Nokia charges up Soho strategy

A Soho studio is part of Nokia’s plan to put design at the heart of its operation, but will the results rival the iPhone? Mike Exon finds out

There was a buzz in the air in Soho last week, at the prospect of Nokia’s removal vans turning up at Great Pulteney Street. This is a place where design has figured massively over the years, but rising rents sent it packing. Ford’s abortive attempt to rejuvenate the London quarter with its design team in 2000 left many wondering if Soho had any sort of future as a design hub. But this move by Nokia Design is already enticing others to central London. As Design Week confirmed last week, LG’s design team is on its way here too and others seem likely to follow.

Nokia has come a long way since its designs reigned supreme a decade ago. Back then, its interface design won plaudits from far beyond the mobile phone industry, and its modest product range was pretty much the benchmark for mobiles everywhere. But it got complacent.

Black and white turned to colour, and while others were busy innovating, Nokia clung to its heritage. In the changeover to bigger screens with multimedia functionality, Nokia found it was no longer the only name that mattered in handset design. The infamous clamshell saga (Nokia did them, but reluctantly) saw Nokia’s designers suddenly having to play catch-up with brands like Motorola and Samsung, rather than take the lead. Fortunes dipped and people moved on.

With the departure of chief designer Frank Nuovo in 2004, that chapter is firmly closed too, and now the business finds itself at a new crossroads, in which it knows design must play an enormous role. Although it is performing very well in the emerging markets around the globe, Nokia still needs to cut it in the hugely competitive Western market. As well as established rivalries like that of Sony Ericsson, Nokia’s latest design challenger is Apple Design. With the iPhone causing a stir in the mobile marketplace, and Nokia’s launch of its music download service Ovi, an iTunes rival, it’s hardly surprising that Nokia is reassessing its own approach to doing creative business.

As part of a global review of its operations, Nokia’s new chief executive Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo has been working with chief designer Alastair Curtis, the Leeds-born graduate of the Royal College of Art, on quietly re-stitching design into its business operations. As well as the move to Soho, Curtis has been overseeing the relocation of Nokia’s Finland design teams into the group headquarters at Espoo, as part of a renewed effort to dovetail design with the strategic decision-making functions of the business. If there are parallels here with the Jonathan Ive/Steve Jobs model of collaboration at Apple, it’s not surprising.

When I catch up with him, Curtis is mid-way through reconfiguring his global design operations, which employ more than 300 designers around the world. Aside from Finland, the Bangalore office opened six weeks ago, he tells me, and Rio is being set up next. All the cities are being strategically chosen for their cultural relevance and design potential.

‘Getting the design back into head office has created a really high level of energy,’ says Curtis. ‘It will give the business side of the company a much better design context in which to make decisions. It’s not been about cost saving, it’s been an investment.’

Part of the rationale for its new seat in central Soho is attracting design talent who will make a difference. Based as it was in Farnborough, Hampshire, the design team has always struggled to find and retain its creatives. But if it is to claw back its creative lead, that is no longer an option.

‘We were looking for the right space for a long time,’ says Curtis, who saw several candidate sites with designers MoreySmith. ‘It had to be the right location for the talent we wanted to attract – and the response has been phenomenal. But don’t forget this is only 40 per cent of our design operation in total. Give us 12 months and we’ll be able to judge the results of the building blocks that we’ve put in place.’

Curtis confirms that Nokia’s designers such as Bill Serman and Mark Delaney are setting up shop here with their own teams, but that his own office is in Finland. ‘I will have a floating office,’ he declares, indicating his intention to move around.

‘We have 125 designers in London now, from all sorts of backgrounds – product designers, colour designers, CAD specialists, graphic designers, GUI specialists, and ergonomics people. But it’s not about people doing any one discipline, it’s what we achieve by bringing them together.

‘There will also be others in strategic marketing and that will allow us to have a much closer relationship with our agencies,’ he says. Ethnographics is also high on the agenda: there is a significant design research facility at the studio.

He has yet to appoint a head of brand development and an operations manager, he says, but Curtis wants to get the right people. When I ask him about the significance of the LG move he seems genuinely upbeat. ‘The more people who come here, the better,’ says Curtis, looking out the window at the changing Soho below.


• Design: MoreySmith

• Spread over the top three floors of the five-storey building at Great Pulteney Street (bottom two to be let)

• ‘Raw and edgy’ interiors – blank, neutral white space, banks of desks, can be used flexibly

• Workshop areas and live project rooms for quickly updating business heads on design progress

• Interview room with one-way mirror for ethnographics team

• Ground floor reception to feature graphics distinct from Nokia retail identity

• Top floor houses tea and coffee area, roof terrace

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