Christian Lindholm – master of ‘design by reduction’

With little formal training, Christian Lindholm has designed ground breaking user interfaces for leading mobile phone brands. Sarah Frater catches up with a master of ‘design by reduction’ and a mean yachtsman

Designing something that an idiot could use may not sound like praise, but for Christian Lindholm it is the highest compliment. The director of the Red Dot award-winning convergence design consultancy Fjord smiles as he recounts the story of how Fjord worked with the BBC to transfer its hugely successful iPlayer service on to mobile phones, a service that went live in December, and how during the user trials one tester described the interface as so easy that ‘even an idiot could use it’.

‘It doesn’t get much better than that,’ Lindholm says, laughing as he picks his way through the unpacked boxes, hastily plonked sofas and Post-it-note-labelled meeting rooms that clutter Fjord’s new offices in London’s West End. ‘I think that’s going to be the main conference room,’ he says, thinking out loud, before returning to his theme – ‘I call it “of-course design”, something that’s so obvious that users can take it for granted,’ he explains.

After a tour of the new offices (‘This is where we have our “rumbles” – our thinking and research,’ he says), Lindholm settles in a large meeting room and lays three or four mobile phones on the table. There’s an Apple iPhone, a Nokia and a couple of unfamiliar models from Asia he’s snagged on his wide-ranging travels. As he speaks, they wink like hi-tech candles. Lindholm’s youthful informality and playful manner lull you into thinking that user-interface design must be like the entertainment we get from mobile phones themselves, and involve little more than creative freewheeling and international air travel. The industry’s confidentiality requirements compound this impression, as the technical and creative details are rigorously off-radar.

In fact, Lindholm has a keen understanding of mobile technology and the complexities of UI design, and a steely eye on their commercial possibilities. He is equally at home talking about haptic feedback, layered 3D graphical user interfaces, and ‘touch’ being mobile’s new ‘thin’. He then dissects international usage drivers (battery life and data-roaming costs), mulls where the next UI is coming from, and compares the strengths of Apple (‘It changed everything’) versus the South Koreans’ weaknesses (‘I do not see exactly their point of differentiation’).

Lindholm is well placed to comment. Prior to Fjord, he was vice-president of global mobile products at Yahoo, and before that he spent a formative decade at Nokia, where he was director of user interface. Lindholm is credited with inventing the Nokia Navi Key user interface, which substantially reduced the number of mobile phone keys and was used on hundreds of millions of the company’s products (does he get a royalty, you wonder?). Lindholm was also dubbed the ‘father of the Nokia Series 60 user interface’, the world’s most-used smartphone platform, and he created the Nokia Lifeblog, the multimedia diary. Strange, then, that he has no formal design or technology training. Instead, he has an MA in economics from the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, and spent a research stint at the London Business School’s Centre for Design Management. ‘My research interest was in how design, technology, usability and marketing affect product success in emerging markets where no dominant design has been established,’ he explains. ‘My passion is to make stuff easy and delightful to use.’

The past decade has given Lindholm plenty of scope for that, and the next ten years looks set to be equally fruitful. As well as Fjord’s work for clients – including the BBC, Yahoo and Capital Radio, plus a raft of confidential names (Lindholm claims that most of the things his consultancy works on he can’t talk about, and so go unrecognised) – he is chairman of a technology company called Tech21 Sensor, which creates touch sensor-enabling analogue controls for digital applications. If all that weren’t enough, he is an engaging blogger, and a technology columnist for Fortune magazine. How he fits in time for sailing is anybody’s guess, but he has won several Nordic championships and top-ten places in world championships in the Marblehead class.

Ask him about designing the interfaces for small user experiences, of funnelling the wealth of media content on to tiny mobile screens, and the massive market for mobile phones undreamt of only a decade ago, and he says it’s all about design by reduction. ‘It’s what you leave out,’ he says. ‘Things can always be simplified and made more appropriate. That makes them beautiful.’

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