Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Design Matters

A few days ago someone retweeted a tweet into my timeline during the press event. Unfortunately due to network congestion and the fact that I was so swamped, the tweet has long gone. But I still remember the gist of the tweet. The tweet basically complained about the Samsung Galaxy S III's design and how the trend towards touchscreen devices is making it impossible for manufacturers to differentiate on design.

That was just plain wrong. Time after time, Nokia and Apple has proven that it is possible to make phones with good hardware design, and before that, companies like Sony and Palm has demonstrated that there are more than just slates when it came to touchscreen dominated PDAs (which were basically smartphones that can't make phone calls). A good designer will always find a way.
Palm V: Stylish and functional. Instantly recognisable. (image source)
The issue with most Android OEMs (and also certain new WP7 OEMs as well) is the commodification of their devices. Phones are now designed to be mass produced cheaply with nary a care about design because at the end of the day, they just want large numbers. It irritates me because I know they can do better. Why? Because in Japan, one company is doing exactly just that by bucking the me-too trend.

In a sea of Android clones in their Spring 2012 catalogue, KDDI, via their mobile phone subsidiary au by KDDI, has created a unique product aimed at people who didn't want just another boring looking black colour slate. The KDDI C01, announced this year and last year respectively. I still remember lusting for the KDDI Infobar 2 featurephone released many years ago and the A01 Infobar Android, but logistic and technology barriers made them almost impossible to import.
Only one product stands out here.
Here is an OEM that hires actual designers. Even on hardware design alone, both Infobar phones are just stunning. But KDDI did not stop there. Not content with the typical Android UI, KDDI also crafted a distinctive custom launcher that resulted in a device that marries both hardware design and software perfectly. Their idda custom UI overlay on Android is heck a lot prettier than what Samsung, HTC, Sony (Ericsson) and LG has come up with.

Not that I am against generic design, as long as the price reflect them. After all in the automobile industry, we are awash with generic looking vehicles by Ford, Toyota and Renault. But there is a market for design orientated products, and while I can't prove it scientifically I am willing to stake my reputation on the line by stating the obvious: that design of cars are usually better the more expensive they are. You wouldn't want a Porsche to look like a Ford Focus when you paid six times more for it, so why would you want your £500-£600 smartphone to look like a £100 one?
Tizio desk lamp, never bettered since 1972. (image source)
Much like how a Tizio lamp and a Barcelona chair stands out over their generic IKEA equivalents, phones like the iPhone still retain the same basic shape and design because it has become a design classic. It is why the iconic ThinkPad design never dates, and why people still lust for Eames chairs, and the reason why Vespa scooters still look like they were sixty years ago. But a good product design need not be a classic. Just as long as your company is design-focused.

My point? Good design matters. A product with great design will stand the test of time, is uniquely identifiable and will be used as the benchmark where all future products will be judged against. More importantly, a great design will also make a product stand out. Perhaps I am shallow, but good hardware and software designs are exactly why I love using my Lumia 800 and a ThinkPad. Deep inside me I am a geek at heart who gets excited by raw specs, but that alone will not win me. Design, more than anything else, simply matters.

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