Fighting back

As Sony Ericsson launches a striking new range of mobile handsets, Mike Exon catches up with some members of its design team at the London launch event – and gains an insight into the company’s creative philosophy

It’s been a while since Sony Ericsson held a global press launch in London, but the West End was quite deliberately chosen for the unveiling of its new range of top-end phones a couple of weeks ago.

Perhaps Sony Ericsson realised that its last couple of designs weren’t up to the London treatment. But with this latest clutch of models, any fears that the Swedish mobile maker was starting to lose its way look like being put to rest. The designs of the new T250, T650, S500 and P1 are turning heads.

‘Sony Ericsson’s success is largely founded on its strong and coherent product design language, which it launched with the popular T610 back in 2003,’ says Plan director Kevin McCullagh. ‘It evolved this solid and clean vocabulary admirably over the next few years, while other brands lost their direction or got stale. Its innovative use of colour and perfect finishing helped to establish it as the design leader.’

‘However, it had a bit of a wobble earlier this year when it launched some models with awkwardly resolved navi-key details, tiny keys and questionable colours and finishes,’ he continues. ‘But the new T650 is a real return to form, an object lesson in conceptual clarity.’

The pressure has clearly been on for a ground-breaking design comeback. And where better than London for Sony Ericsson to show its hand?

Yet the capital has played a mixed role in Sony Ericsson’s design fortunes over the years. Its design team has only been permitted the most fleeting of relationships with the UK. The company hasn’t had a design team at its Hammersmith offices for years now, having repatriated the few designers that were here in 2003 back to the company’s headquarters in Lund, Sweden.

‘Lund is a nice town, but it’s not exactly the most happening place for a designer to work from,’ one Sony Ericsson designer jokes as we wait at the press launch for the ‘big reveal’. Is the design team going to come back then? I enquire. ‘Funny you ask,’ he says. ‘We were talking about that just this morning’.

Maybe it was just a bit of harmless chat before landing at Heathrow, or a throwaway joke, but there is undeniably a sense that a move back to London wouldn’t be completely out of the question for the Sony Ericsson Creative Design Centre, and that could be just what the team needs to get ahead of the competition. ‹

Now that Sony Ericsson’s big rival Nokia has announced details of what promises to be a chic new Soho design studio on London’s Great Pulteney Street, and with Motorola well installed in Basingstoke, its designers must be itching to join the fray.

Highly designed products like the T650 will be launched into a hugely competitive European market in Q3, with Apple’s iPhone beckoning, and designs like the LG Prada phone in mid-swing. The T650 slider phone, which clearly references the iconic T610, is finished in a stainless steel casing with a scratchproof mineral glass screen designed to be read with enhanced clarity from almost any angle. It’s a 12.5mm slim handset with 3.2 megapixel camera and MP3 media player. Built with the latest features enabling video calling, picture blogging, RSS feeds and Bluetooth stereo connection, it comes in two colours – ‘midnight blue’ and ‘growing green’ – which, although conservatively titled, as a unifying design theme have been used quite sensitively for the user interface and external shells.

Michel Sabouné, vice-president of the Creative Design Centre, carefully explains that credit is not something readily dished out to individuals on the team. Obviously, every product has a lot of input from a whole range of designers, but the successes are shared equally as well, he says, declining to name his favourite model.

Sony Ericsson designer Lykke Taersbol, who specialises in colours, materials and finishes, shows off the eye-catching lighting effects of the S500, which like the T650 have been carefully created to swirl up from the keypad to the screen in one single sweep.

She demonstrates the more feminine-looking S500, which comes in ‘mysterious green’ or ‘spring yellow’, and sports vine-like etchings on the handset’s underside. It is also a slider design and with a 2.0 megapixel camera and assorted software, it will be the first of the new models to go on sale, hitting the market next month.

The new-look T250 rounds off what Sony Ericsson head of product marketing Steve Walker calls the range for ’emotional’ users. The final model – the P1 smartphone, a business model – is for ‘rational’ users, although this labelling is all a bit unnecessary really.

Let’s hope the range does well and the group’s Creative Design Centre gets rewarded with an edgy outpost in the West End. That would be bound to energise its verbal communications, at the very least.

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