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At Samsung Electronic’s Gumi Complex plant, about 240km south east of the South Korean capital Seoul, mobile phone handsets drop off the production line at a dizzying rate of one unit every nine seconds. At full capacity, the line runs 24 hours per day, with each individual unit taking just 15 minutes to produce from scratch. The assembly line was running full tilt when I visited, in the run-up to Christmas. Gumi’s output figures for even a month at this speed are astonishing and production rates are always increasing (in 1998 the production line churned out a model every 23 seconds; now it’s down to nearly a third of that).

The world’s appetite for handheld communications devices appears to be insatiable. Developing markets are especially voracious, with China and India now snapping up handsets at a staggering rate – earlier this year it was reported that there were more subscribers to just one Chinese mobile operator than there are people in the US (more than 300 million). But what keeps models flying off the factory line, season after season?

At a recent Samsung briefing in Seoul, one delegate posed a complex question in a deceptively simple way. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘when I get a new phone do I love it and think it will last all my life, then after a year I want a new one? What makes me change?’ Technology, fashion and marketing are perhaps the most obvious answers to this question, but inextricably linked with all of these – indeed, tying them together – is design.

In the western European market in particular, mobile phone manufacturers are competing on design kudos perhaps more than any other factor, and Samsung executives see the continent as the company’s most attractive mobile market.

With this in mind, Samsung’s design operation at the Seoul headquarters has this year restructured its whole design process, organising its 300-plus staff into more specialised teams. Samsung’s manager for design strategy, Eliot Seungmin Park, who oversees the design centre in Seoul, explains the rationale behind the change. ‘The problem before was that we had too many models with different designs, which is why we have changed the team structure. The new design language should be more simple and minimalist,’ he says.

A new process, which Park describes as ‘cluster design’, will see groups of designers working on ‘archetype’ models. Teams are now grouped as cluster design, product design, user experience and a colour laboratory; previously, the latter two disciplines sat in a single department along with user-interface designers. ‘Cluster design is a new system that will see a number of archetypes researched and developed each year. Archetypes are the primary designs from which regional variations will be developed. It’s a new approach to create a more unified identity,’ says Park.

Although Samsung’s centric management model means that all decisions are passed through Seoul HQ for approval, the company also operates ‹ regional design studios in London, Los Angeles, Milan, San Francisco, Shanghai and Tokyo. Park says the regional teams concentrate on trend and forecasting, with major strategic design taking place in South Korea. However, satellite studios reserve some autonomy, with around half their work relating to HQ planning and the other half taken on initiative, he adds.

In Europe, Park liaises with Clive Goodwin, manager of Samsung Design Europe, based in London. And London appears to be the centripetal point for mobile phone design in Europe right now: Finland’s Nokia has just relocated its UK design operation to Soho, under plans to house 40 per cent of its global designers there, and Samsung’s South Korean arch-rival LG is to relocate its existing Milan-based European studio to the UK capital next year.

Meanwhile, Samsung has just released a clutch of new phones, including the G800 high-performance camera phone, the music-focused dual-slider i450 and the F700 touch-screen smartphone (drawing inevitable comparisons with Apple’s iPhone). It has also revealed two dual-branded phones: the Serenata, its second collaboration with Danish audio-visual specialist Bang & Olufsen, and another in a tie-up with Armani.

However, none of these models stem from Park’s restructuring process – the fruits of the change in design philosophy will be revealed early next year, he says. Significantly, the ultra-slim direction that was pushed with models such as the 6.9mm-deep X820 is now being reconsidered. ‘We are adapting our strategy at the moment, because slimmer design does not always produce the best result for the user,’ concedes Park.

Yet all eyes remain on the iPhone. Just launched here in the UK, Apple’s customarily audacious plunge into a new sector will surely send tremors throughout the industry, even though Samsung’s vice-president of European mobile sales and marketing, Yangkyu Kim, says that the iPhone ‘doesn’t affect [Samsung’s] business’.

But in design terms, Apple’s gravity is irresistible. When asked which non-Samsung handsets he most admires, G800 designer Kwaneui Hong says, ‘When the iPod was introduced I was very attracted to the design and it came as a real shock. It is now the same with the iPhone.’

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