The virtues of Plastic: The Age Old "Premium Materials" Debate

Over and over we see in the forums people talking about some phone feeling cheap, or another feeling flimsy, all because the phone is not made of glass, or metal, or rhino skull. I think plastic gets a bad rap when it comes to quality design, and I just wanted to give a few points regarding why plastic has maybe become a dirty word, and why designers should rethink the use of plastic and reclaim it as a material capable of sophisticated design.

Problem: Not all Plastics are Created Equal

I think the biggest culprit of plastic in phones being given a bad name is that there is a wide range of formulas to choose from, and the cost cutting manufacturer may not choose one that is up to the task in terms of durability and feel. The Samsung Gravity Smart and the HTC Sensation are both made of Plastic, but one feels significantly nicer and more durable in the hand.

Problem: The "Premium Materials" Stigma

When the iPhone 4 was announced, Apple made a big deal out of it being made of "Premium Materials", glass and metal. Since then, Apple's marketing has essentially tailored consumer opinion to view something being made of metal as "better" than the same thing being made of plastic or any other materials. It sort of eliminates the idea that plastics can actually be the better design solution in many use cases. One case I find compelling is that plastics make battery doors more user friendly, eliminating the need to engineer elaborate sliding mechanisms and internal components. For all the flack the a phone like the Galaxy Nexus gets for its thin flexible battery door, I have yet to discover someone who has broken one. The flexibility is part of what makes it effective.

Problem: Plastic with an Inferiority Complex

Another reason plastic gets a bad name is that more often than not, it is trying to appear as something else. It is hard to find a plastic phone nowadays that isn't trying to make you believe it's metal, or highly polished wood, or some space aged carbon composite material. All this does is imply that plastic isn't good enough. Tons of devices are designed to look like they are anodized aluminum, or stainless steel, when they are just coats of paint. This has the unfortunate side effect of making what is a durable device decidedly less so, because with wear the finish scratches or rubs off, leaving a much less attractive phone than if the phone would have just been honest with its materials in the first place.

Solution: Play to Plastic's strengths

Plastic has a number of benefits that are the reason for it being so ubiquitous. It can be imbued with so many different properties. It can be anything from stiff and incredibly dense, to exceptionally light and flexible, and anything in between. Manufacturers should become more adventurous with the plastics they choose and not simply treat it as some sort of second class citizen. The ease of generating textures is one of the key advantages to plastic, and I believe there is a huge ocean of potential here that has yet to be fully explored.



Everyone who has reviewed the Nexus 7 absolutely gushes about the feel of the devices back. The leatherlike texure is simply pleasing to hold. Slapping aluminum on the back would appear more expensive, but would the added weight, scuff prone surface, and connectivity impairment make it a better tablet? Soft touch is another example of an exceptionally user friendly texture often applied to plastics. It gives devices a handsome matte finish, and makes the product feel extremely comfortable in hand. If you blindfolded someone and put a device covered in soft touch and one made of metal, I am pretty sure the vast majority would like the soft touch model in their hands. Metal (especially brushed aluminum and other smooth metal finishes) has the tendency to make you feel aware of the oils on your hands, giving the device a slightly clammy or slimy feeling. Glass can have the same effect when not given some form of oleophobic treatment.

When you drop most plastic phones, instead of the phone holding together and having the shock damage components, the vast majority pop apart. The flexibility of the material keeps shock from transferring to more fragile internal components (of course screens are a different story altogether, a glass component covering nearly half the phone). Where as a design using more rigid materials like metal and glass have a higher chance of transferring the shock to other parts of the phone. Hopefully the phone is designed well enough to have a point of release.

Solution: Be Authentic to the Nature of the Material

A great deal of the PR problem around plastic phones is that it is often dishonest, trying to give the appearance of something more expensive to produce without actually being that material. But what if a plastic phone no longer hid its face under a coat of metallic spray or candy gloss? Imagine if you will a phone made of high density plastic (the extremely hard stuff) that was completely uncoated with the color in the plastic. Scratching would be a non issue, as the color would go all the way through the material. The phone would be resilient (as plastic phones generally are) and with the right design, be something that looks good as it ages. You can even mix materials into the plastic to give a different surface quality.

So in short, Plastic in it's near infinite mutability should be given more attention as a material capable of quality in it's own right, and not as a given or afterthought. What are your thoughts on plastic devices? Cheap? Essential?