, LG and others are experimenting with more subtle shades of black and white. Lee points to the speckled backs on several recent models, such as the Optimus G, which looks black indoors, but has an indigo cast to it when viewed in the sunlight.

Marko Ahtisaari

Marko Ahtisaari

While clearly more subtle, Lee says, LG’s recent phones are designed to help LG do something it has had a tough time doing of late — standing out from the pack.

“LG has had somewhat of a hard time in the smartphone business, but as a designer I have always been proud of our design heritage,” he said.

Lee added that he wants to bring more of that original design heritage back to LG’s devices. But the problem facing Lee and others is that the screen takes up more and more of a phone’s area, leaving less room for designs of any kind. One of the primary goals these days is reducing the borders — or bezels — on the phone to as close to zero as possible.

“When we came out with the LG Chocolate, we did something big and different,” Lee said. “Now it’s a matter of the smaller details. I wouldn’t say [designing phones] is less exciting than before, but it’s more difficult, for sure.”

Another issue confronting device makers is whether to go with a global design, as Nokia and Samsung have, or to customize devices for specific regions or operators.

LG, for example, plans different versions of its Optimus G for different carriers even within the U.S. market. The Sprint model features a higher-end camera that protrudes slightly in the back, while AT&T’s has what Lee described as a more pragmatic design, with a flat back.

Again, Nokia’s take varies from LG’s. Ahtisaari said that Nokia likes to take one design and use it across the whole portfolio.

“When you look at all our devices together, it looks like a family portrait,” he said. “They should look like they come from the same place.”

Beyond physical looks, both companies are looking at other ways to differentiate their design, either through customizing the user interface or providing experiences outside of the screen, such as wireless charging.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google