Stefan Pannenbecker is the Vice President for Industrial Design at Nokia, where his job consists mostly of trying out a variety of crazy new ideas in search of the one or two that would help Nokia maintain its edge in design. The company's fiercely loyal fanbase has grown at least in part due to some iconic designs (remember the 8110?) and a consistently excellent build quality in its phones. Those are the hardware design department's chief competencies and the things Pannenbecker has been entrusted to maintain. Keep reading for our full interview below, including a guest visit from Kevin Shields, who just wanted to tell us that everything at Nokia is presently, has always been, and will forever continue to be awesome.
Vlad Savov: With Marko Ahtisaari being the overall lead in Nokia Design, what is your particular role?
Stefan Pannenbecker: I lead basically all the industrial design for smart devices and for mobile phones. So what you're seeing today, all the devices announced today, were designed by my team.
That includes the PureView, the Ashas, the Lumias, everything?
So you're just completely focused on hardware whereas Marko is also in charge of software innovations?
You tell me, which of your new products do you like the most?
Oh, that's a really difficult question. I think it's a little bit like your children, you know, they're all different but you love them all. I think each product has particular challenges that are quite unique, and the task of understanding, working with, and solving those is what makes this job, right? So, ultimately, we are always super happy and absolutely behind what we do, whatever comes out. That's important to us and therefore I can, they're all different but I love them all.
When I first saw the N9 design, the one that has been iterated upon with the Lumia 800 and 900, I was amazed. Can you tell us about how it came about and how long it took?
The design of the N9 was actually quite a long process. We did a lot of things that we had never done before and that really required us to look very closely at how to execute. The N9, if you look at it from the moment Anton Fahlgren took the model out of his pocket to when we introduced it was almost two years.
We were really pushing the boundaries of product making, we call this "extreme product making." But during those two years, we learned so much that we said we want to continue to benefit from that work, we want to continue working on this path. And that's why, for example, the Lumia 900 has such similarity to the Lumia 800. Because we learned a lot of things that we wanted to reapply, because we feel it is a very exciting formula that we have here and we wanted to bring it to the next product.
You've also kept the look very consistent — flat top and bottom and curved sides — would you be able to retain the unibody design and fundamentals while maybe playing around with the shape and iterating that way?
Yes, I mean we could, but the approach that we actually took in the design of the N9 and the Lumia 800 and also the Lumia 900 was very much that we didn't think about the shapes, the curves from the outside but we actually started with the inside. We really looked at how to build a better product, certain drivers like thinness, compactness, antenna performance, all these things, we took them as our starting point. And then we said, how can we reduce the amount of clutter around the software — you know, in terms of industrial design. We work inside out and we're very consequent to the execution of the product and that almost creates the aesthetics of the product.
So in theory, you could do a monobody in a different way, in a different shape, but we'll do it only if it makes sense, if it makes a better product ultimately.
What is next with the Lumia line? What can we expect from the future Lumia phones?
I won't get too specific here...
You never do.
But I can tell you that, first of all, we're very keen to evolve this approach. As designers and as a company, we don't stand still. We're driven by the idea of building better products and we'll find ways to improve on what we have even today. We'll keep this approach of working from the inside out, I think that's a really important thing. And then we'll look into all the dimensions that we have here already as well — how to work with materials in a better way, how to work with maybe newer and different materials in new and unexpected ways.
HTC just introduced a phone treated with microarc oxidation, a toughening process usually reserved for heavy duty machinery. Have you considered doing something similar, branching out to new sources for innovation?
We have an example of that with the N9 and the Lumia 800 with their curved glass, that's something that you see in optical products or in cars, but it's something that's quite new to mobile devices. But we wanted to use that because we felt there was also a unique benefit in terms of interaction with the UX. It was something that we were really excited about. So when it makes sense, we will bring these things out, absolutely.
Can you name any alternative industries you're looking into for inspiration?
Yes, we work with all sorts of companies, for example we work in partnership with some jewellers.
The Nokia Oro?
Yes, the Nokia Oro is a great example. We think on an even more radical level, we look at all kinds of work. For example, craftsmen: we talk a lot about bringing craft into our product, so we look at how craftsmen work and the things they do. Everything that drives our thinking of terms of simplifying, taking things away rather than adding things. Craft, color, and materials, those are the key considerations.
Let's talk about things which can be described as design flair rather than purely functional elements. I'm looking at the pink glossy Lumia 610 right now...
Kevin Shields: And that's gorgeous. It's terrific.
How do you assess things like applying that strongly glossy finish? How do you reach decisions with respect to things inspired by trends or fashion rather than functionality?
Stefan: Absolutely, we're not a monolithic company that says one size fits all. You know, here's our thing and you live with it or you don't. We acknowledge the fact that different will like different things and that's perfectly cool. Basically, we look for what we call — they're not trends yet — but we look for weak signals.
The seed of a trend?
Yeah, exactly. Emerging trends, we would call it. Weak signals in the market, or weak signals anywhere, whether it's in graphic design, in art; whether it's the types of things people use or wear in clubs, it's all kinds of different things. It's quite interesting, we pick those things up, we look at them and then we say, what of those things works with the Nokia brand? So we don't do everything just because it's a trend, we ask what are the things where it could work with Nokia, where are we credible? And if we think it's worth pursuing, we will create great products with those trends in mind.
Thin phones seem to be coming back into fashion these days. Huawei, HTC, Panasonic, NEC, a lot of phone makers are returning to ultrathin form factors. Are you going to be competing in that space?
"Miniaturization is a symbol of technological progress and thinness is one way of signifying that."
I think it's a characteristic that people really resonate with, absolutely. Miniaturization is a symbol of technological progress and thinness is one way of signifying that. But it's not only thinness. It can also be display-to-footprint ratio, for example. We like the idea of thinness, but it's not the only thing that drives us. We really look at what is important in a product, how we can build a better product. Thinness may be part of it, but if it's only thinness, it's not the right thing either.
To wrap up, can you give us some indication about your future direction, where will Nokia design be heading in the next one or two years?
I cannot be specific about it, of course. I think the thing I said earlier about extreme product making is very much true. So, thinking differently about the way we build products, that's such a rich area that we're exploring and I'm very excited about that. We're really challenging ourselves — and others within the company — to build products differently and better. I think the Lumia 800 and the N9 are the first indicators of that and we're going to push that thinking and that approach further. We'll continue looking into new and different materials that allow us to build better products. Those are the key things that we're looking at from a purely industrial design point of view.