red dot: design team of the year 2003
“Nowadays Nokia no longer produces mobile phones – it designs all forms of communication mobility and activity. Phoning is just a part of that.” With these words Frank Nuovo, head designer at Nokia, put the company's whole success story into a single sentence.
A mobile in somebody's pocket rings and everyone looks to see if it's theirs. Nuovo can only grin at this typical situation at a meeting that we're all familiar with but which is now a thing of the past. Mobile phones now call attention to themselves in a more individual way: they chime, hum, sing, bark or play one of the latest hit tunes. That is one of Nokia Design’s many achievements. Hearing someone say it might be quite useful if phones all made different noises, Nokia recognised it as a good idea. Soon afterwards they also discovered that different coloured housings also made it easier to find out whose mobile is whose.
Frank Nuovo and his team had an unprecedented vision. At a time when mobile phones could only be called mobile if they were installed in a car, they were already working on the personal mobile. As personal as the call that was being made. The mobile phone as part of its owner's personality and style. Now we can appreciate that this self-imposed task was aimed at nothing less than the mobilisation of communication itself.
Nuovo and his team's design at Nokia neither begins nor ends at the outward form of the product. His design team at Nokia influences critical decisions that are fundamental to the success of the whole company. That includes total product concepts, style categories and personalisation like multi-coloured decorated housings. In Frank Nuovo's view these are two of the best ideas Nokia has implemented to shape the mass market for mobile communication. It is not least due to them that Nokia has attained a position of leadership that has been emulated by all its competitors. At first the industry laughed out loud when the exchangeable casings appeared on the market. Now every self-respecting manufacturer who does not want to be ignored by the consumers offers them.
When anyone anywhere in the world thinks of Nokia it can be taken as a certainty that they are not thinking of the species of pine martin called “nokinäätä” that is to be found in large numbers in the area around the Finnish city of Tampere. Nor will they be thinking of the river in this region called Nokia where the mining engineer Frederik Idestam built a paper mill in 1865 and the town by the same name grew up around it (featuring the animal in its coat of arms to this day).
Nowadays Nokia is connected with a homogenous, varied world of mobile communication. Individual products such as mobile phones are only a part of this world of experience. They seem to us to be communication crystallised into matter.
An extraordinary phenomenon: A mere ten years ago Nokia was a conventionally diversified group with 28 business areas, a conglomerate producing rubber boots, floor coverings, car tyres, nappies, toilet paper, electrical cables and television sets. The idea was to hedge against problems in any one particular market. The strategy was wrong and in the 1980s the group approached a crisis.
In January 1992, just eleven years ago, the supervisory board resolved on a change of strategy and a rejuvenation of management, appointing the 42 year old Jorma Ollila as chairman of the executive board. Ollila devised a clear and courageous corporate strategy of concentration on telecommunications and divestment of unprofitable lines of business. This was not tantamount to focusing on the division with the biggest turnover. Telecommunications was profitable but at that time accounted for only a tenth of the group's total sales. The market as a whole was still tiny and the outlook uncertain. In the early 1990s only a few million mobile phones were being sold world-wide and not a single market researcher predicted the astounding success that was to come. Nevertheless, Nokia reduced investment on everything except telecommunications and mobile phones, while at the same time reorganising the company on global lines and spending more on research.
Design as a new corporate strategy
Wellington boots are not made for fashion parades. In the space of a few years Nuovo and his team have taught a conventional rubber, paper and energy concern that its future lies in developing products that have to be seen as fashion requisites. Success has borne them out. Since 1998 Nokia has had the world's largest sales of mobile phones. Its share of the world market is currently 35.8% and 48.3% of the European market – only six years after the strategic decision to concentrate on mobile telecommunications. And the comparison with fashion is not a frivolous one: it illustrates Nokia's design strategy accurately. The Nokia 8810 made its first public appearance six weeks before the official market launch in August 1998 – in six shows at the fashion trade fair Collections Premieren Düsseldorf (CPD). The mobile phone as an “object of desire” could scarcely be presented more effectively than in the company of international haute couture models.
Although only 42 years old, Frank Nuovo has shaped Nokia's design ever since the company resolved on design as a key component of the business strategy. He was working for Nokia even before its concentration on mobile communication and before a design team existed there. After studying design at the Art Center College of Design, Pasedena, California, Frank Nuovo started his career at Designworks (USA). In 1989 Designworks with Nuovo, as the winners of Nokia’s international consultancy competition, took on consultancy work for Nokia, guiding the company's first renewed but hesitant steps in global product design. Up until 1992 Nokia was still making mobile phones for analogue networks which fell far short of today's aesthetic and ergonomic standards. Nearly all the buttons were the same size and in identical rows with no distinction between dialling and function keys and with multiple assignment of the function keys.
The situation changed in 1992. Executive board chairman Jorma Ollila was no longer exclusively concerned with mobile communication on the global scale. He decided that the full spectrum of good design – product, communication and interior design – was to play a strategic role in the reorganised company. This was the year that the Nokia 101 came onto the market, the first phone with distinct function keys and a big LCD. On the left a green button for receiving calls, on the right the button for terminating calls, and the navigation keys above. To go with it a one-course menu with logically organised commands. At that time Nokia's competitors were still working with operating codes that telecommunications engineers, but few others, might be able to remember. At the same time Nokia backed the new GSM digital technology as the standard for mobile phones. GSM supported state-of-the-art features like roaming in foreign telephone networks, exact calculation of charges down to the second, re-routing of calls and SMS. This gave the new mobiles the comfort and convenience that was necessary to transform mobile communication from a technology for a few businessmen into a self-evident must for everyone. The digital GSM networks created a European market for the first time and Nokia was the first manufacturer able to supply its mobile phones to all standards. The leading suppliers at that time were still thinking in terms of engineering, and producing handsets the size of small bricks for businessmen. Frank Nuovo's vision was to turn the mobile phone into a fashionable consumer article.
The early 101, 232, 2110 and 8110 models that Frank Nuovo and his team designed for Nokia up until 1995 formed the core of Nokia's design approach. According to Nuovo, the engineers and designers all wanted to remove the problem of an antenna sticking out of the phones – they proposed designs many times early on but the technology was not ready. What the Nokia engineers had to do first was to develop a technology that coiled the aerial inside the phone without impairing performance. It cost Nokia a figure in the tens of millions of finmarks and resulted in mobile phones that have even a residual stub of an aerial becoming unsaleable.
Mobile phones became universally popular for the simple reason that Nokia Design combined utility with enjoyment. Nokia engineers and marketing specialists offered the right technical features complemented by a design that made them easy to use. The essential characteristics remain unchanged to this day. On the communication design side there are the simple, user-friendly menus requiring only a few touches of a button for most purposes and offering a wide variety of useful functions without overloading the display with information. On the product design side there is the pleasing, rounded form with its fashionably understated charm – an often copied elliptical body with no hard corners or edges to stick in the lining of pockets, buttons positioned according to importance and frequency of use and innovations like exchangeable chimes and graphics, games and schedulers where Nokia led the field. The result was always the same: a mobile phone that consumers could relate to personally and stylistically and was useful to them. Frank Nuovo calls it “romancing the phone”. Nuovo and the Nokia team has succeeded in what is seldom achieved: satisfying consumers' demands by producing design that delivers what it promises. Its high degree of functionality (e.g. self-explanatory simplicity of the user interface, limitation of functions to essentials, durability, ergonomic quality and being fun to use) is the self-evident basis for products that crystallise contemporary taste. They remain ageless, even if preferences change, because they are emblems of the period in which they were designed. That Nokia Design constantly succeeds in hitting the vein that leads to global commercial success despite the fact that this window of time is becoming increasingly narrow is the hallmark of their remarkable design.
Birth of a design team
“Never fall in love with your first idea,” is one of Frank Nuovo's iron precepts. Dozens of concepts of a single product are drawn and modelled and assessed with a view to the impression they make on all the senses. If a mobile phone is to become a companion, questions of lifestyle need to be answered. How do you phone with one hand? What information should be displayed on the LCD? Which functions have the highest priority? How small should a mobile be? Nuovo and his design team always answer at length.
The Nokia design team in essentially its present form came into being in the spring of 1995. A decision had been taken to promote design as a core area of corporate expertise. Frank Nuovo accepted the appointment as head of design at Nokia, left Designworks and started to assemble a team. Their activities were bundled together with those of Nigel Litchfield’s global product marketing department in a concept and design group, a team led by Dr. Peter Ashall, consisting of engineers and marketing specialists. One of the first results they came up with was the “simplex” interface, a milestone in development because it essentially needs only a single function key to navigate the menu. This functional simplicity, a design primarily by Christian Lindholm, was at the heart of the usability success of a whole series of products that included the Nokia 5110 – the top-selling mobile phone world-wide. The interface is still used today.
Frank Nuovo's design team has been housed in its own building in Calabasas, California, rather than at headquarters in Finland, since February 1996. This is where the world-wide language of design is spoken and trends in music, fashion and lifestyle are anticipated and developed that delight people throughout the world. It is a strategic design centre, a full-service facility in which all the necessary disciplines are represented: product design, communication design (graphics, multi-media, internet, interaction), engineering and modelling. Unwilling to be satisfied with provisional individual solutions, Frank Nuovo followed the notion that a good idea had to be developed from start to finish in all these fields at once. Design projects frequently started here prior to being transferred to other product development centres in other parts of the world for detailed completion. The designers accompanied this process, which integrated design, engineering and marketing. Their ideas had to weather the technical chaos of an assortment of different protocols and new standards – a situation the designers had to accept, digest and form creatively if they wanted to deliver successful products in a global climate of constant change. Products of outstanding excellence that people all over the world would not dream of doing without. Frank Nuovo demonstrates that design solutions must be seen in the full context of a company's added value chain. An insight that applies not only to mobile phones.
Since 1998 Nokia has been perceived as a market trend-setter, the non plus ultra of lifestyle, a producer of jewels and accessories that reflect the personality of their owners. Exchangeable casings are only a vehicle for this. Nokia chose not to stuff its products with innumerable functions. Within a short space of time there was nothing to choose between the features of mobiles on the mass market anyway. Design quality became the central strategic criterion of success, more important than battery power or technical perfection. In a study carried out in the year 2000 Nokia ranks among the top five best known and most valuable brands in the world, coming directly after Coca-Cola, Microsoft, IBM and Intel. That makes Nokia the best known non-American company in the world. Its brand name is now more valuable than its production assets.
Today Nokia is one of the few brands that are understood throughout the world. Not only because the slogan “Connecting People” expresses everything Nokia stands for with clarity and simplicity, but also because Nokia’s design team has combined the second and the third dimensions in a unit. At Nokia, communication design and product design are indissolubly linked. A unified language of product and symbol has been created that facilitates interaction all over the world. Nokia connects world-wide across divisions of age, income and status, from teenage skateboarders to frugal pensioners, from businessmen with high expectations of technical performance to customers who value prestige. Nokia Design expresses the lifestyle feeling of many people who otherwise have little in common because it translates their needs into communication – not just into products they covet. Since 1997 Nokia Design has constituted a separate unit at Nokia and design has been fully integrated in the product development process. Relatively flat hierarchies at Nokia have avoided the internal strife that hinders collaboration between engineers, marketing experts, designers and production managers in other companies.
Frank Nuovo is the world-wide head of design and a vice-president of Nokia. In addition to the central facility in California there are now two design groups and several sub-groups established in other countries, including Great Britain and Finland. Each group has been encouraged from the start to develop its own signature so as to ensure that global perspective is balanced by regional influences. Good ideas come up all over the world all the time. You have to be in the right place at the right time to grasp the idea and promote it. That is Nuovo's personal belief and Nokia Design`s global policy. Logically, it is also being applied to the world of digital convergence, the merging of all mobile communication technologies. For this reason Nokia has split into several business areas – so as to be ready for whatever direction the mobile information society takes. The design team is a brand continuity element combining the uniqueness of each business unit together under one brand design approach.
In the year 2002 Nokia Design reorganised its internal structure to better work with these new business areas. Design is represented in the key areas of Design Operations including Style, Communications Design, Experience Design, and Design Delivery. Global Design Directors Alastair Curtis, Eero Miettinen, William Sermon and Mark Mason assure smooth on-going stragegic operations and creative development of Nokia Design. The design team is organised globally in such a way as to be an efficient partner for all Nokia business areas – with the personal friendliness and flexibility otherwise only experienced in small offices. The design centre in Calabasas, for instance, recalls a boutique rather than a global nerve centre of a major international corporation, making a crucial contribution to Nokia's lead over its competitors.
“Right at the start,” says Nuovo, “it was a question of making mobile communication work. Product performance was the main priority. Then it was size, whether the phone would fit in your pocket. That was the time of personalised communication. For the first time design made a great difference because now it wasn't just rectangular boxes for businessmen but a matter of individual communication and personal style. The future has already begun – with mobile multi-media communication in which actual telephoning plays sometimes a minor part.”
Nokia's vision for the next generation of mobile phones is a switch of emphasis from the ear to the eye. Nuovo and his team are not primarily interested in designing phones we can play music on, receive radio programmes, take photographs and record videos, surf the Internet or play games on. Nokia Design heralds a change of paradigm. In the future voice communication will be a free extra, the main focus of interest being on services and applications based on the mobile Internet.
Nuovo says that Nokia Design is now designing game consoles, cameras, mini-computers and music players that we can also telephone with. Each of these products is the digital alter ego of its user, saving phone numbers, names, digital signatures and appointments to memory. In the future it will know even more about its owner, enough to stand in for him and cope with the floods of data on his behalf. It will be a perfectly personalised mass produced article that is also unique, produced in large quantities at low cost - a dream of modernity that used to be dismissed as science fiction.