Miika Mahonen has big shoes to fill – after all, he is the principal designer at HMD Global. The Finnish company, which makes Nokia-branded smartphones and features phones, has to live up the expectations of a brand that gave people their first mobile phones.
Born and raised in Finland, Mahonen knew he wanted to be a designer at an early age. Following his studies at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, he worked with a number of brands, including Samsung. Based in Shenzhen, China, Mahonen is behind a number of Nokia devices.
Excerpts from an interview where he spoke about Nokia of today, how his experiences inspired some of the new Nokia devices, the latest design trends in the smartphone market, and the future of smartphones.
Nokia phones have always been known for their practical designs. What story are you telling through the current-generation Nokia phones?
We are very much following what Nokia was doing before. So we focus on good user experience. And when I talk about user experience, I just don’t mean software… I mean, the whole package; it is like when picking up the device, how does it feel, how does it work, and how does the software work?
The Nokia quality and durability is still very much our essential driver. And those values go really well together with minimal Nordic design. And this is what we are developing now. So anything that’s not needed is not there. That’s why we use pure Android. Everything is simplified and the purpose is to have a really comfortable experience.
What goes into creating Nokia phones? Describe your design process.
The industrial process is very similar in many different fields of design. The first step is research and ideation. So in the research, we find a lot of consumer insights and then we start ideation and generate ideas around the new device and then we use the research to validate those ideas. After we have this design direction, we go to the second step. That’s called concept design and this is where we really start to do design products.
At this point, we have already got the engineering team involved so that we can validate these ideas that can actually be made into a real product. And after we have a concept design ready, we do a lot of prototyping and we do model making. After we get a go-ahead to make interval products, we start the concept development, followed by all the engineering and all the internal stacking.
The final step is execution, where the concept product will be prepared for production. All through the execution phase, the design and the designers are heavily involved.
Just to give you an example, I recently worked on the Nokia 2.3. The project started about a year ago and we have a target for a product in a certain price range. After taking a lot of insights, I started doing concept design, how this product could look like, how could it feel like, and what could be the finish? I tried to build life models, a lot of mock-ups and we did a lot of material testing, and then eventually as a team, we felt that this was a good product, and then the real development started.
As a designer, I also work with suppliers because we are developing new materials and new kinds of finishes. This [Nokia 2.3] was a very challenging project. So I was on and off the factory for about four months even doing the final colour, tuning the final material and doing things so that the production can start.
Do you follow the design trends that your competitors are following?
When I talk about design trends, there are two sides to it. Some design trends are more about aesthetics and then there are design trends that are about user experience. Design trends have a side where it is a lot about aesthetics like fashion, colors, materials, etc. And then there’s also a lot of design trends of how the user experience itself is developed. So we do follow things and we incorporate and take inspiration from the best things, but at the same time, we stick to what is our own vision.
A lot of innovation is happening in and around the display. Some manufacturers are going with a 120Hz display, while others are using the waterfall displays to take the concept of curved screens to the next level. What do you have to say?
For us, the most important thing is whether the technology is mature enough that we can guarantee quality for the consumer. For waterfall displays and some phones being launched hasn’t been necessarily that straightforward how it’s been working. So any new technology that we will bring or incorporate in our designs…we bring it at a point where we are a hundred percent sure that we can guarantee the quality and the functionalism of the product. We don’t want to risk our products having any issues.
Foldable phones have finally arrived, though at present there are a lot of technical challenges that still persist. Is HMD Global looking at this space?
Visual information is very important and that’s why the display technology is so important. We are working on how we can come up with the second generation and how we can improve the visual technology but I cannot reveal too much. But I can tell you that we are doing a lot of future concepts right now in different areas and that’s something I can say for sure.
Well, if you look at a bigger scale, the trend is more about simplification and optimization of these products, right? We are driving away from having this portable computer into our comfortable design that supports your actions in everyday life. That’s a big trend and that’s something we are looking at. That’s why even in the industrial design, we are coming up with solutions to make it more comfortable, more simplified, improve the quality and improve usability.
Designing and manufacturing foldable phones isn’t easy. As a designer, do you think foldable phones are the future of smartphones?
Look, this is the basic law of physics. When something changes, for example, this material bands, there will always be certain a source of difficulties or challenges. Will the foldable phone be a definite thing in the future? Maybe not. Maybe there will be other solutions as well that can improve the visual experience besides foldable displays.
Why haven’t the megapixel wars ended, and why are smartphone manufacturers once again talking about a high megapixel camera?
The megapixel races are definitely ongoing, but I would say that for us (HMD Global) as a company, we are really developing our internal resources to improve experience and software design when it comes to cameras. The camera part is really important for us to and for example, our collaboration with Carl Zeiss. So we are really putting a big effort internally to develop these resources and teams so we can keep improving our camera experience through all the new models that we are releasing.
Reports suggest that HMD Global’s next flagship will drop the ‘PureView’ branding? Is it true?
Sorry, I cannot answer your question.
As a designer, how do you assess the current-generation of Nokia phones?
I think we have made good progress. I would say that we are really discovering our own identity in a way, but we don’t want to fully follow what our competitors are doing. We want to tap Nordic premium design that’s known for simplicity and long-lasting timelessness. That’s our key factor and that’s something we will continue to pursue. Like, we want to design devices that look great next year and look great even after 10 years.
Recreating previous-generation Nokia devices is something unique to HMD Global. Tell me the whole idea of recreating classic Nokia devices for the modern era.
I’m a big Nokia classic fan. I think this is something very fun, very playful. For example, what we have done taking these old form factors and we can now use much more advanced technology to put in and they still have become very functional devices that can be used in today’s modern life.
I think there’s still a lot of opportunities in these [retro] types of devices that are somewhere between feature phones and smartphones and especially now when we have AI features that can be applied to our feature phones that transform the device into something completely new. Also, you don’t necessarily need a massive display and you’re still able to use a lot of cool functions.
How do you choose which Nokia classic phone you would like to recreate? What’s the process like?
Well, if I would, we explore a lot. So we start doing concept design around a product that we would like to create. And during that exploration, we develop and lock down the material. For example, this plastic device would fit well in this category. Also, we recognise what could be the impact of the classic phone on our consumers and fans. That’s a big thing that we think about when deciding which retro device we will design. Sure, it’s a difficult process, but definitely it affects which one could have a good impact on our fans and users.
Do you agree that designing a mid-range smartphone is a lot of difficult these days?
When you go to the lower range, it becomes more challenging, because you are dealing with the total cost of the phone. So one area that we are really working really heavily on is the new material technologies and if you look at the last Nokia 7.2 for example, we were developing a polymer composite frame. This is a good example of how we are innovating in the industrial design of these devices. And then, Nokia 2.3, which is an entry-level phone, really looks and feels like a premium smartphone. Natural technologies are one of the areas that we’re really pushing.
The smartphone industry is pushing towards 5G and we might see a lot of 5G phones this year. Do you think it is a challenge to design a 5G phone?
Yes, it is a bit more complex because of antenna requirements. So there are a lot of new technologies that we have to incorporate into the phone itself. There are definitely new challenges with 5G smartphone
Which is your favourite classic Nokia phone?
I was a big fan of the Lumia designs. I still have the Lumia 1020, the one with the massive size camera.
What can we expect from HMD Global in the retro phone space this year?
Sorry, I cannot answer your question.
Who is the most inspiring person in the design fraternity to you and why?
I am a big fan of Alvar Aalto. I especially like his furniture and product design. It was very groundbreaking in its time, and it’s very like form follows function so everything is simplified and the materials are used for their qualities and purposes. So everything has a reason to be there. This is something that I really admire and inspires me.
What is your daily inspiration when you design?
I follow a lot of fashion. I found fashion to be very inspiring even in industrial design these days. Fashion is very limitless. So you can see very creative and crazy concepts there because they are very playful with colors and materials. That’s something that I have got a lot of inspiration lately.
What products do you most admire and how do they influence your creative thinking?
I’m a big fan of historic designs. I am a big motorcycle fan. I also love a lot of Nordic designs.
In your opinion what’s the best and worst part of your job as a designer?
Since my younger days, I have always liked envisioning what the future looks like. I’m definitely a big science fiction fan. So now I have kind of a chance to do that in real life as a job.
It’s hard to say what the worst part would be, maybe I am really involved with my work. As a designer, you can always carry and are thinking about the work, what you are currently doing. And I think I should learn to take more time off and also find the balance between more balance between outside and inside the job.
What’s the most important piece of advice you have received as a designer that’s helped you in executing the project?
When I was studying, I was given advice to always follow the industrial process. And that’s been very good advice because when you keep in mind this process and the steps, it always helps you to follow through and avoid problems. So you always have a very good guideline to help you to come up with a good solution to end results. So follow the process. That’s good advice.
Colour palettes are very important when designing a smartphone. How do you choose colours for a smartphone?
Our colour selection comes very much through our design philosophy. We are very Nordic-inspired, but that doesn’t mean that we select colours from Finland. It means how we use and develop colour experiences is Nordic and that links into the kind of minimalistic design simplicity. With Nokia devices, we talk about the design that lasts, so when we pick a color we want we choose colors that look good today, look good tomorrow and also look good after one year. We don’t pick colors that you will get bored in a week, so we pick them very carefully. So it’s our design philosophy, not necessarily what is the color but how we make the color to be.
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