Core77 was proud to work with Aava Mobile to create two distinct design invitational challenges. In the first phase, we combed through the 200,000+ portfolios on our site Coroflot.com to find the 5 most creative thinkers and sketchers in the world of consumer products. Each created sets of scenarios articulating the potential use-case scenarios of the mobile device. The second phase challenged one of the phase 1 participants as well as an additional designer to create more refined, rendered concepts closer to production pieces rather than blue-sky concepts. Both of the designers took the challenge seriously (and with delight) delivering incredible work that was both rigorous and imaginative. Core77 could not have been happier with the results, and we are gratified to continue making strong connections between designers and manufacturers.
As a celebration of the success of phase 2, we are publishing the case studies from each of the designers to share some of their learnings from this design invitational. Thomas Valcke, a Belgium-based product designer shares his process below.
In concepting design options for the Lampi, the design challenge was to explore new form-languages for future Aava smartphone models and docking-stations. The hardware components and layout were setout beforehand so the challenge was a styling exercise: exploring forms and shapes to convey a certain kind of character and emotion. I began by exploring many form-languages (angular, organic, basic). After my initial exploration, it was clear that the challenge lie in styling an object that is nothing but a box without making the styling itself superfluous.
By doing this form-exploration on the Aava phone I've learned that it is better to appreciate and embrace its basic geometry then to fight it, something most of the participants in the challenge also recognized. Since there wouldn't be any specific form-characteristics to set this product apart from its competitors I had to find something else that would differentiate the product. Materials provided one avenue to do just this. Imagine a phone made from wood, porcelain or metal. Exploring material forms brought up questions like: How would it feel? What would it weigh? Would a consumer buy a fragile porcelain phone? Would a unique material make a consumer cherish it more?
My preferred material to experiment with was wood. Wood allows for a number of styling options that normal plastics won't allow -- milling instead of injection-molding, customization (patterns or different types of wood), adding a scent, transparent vs. opaque, active/non active LED. But above all, wood feels soft and warm even if the geometry is hard and basic. Distinction through materials could appeal to a wide range of people and distinguish the device from other smartphones. With this insight I began to work on mockups in the workshop.
The wood felt really nice to the touch but had a tendency to split while milling. Harder wood was more reliable but not as warm to the touch as the softer wood variants like maple or beech. Each type of wood used for the housing material would also demand a unique production-process. This would be very time-consuming and costly and our competition deadline was already in sight. So the idea of changing the material to differentiate the product reached a dead-end. This decision was not a surprise to me but I always tend to seek out the limits of the design brief and go beyond them even if this means that I'll get my fingers burned from time to time. My mantra: You can't do something new if you play by the (old) rules.
At a dead-end, I was back to square one. I still wanted to keep the form-language as basic as possible, almost non-existent, and had found yet another reason for doing so: the Lampi smartphone is open source. The possibilities for it's usage is endless. The technology allows the user to decide how they want to use the device -- what it should do and how it should do it. This open-source approach is a real advantage over other smartphones and the device should communicate that. Because of this approach and all the input and output features on the device, this blackbox philosophy should be reflected in the styling. Another important feature that I wanted to add was orientation detection. When you're phoning and texting you hold the phone vertically. If you want to take a picture or watch a movie you hold the phone horizontally. Little hints to this "hold-as-you-please" philosophy should be communicated by the details of the phone. Again, these details were explored with true-to-size mockups. In this stage of the design-process I also started working on the shape of the buttons. After this second batch of mock-ups we chose to keep all the geometry as simple as possible: rectangular. Hinting at the auto-orientation option for the phone, side-offsets were added on the top and bottom.
With the concept mapped out, we began to work on the details of the design and engineering. The fastest and easiest solution was to create the top-piece with 2K-injection molding but since this is not environmentally friendly (read: very difficult and expensive to be recycled) I decided to go with a different option even if this implied that there would be one extra part. The transparent top part (preferably non-scratch glass) will be fixed by an additional rubber band that runs across the side of the device. Adding a rubber-like material has several advantages. It offers extra protection and it feels softer than regular plastic. With this product architecture approved by the client, the engineers of Aava could further enhance the design and add the necessary details such as snaps and bosses.
I started on the second part of the project: Designing the docking station needed for charging the smartphone and expanding its possibilities for use as a media-center with capabilities for internet and email, Skype, etc. Of course, the same form-language and design guides would be applied to the docking-station. An asymmetrical shape was chosen since this kind of setup makes docking the smartphone more intuitive and idiot-proof -- just align and slide the phone into the docking station. As a material, injection molded white aluminum was chosen so the docking-station would be a nice contrast with the black smartphone. Choosing metal over plastic also adds more weight to the device, not a bad thing if the object is stationary. Aluminum also feels more quality than plastic. Renders were created to be delivered to the client -- I would have rather created a full-working prototype, but needless to say that a prototype costs a whole lot more than renders. I dislike renders because, as we understand, it's difficult to know if a product will feel and work just by looking at some renderings.
With the design of the docking-station complete, the actual project scope was done. But due to some missed opportunities I didn't feel quite satisfied so I decided to do a little extra work and envision the next generation of smartphones.
Nowadays, a smartphone is all screen and no buttons. Therefore, it's hard to read the product. A coffee-machine, vacuum-cleaner, old telephone...all these objects tell the user how to operate it by it's form. This readability of the smartphone is not present anymore with the current generation of smartphones and similar devices because they multi-task. The interaction has become digital through their screens.
There lies a great opportunity in exploring a return to product readability in these kind of devices. This readability issue became the theme of this side project. I wanted to address this by following the same design-philosophy of the lampi-project: 'hold-as-you-please' auto-orientation and the blackbox.
As previously mentioned, if a user wants to take a picture she instinctually holds the phone horizontally in front and actually uses the phone as if it is a camera. If you turn the phone upside down (with the keys on top) texting becomes much easier and ergonomical - go ahead, try it with your own phone. Each application/function of the phone could be activated by these kind of gestures in different orientations of the device making navigation of a smartphone's different functions/applications much easier and intuitive. The shape/details of the phone should provoke and encourage these different holding interactions. A new technology is emerging that could be useful in these interactions: transparent OLED-screens.
I decided to add an extra transparent hinged OLED-screen to the current hardware setup. The addition of this screen creates more choices in orientating the phone. The transparent OLED screen isn't touch sensitive but since it's relatively thin, the touch-sensitive screen underneath can detect movement and pressure. It's transparency creates new usage possibilities - wayfinding, building recognition, augmented reality, etc. This technology is (nearly) ready for the market. But what is more important is that this hinged screen allows for many new ways to interact more intuitively with the device, in the same way a consumer would interact with a pre-digital product. I've made yet another mock-up of this product-idea and with some Photoshop-enhancements I was able to visualize it's use and appearance.
Of course this was even more blue-sky thinking than the wood-proposition and the OLED-screen wasn't added to the current hardware-setup. But it was not a waste of time since this concept received a great reception with the client and features of it might emerge in future models. The Lampi itself with it's open-source approach is innovative enough to distinguish itself from it's competitors and doesn't necessarily need more whistles and bells that would distract the potential-buyer from this feature. Together with the docking station the Lampi smartphone can be one device designed for all your needs in today and tomorrows cyber-future.