Former car designer Jeanne Marell is one of a new breed of multidisciplinary designers working at Nokia’s London studio. Guy Bird talks to her about her projects, the iPhone threat and where Nokia goes next
A year and a half ago, Dutch-born Jeanne Marell was designing the colour and trim on concept and production cars by up-and-coming South Korean carmaker Hyundai in an obscure part of Germany. In 2008, she’s a senior industrial designer responsible for the colour and trim for the style department of global phone maker Nokia in its new design centre based in Soho, London, which opened in October.
She seems happy in her new role. In terms of the difference in the design process, for 28-year-old Marell the devil is in the detail. ‘Even though a mobile phone is obviously a lot smaller than a car, you work with so many more fine details,’ she says. ‘There are fewer parts overall, but, at the same time, there are so many more refined details you can play with. Tiny little details that in the car industry are easily overlooked.’
This obsession is evident in the craftsmanship of her work on Nokia’s latest premium phones, the 8800 Arte and 8800 Sapphire Arte. Aside from the high-quality finishes – from kid-leather covers, stainless steel and real glass screen covers – the phones also have neat extra touches not apparent on first sight or in basic use.
This is a deliberate ploy, Marell explains. ‘Built-in surprises are important when you start using a product,’ she says. ‘On the 8800 the design inspiration was having this very delicate and luxurious material, and combining it with hi-tech performance, not only in terms of durability but also interaction.’
Two good examples of this extra functionality on the new Sapphire Arte is the ability to silence your ring tone quickly – when in a meeting, for example – by simply turning the phone face down on a table, and the ability to reveal the phone’s clock by giving the screen a light tap.
With competitors of the calibre of Apple entering the phone market, such ‘surprise and delight’ features and thinking are vital to keep Nokia in the forefront of customers’ purchasing thoughts. Has the launch of the iPhone last year worried the brand? Marell stays politically correct in her answer, before stressing Nokia’s unique selling points. ‘Competition is a good thing and any product that accentuates the design aspect within mobile phones is positive for us,’ she says. ‘But Nokia has such a large bandwidth of customer needs, whereas the iPhone hits just one target. For me, working on the style products, focusing on premium consumers, it is not quite where the iPhone is hitting. We have a lot more focus on colours and materials and different variations.’
Deciding what those colours and materials might be involves a lot of in-house trend research, that, according to Marell, could be as random as walking up London’s Oxford Street (or travelling to the equivalent street in Beijing or Bangalore, where Nokia also has design studios) and observing how people interact with their phones. Equally, knowledge comes from getting feedback from people carefully targeted and recruited through Nokia’s consumer insight teams.
She also spends a lot of time researching upcoming technologies and materials with suppliers, as well as seeing her phone design visions through to launch with the help of Nokia’s marketing department.
But will Nokia design just be about phones in the future? In January, Nokia reorganised its business, incorporating various divisions working on different types of phone into one new large group, with another group created around services like navigation, music, the Internet and gaming. Nokia recently brought the huge satellite navigation business Navteq, and has been doing a trial with London’s pre-pay travel card system Oyster so that its phones can be enabled to become travelcards, too.
Marell is keenly aware of the trend to add functionality, but, ultimately, has some reservations about it. ‘As people get more mobile and nomadic, they want to have their life in their pocket, so they can go anywhere and always feel comfortable and homely,’ she says. ‘They know they will be able to find their way because of their navigation system, they’ve got their music, their whole emotional baggage in one little device – that will definitely be a trend. There will be a lot of people strongly attracted to that idea, but other people will get scared by it, not wanting to rely on technology or afraid to lose it. So, for them, we will still offer just a phone.’
Nokia’s new flagship store on London’s Regent Street opens this week