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Shedding some light on phone design

[INTERVIEW] Motorola creative designer describes it as holistic and psychological

Nov 30,2010
Hwang Sung-gul has been at the helm of Motorola Korea’s Consumer Experience Design center since 2006. Provided by the company
“What’s in a name?” - was the question Juliet asked in “Romeo and Juliet.”

“What’s in a handset?” - was the question this reporter threw at Hwang Sung-gul, the creative designer of mobile devices at Motorola Korea. Hwang has been designing mobile phones - something that more than 98 percent of Koreans have - for more than a decade.

For some, a handset is nothing more than a palm-sized gadget to make calls with.

Hwang begs to differ. To him and his team, it is an elegant balance between art and science, human and machine.

The brand name Motorola has been around since 1930, and it certainly has an established image - sleek and minimalistic. The company calls it “Motorola-ness,” or Motorola’s design language. This concept was documented in a manual crafted by Hwang in 2000.

Hwang has been at the helm of the Consumer Experience Design (CXD) in Seoul since 2006. CXD is Motorola’s design center and there are six more entities in other countries. In a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, Hwang gave an exclusive peek into the thinking and work that goes into designing a mobile phone.


Q. Tell us about CXD in Seoul. How does it differ from its counterparts in other countries?

A. It’s basically Motorola’s design center. It consists of designers and other experts who are in charge of all things related to consumer experience when using a mobile phone - for instance, how they use the interface and how they navigate and find certain information, which would be the work of ergonomists.

Materials are also important because mobile phones these days are not just electronic products, but more like fashion accessories. So there are materials engineers. We do trend mapping two years ahead of a product launch. So there are trend experts.

CXD in Korea, like its counterparts, had been responsible for taking [a design] and localizing it.

But today, it’s differentiated in that it’s the only CXD that exports its design - its own intellectual property - to other countries like the U.S., China, and Europe. Our excellence in design comes from adopting the strengths of American-style design - which tends to be strategic - with those of European-style design, which tends to be more story-oriented. We engage in what we call “cyclical procedures,” which is shuttling between those two approaches.

It all sounds very theoretical. Can you give us an example that we may be familiar with?

Razr Squared (launched in 2007) is a classic example.

We were targeting a premium market. Premium markets can be divided into two - one would be those preferring exaggerated luxury items, while the other would favor understated, subtle luxury items. The former one has more business opportunities - both globally and in Korea.

We came up with a story depending on how consumers in this segment live, work and spend with regards to their tendencies, values and needs. Our story went like this: the one who buys this handset is a woman who is an executive. She is just as empowered and charismatic as a man. This is story-telling.

So Razr Squared has design elements inspired by Cleopatra’s neck piece, striped patterns from a man’s suit and a diamond shape from a Dunhill cigarette lighter. That way, the design has a definite target audience, plus it has a story. Designs that emerge from a literary approach can’t be copied and people buy the story when buying the design.

Like all other IT products, mobile phones are associated with a hard, cold image. What role do you think design plays?

I don’t think mobile phones are like any other electronic product. For instance, a trend-sensitive woman would buy a handset that matches her style. But would [she] buy a TV that matches her style? I don’t think so.

Like in fashion, there are some timeless trends in mobile phone design - for instance the color black. But just like in fashion, trends come and go quickly in mobile phones. It is important to detect and reflect them.

I think the role design plays is to give people a sense of aspiration. For instance, you’re driving and you see a Mini Cooper. The sight makes you smile. I think that’s the role of design: Helping people relieve stress and make them happy in their daily grind - like looking at someone you love.

I also think design should be human-friendly and human-empowering. For instance, we would very rarely design something asymmetrically because it is people’s basic psychology to look for symmetry.

Between design and function, it must be hard to decide which to prioritize. How do designers and engineers find middle ground?

There are often conflicts. Engineers are more concerned about the prices of materials and the time it takes to manufacture, numbers and specifications. But designers like change, innovation, aesthetics and perfection. The two have different natures. But we have the same goal: Consumer happiness. As long as engineers and designers see eye-to-eye on the interest of consumers, we can always reach a reach compromise.

Smartphones are all the rage these days. What’s the key in designing smartphones?

In nonsmartphones, voice communication is the key function. But in smartphones, voice communication is just one of many functions offered. The smartphone market in Korea is still young, so the designs you see today are rather consistent. But as the market matures, design will diversify naturally to meet different needs.

In smartphone design, I don’t think you can say that it’s the lightness or big screen or thin body that’s the trend. Rather, I think perceived quality is the most important factor. Perceived quality is the kind of user experience people get from their handset - how they can interact with it, and how it can enhance their quality of life. It’s more holistic and psychological.


By Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]



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