Good design isn’t a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity, changing not only how a smartphone looks, but also how it feels in our hand, how it makes us feel when it’s there, and how we connect with it on an emotional level over time. When it’s right, you’ll end up wanting to keep that product for a long time.
Design matters a great deal, but some pass it off as a luxury feature that adds nothing of value to the final product, going so far as to sneer at those who prioritize good design as much as they do the latest processor or AMOLED screen. This is influenced somewhat by well-designed products, or at least those that highlight design, being priced highly, but it’s also misguided. Here’s why we need to value it.
Friendly, feel-good design
I remember being part of a media briefing with a major manufacturer at a trade show a couple years ago, and several members of the group I was in were laughing at how some product reviews would talk about “in-hand comfort” or feel of a device. The amusement came from several agreeing that as long as the phone fit in your hand at all, everything was good. I assumed all these people only purchased trousers with the right leg length, and didn’t worry about the waist size. After all, that would be enough to cover the important bits, and the rest was just a meaningless detail no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it was.
I hope opinions have changed since then as people become more aware of how design affects everyday use of a phone. Linking design solely with looks is the problem, as it goes so much further than simple aesthetics. A good example is the swipe gesture, which is how most of us interact with a phone today. We swipe up to access open apps, right to go back, and down to see notifications. For this to work well, and feel comfortable and natural, software and hardware design need to come together.
The Huawei P40 Pro shows you how good a phone can be when design is right. The bottom of the device has a cascading piece of glass, so when you swipe up, there’s no resistance at all. No break between glass and body. It’s an ergonomic delight, and one of the most carefully thought out design features on any phone I’ve seen over the past few years. The fluid, physical movement perfectly syncs with what happens on screen and a timely haptic alert, elevating the whole experience above just “swiping,” to become something tactile and memorable.
Tactility and carefully considered ergonomics, along with the right materials, can help designers create a device that means something. Former head of design at deceased luxury phone brand Vertu, Hutch Hutchison, ( who’s now at mobile startup Xor) pinpoints why this matters:
“We have smartphones and they are wonderful but impersonal. I look at mine and it has no meaning to me. That’s what made Vertu special — you had a personal relationship with the object. Xor started off with a proposition around being a personal object. I wanted to leave behind harsh forms which weren’t ergonomic. This is a friendly thing and should feel good.”
Where it still goes wrong
I love the phrase, “a friendly thing that should feel good.” It doesn’t just apply to phones, but everything we physically interact with, from chairs to watches, and car interiors to table lamps. It’s also often the hardest part for phone makers to get right.
Friendliness is quickly eroded even by the smallest of design compromises. One aspect that has become more of an issue recently is balance, due to the prevalence of larger camera modules packed with masses of sensors, some of which are surprisingly big and heavy. They’re always set at the top of the phone, and designers need to balance out the weight so the phone isn’t top heavy.
I’m not a designer, so I don’t know what the ideal weight distribution is, but I do know when it feels “off.” The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra, and the Asus Zenfone 8 Flip all come to mind when talking about balance not being quite right. None of them are drastically unbalanced, but use them for hours in portrait orientation and you soon begin to adjust your wrist and grip in an effort to get the phone at the right, comfortable angle.
It’s subconscious, and a consequence of technology forcing the designer’s hand. Huawei’s chief designer Quentin Ting said designing phones was sometimes like “dancing with shackles on,” as everything from internal components to manufacturing has to be considered when creating the design of the device itself.
Gavin Ivestor, Bang and Olufsen’s VP of Design, explained the importance of balance in a product we hold, and the effort it takes to get right. Describing the Beoremote One TV remote he said, “The balance is right in your hand where you hold it, and that was not easy to achieve. Batteries are heavier and more dense, so we put them in the palm of your hand, giving you control over the mass. That’s not easy to do in a seamless product. It is much harder to make, but the benefits, we believe, are worth it.”
Design details matter
When one ergonomic aspect is off, other issues tend to be noticed more. An unbalanced product may force you to grip it more, and that can reveal if the sides taper into a sharp edge or if the body is too slippery, and when you swipe on less used parts of the screen — a double swipe to exit a landscape game, for example — ridges created by the glass meeting the body, and usually the edge of a screen protector, are immediately noticed. It’s unpleasant and removes the joy of using what’s probably otherwise a fine smartphone.
Poor design choices introduce fatigue, and the more we use a phone that doesn’t sit quite right, the less enjoyable it becomes. I’m not talking about fatigue in the same way you’d get after running a marathon, but almost imperceptible irritations that we naturally compensate for each day, like walking in a pair of shoes where the sole has worn out. Change the shoes and you immediately think, “why didn’t I do this sooner?” It’s the same going from a substandard designed phone to one that has been well thought out.
Applying a strong design philosophy positively impacts both visual appeal and usability. Porsche Design follows follows Ferdinand Porsche’s belief that form should follow function, but it never stops the company innovating. Take a look at a Porsche Design Monobloc Actuator watch (above), and see how traditional buttons on the case have been replaced with a rocker. It’s beautiful and functional, yet it’s still immediately obvious what it does, and therefore is supremely natural to use.
In phones, the need to include a feature when there are constraints based on internal device layout or budget, means this maxim sometimes gets forgotten and the desired friendliness disappears. Take phones like the Oppo Find X3 Pro, where the in-display fingerprint sensor is set so low on the screen you have to adjust your grip, and risk dropping the phone, to use it. On other phones the virtual keyboard suffers in a similar way, which results in frustrating typos and again, an increased risk of dropping the phone. Putting extra buttons for virtual assistants or camera controls on the side of the phone case is another problem.
While there are probably compelling engineering or marketing reasons why these things happen, good design should come in to overcome the limitations placed upon it from elsewhere, ensuring usability doesn’t suffer.
Good design lasts
When all of this comes together, not only do you have a cohesive, functional, and beautiful device in your hand, but crucially it also feels part of you. Dongseok Lee, designer of Samsung’s Galaxy Book Flex laptop put it best, saying, “The development of any product is completed by the user.”
We shouldn’t dismiss design as being only about color or basic shape. We should take time to understand the larger part it plays in the smartphones we hold each day, and place a similar level of importance on selecting a device with good design in the same way we do with the other, more technical aspects. Doing so will encourage companies to focus as much attention on design as they do on functionality.
For too long fancy-looking phones made from tactile, pleasant materials with expertly judged symmetry, curves, and lines, all in a functional yet beautiful shape that fits in our hand were only found at the top end of the market, and subsequently but mistakenly viewed as a luxury no-one really needs to have. Now, brands like Asus with the Zenfone 8 are putting serious design thought into phones that won’t break the bank, proving intelligent design doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with an exorbitant price tag.
The next time you buy a phone, pay attention to the way it looks, feels, and makes you feel personally. In our reviews we talk about how long a device will last based on durability and technology, but really, good design needs to be talked about in the same way. The more comfortable you are with your chosen smartphone, the longer you’ll be inclined to keep it, and that should be a prime factor in buying any product today regardless of cost.