Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Is fashion a stronger motivator than functionality?

The role of fashion in design ...

"This article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX and Editorial Director at PMN, is intended to provoke and inspire discussion around MEX Manifesto #4, entitled ‘Fashion is a stronger motivator than functionality‘ ahead of the MEX conference in London next month (27th - 28th May).

For the MEX event, we have brought together an ‘all star’ team comprising 8 of the industry’s most creative thinkers from across industrial, interaction and interface design to lead conference delegates through a live design exercise on this theme. I hope you’ll join us by registering for the conference.

Style. Trend. Fashion. Words like these are part of a new vocabulary increasingly employed by the mobile business to describe handset products. For example, Nokia announced three new devices yesterday (the 6600 Slide, 6600 Fold and 3600) under the tag line ‘Beautiful to use.’ The accompanying press release was built around phrases like: ’stunning and sophisticated looks’, ’smooth, minimalist design’ and ‘core design language’.

If we go back to 2003 - the last time Nokia announced a handset bearing the 6600 model number - we find a very different approach. The press release from 16th June 2003 talks about a handset: ‘packed with compelling features’ and a ‘tri-band (GSM 900/1800/1900) phone’ for the ‘multitasking, mobile workforce’. It goes on to describe the original 6600’s ability to access ‘mobile content via the XHTML browser’. I counted 14 acronyms in all. In contrast, yesterday’s 6600 press release had just 3.

That’s quite a change in just under 5 years. Perhaps the handset business is finally starting to talk the same language as its customers? You can watch a video interview with Aki Laine, the lead designer of the new Nokia 6600, here.

There are several factors driving this. On the one hand, the commoditisation of core mobile phone functionality and the emergence of ‘white label’ contract manufacturers in the Far East is enabling design-led brands from outside the mobile industry to launch products of their own. Prada, Armani, Levi, TAG Heuer and Porsche are just a few of the companies to have taken this approach. In doing so, they have forced existing mobile manufacturers to explore partnerships with them, which inevitably leads to an increased focus on aesthetics within the incumbents own portfolio.

Second-tier mobile manufacturers and ‘white labels’ which lack a brand of their own have been particularly keen to pursue these partnerships. Alcatel, part of Chinese manufacturer TCL, has been active in this space for some time, launching handset products for magazine brand Elle and fashion label Mandarina Duck.

Alcatel has formed a separate business unit - the Brand Design Lab - under director Vittorio di Mauro, which bills itself as ‘the strategic business partner for fashion, media and lifestyle brands in mobile personal communication’.

I was chairing ARCchart’s recent Handset Fashion Congress in London and was interested to hear di Mauro describing the role these partnerships have played in reviving the Alcatel handset business.

A few years ago, the problems at the company were well known, leading to the sale of the handset division to TCL in 2004. The business went through extensive restructuring, with research and development centralised at lower cost centres in China. Alcatel brought all of the elements required for launching unique, branded devices back in-house, enabling it to offer a ‘one stop shop’ to brands. The Design Lab launched in 2005 and now operates from Shenzen, Shanghai and Milan."    (Continued via MEX)    [Usability Resources]

Nokia 6600 design sketch - Usability, User Interface Design

Nokia 6600 design sketch

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