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Frank Nuovo | icon 011 | April 2004

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photo: Guy Drayton

words Chris Hall

Has Frank Nuovo changed your life? As chief designer and vice president at Nokia Mobile Design, the Italian-American has been instrumental in transforming mobile phones from ridiculous bricks into seductive and ubiquitous multi-functional devices.

Nuovo has flown in from his base in Los Angeles, where he lives, to London to give a lecture at the Design Museum. He’s had five hours of sleep in the past three days – every now and then a sentence comes out that would take Noam Chomsky a day to parse, but overall he’s doing remarkably well. We sit in a glass-walled office that overlooks the Thames. Occasionally a blast of noise from a television in director Alice Rawsthorne’s office next door interrupts his thinking and he has to gather himself. He wears the designer cliché all black, and sits with his IBM laptop and platinum Vertu phone in front of him.

More than 47 million British adults own a mobile phone – that’s about 70 per cent of the population. They have become an integral part of our everyday lives, redefining our notion of social space in less than a decade. They have one of the highest turnover of new designs in industrial design, if not the highest – Nokia currently has 65 models on its website and there is a constant stream of new ones.

Nokia, a Finnish company, is the market leader in mobile telecommunications, selling more than a third of all phones sold. Last year, however, its profits fell and, according to a report from Strategy Analytics, it lost market share to Siemens in the third quarter of 2003. This was the first time in two years the company lost market share and, despite its domination of mobile phone sales, recently there have been signs that Samsung, Siemens, Ericsson and Motorola are catching up. Certainly there are now some great designs to rival Nokia’s, such as the Sony-Ericsson T610 and the Samsung V600.

However, according to the company sales in the last quarter of 2003 defied analysts by rising four per cent to £4.9 billion.

Nuovo is a very corporate man and yet genuinely humble, always reinforcing the strength of the whole design team while praising the company for its vision. At his lecture it was a full house night for Bullshit Bingo: mistakes became learning experiences, and all the usual dread phrases littered his lightning-paced tour d’horizon of the Nokia mobile phone: ahead of the curve... take pulse... mindset… client-focused… core business… input touch points. But I suppose you have to learn to talk like that to make the money men listen, even if you are the chief designer.

Nuovo graduated in industrial design from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. As founding head of Nokia Design in 1995, he has spearheaded the company’s styling and industrial design innovations. Before this, he worked with Design Works USA/BMW where he designed furniture, consumer electronics, medical instruments and automotive products. Design website awarded Nuovo and his team Design Team of the Year 2003 and named the Nokia 6800 Intelligent Design of 2003. His name is included in 72 patents in the US alone.

In 1992, Nokia launched the first GSM (global system for mobile communications) mobile, the 101. On these early analogue phones, the numeric keypad was separated from the menu function keys by the dial and end-call buttons, an arrangement that became the industry standard.

A couple of years later, the 2100 series went on to sell 20 million handsets worldwide. Its success was based in its use of “soft” keys, which perform different functions depending on what the screen is displaying, as opposed to “hard” keys, which have dedicated functions. These soft keys, as well as reducing keypad clutter, make phones easier to use, allowing scrolling menu functions that bring up more suites of options. It sounds simple now, but it was a leap forward.

Nuovo remains amazed that there was no competition in terms of design for such a long time. “No one other than Nokia was really designing and engineering phones,” he says. “I don’t get why it took so long to happen, but it was almost 10 years before we saw anyone aggressively looking at industrial design in mobile phones. So then they did turn up the heat and produce some decent designs. That’s great – it makes it more of a challenge.”

Nokia also pioneered the help menu that appears if you pause for too long between menu options. The navigation key interface is a one-button, soft-key approach introduced with the Nokia 3110 which really took off with the 5110 with changeable covers. Variations on this were developed and combinations of a NaviRoller and two soft keys were developed for the 7110 which had an automatic opening slide cover (forerunner of the so-called 8110 or banana phone featured in the film The Matrix). Other variations on the soft-key approach can be found in most Nokia designs, but the essential function remains the same.

Nokia’s first Wap phone, the 7110, was launched in 1999. Colour screens appeared the next year with business users in mind, but regular customers soon caught on.
Does he have a hand in the design of the interface too? “Not directly, but the industrial designers do have a great deal of influence. At times our concepts have initiated new user interface approaches, for example the centre scroll and soft keys on the 2110 and the NaviRoller on the 7110.”

Is his relationship with Nokia analogous to Jonathan Ive and Apple? “It’s a much more humble company,” he laughs. “When it comes to tools and investing in things that are relevant they are there for me. With Nokia it’s not a false support of design, it’s an actual support. Is it as intimate as Ive and Steve Jobs? Well, that’s a small clique. Nokia’s a much bigger company in terms of the volume of product we create.”

One argument regarding the rapid turnover of mobile phone design is that it is merely a function of mobile phone saturation – in terms of both the take-up and functionality you hit a plateau sooner or later. Design for design’s sake. As with all consumer goods, sales start to be driven by fashion, built-in obsolescence not withstanding.

Nuovo was on to this in the very early days. “The thing with design is that technology is usually needed to reintroduce functionality. At a certain point people understand the phone for its core functionality – talking. What’s natural is the broadening, the expansion of the styles because once people become comfortable with the functionality of any new piece of technology what they want to start to do is make it more their own. In the early 1990s, I was a bit ahead of the curve – way before. The whole vision was ‘I really want to personalise this’.”

The other thing that starts to happen is that phones become less like phones and more like a multimedia mutant. Like the 7600 – the one we think looks like a mango or a washing-up sponge (icon 007 and 008) and which is ever so slightly embarrassing to answer. It’s a digital camera and video recorder, it has multimedia messaging and it plays MP3s. The lead designer for the 7600 wasn’t Nuovo but the British designer Tej Chauhan and it’s a taste of how phones could mutate.

Nuovo talks a great deal about research: focus-group testing, post-launch surveys. “A lot of research is simply visiting countries, having a team of designers that are all around the world. Each place has its own ability to bubble up new trends. You try to find early indications of what may influence new product ideas, new behaviours and how you might decide one way or another how to focus a particular new product concept.” Indeed, he’s almost apologetic about aesthetics. “Truly as a designer, and I don’t mean this in the wrong way, you get a feel for what’s right. The whole research process indicates or reinforces some of what I think are intuitive feelings that
the design team gets.”

How much does he personally do these days? “As chief designer you touch everything to varying extents,” he says. “I am responsible for guiding and approving the direction for styles and concepts - I try hard not to dominate the landscape as it does not motivate the individual designer.”

He sounds slightly impatient but avuncularly disappointed when it comes to people not liking some of his designs. The website is actually more of an affectionate piss-take of the way in which you have to hold the N-Gage if you don’t want to use a headset, but it still grates on him. “Ergonomically it’s an improvement – you hold it in its cross-section. It’s very easy. It’s just something new and different. But it’s a mobile gaming device! You want the full gaming platform to be of enough size so that it’s comfortable to use – start with that – and holding that form factor in a traditional phone mode doesn’t work that great in that particular configuration.”

He’s a convert to the split computer keyboard and just wishes that everyone would give it a while. A day or two. A few more days perhaps. A week. And then we’d see that it’s just better. “I wish I could have that experience with my laptop; it would be great to use it on an airplane so that your hands are comfortable. Call Jonathan!

“The big test happens in the mass market. Some people can handle split keyboards more than others. It’s not as intuitive as showing someone a typical ITU format keyboard which has been around since the early ATT days when it was first established. Does that mean that it’s the best way to go? How long do you go down the road of using a standard Qwerty keyboard and you never experience anything else because no one breaks the standard?”

Nuovo appears excited by the opportunity to be the lead designer at Vertu, the luxury mobile phone subsidiary of Nokia. He’s keen to press his solid platinum phone into my palm. It has an oddly satisfying weight to it. Apparently, he was sick of people customising his phones with diamonds and gold and selling them for ridiculous amounts of money, so he decided to make a proper, crafted luxury phone. “You have a wristwatch and a timepiece, and you have a pen and a writing instrument. Vertu is an instrument of communication. I hated to use the word luxury in the beginning – the reality is that, yes, it’s the world’s first luxury communications product.”

Maybe Vertu really are on to something with the notion of an “instrument of communication” and the expensive watch analogy. Perhaps their appeal will stretch beyond the very wealthy. But a watch is something that you wear. And you’ll not be surprised to hear that Nuovo is on to this too. Wearability, he says, is the future. Nokia unveiled its Imagewear range late last year – the Nokia Medallion I & II and the Nokia Kaleidoscope I. “Technological innovations are now making possible these small, intelligent, wearable accessories – necklaces, bracelets…” he says.

As we walk around some of the 20th century design iconography on display at the Design Museum, hovering by a Citroën DS, Nuovo starts to enthuse about his cars. “My collectible car is a Bentley 1952 two-door Mark VI Hooper Empress,” he says. “It makes people smile when they see it; there’s no envy, and I love that.” He has a car for work (a BMW 3 series), a car for the family (a Honda Odyssey), a car for being middle-aged in (a silver and black Porsche Carrera Cabriole) and a hobby car (an El Camino truck). The same kind of diversity, then, in function and styles that he advocates with mobile phones.

Last modified on Monday, 01 August 2011 15:46

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