Nokia's Nicola Ralston explains why materials are such an important part of its design approach
The beautiful look and finish of Nokia’s brand new smartphones, the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Lumia 820, have caught the attention of many people.
Erik Kain, of Forbes.com, wrote of the Lumia 920:
“I love the colourful, rounded look. I love the fact that it looks so distinct and different from the rest of the smartphone pack. I love that I can get one that’s yellow.”
Meanwhile, Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 visionary, told Conversations that Nokia’s new smartphones were ‘gorgeous and awesome’ and declared the Lumia 920 a ‘work of art.’
Nokia’s designers are no strangers to such compliments. The company has a rich heritage and great expertise when it comes to material design, science and technology.
Key to this continuing success is Nokia’s team in all the main Nokia Design Studios in London, Espoo, Calabasas and Beijing.
They are the people responsible for what your Nokia is made out of, how it feels in your hand, as well as what colour it is.
In fact, Nicola Ralston, who is head of Colour and Material Technology Design at Nokia, says that materials are a very important part of Nokia’s design approach to product making.
“I hope that is why the products you see on the market today are much more complete and seamless than ever before because the materials and colours are not applied after the packages have been defined.”
This focus on materials – how they are produced, how to achieve the exact intensity of colour required, how the material performs, how it can be moulded and much more besides – is absolutely central to Nokia, says Nicola.
The release of the Nokia N9 in 2011 saw the debut of polycarbonate, a new premium plastic pioneered by Nokia and which is also used in the Lumia smartphones, including the new Nokia Lumia 920 and 820.
Polycarbonate was developed as a result of huge project over several years examining different types of plastic ingredients.
“What we were looking for was a material that could define a new character for Nokia and would allow us to make a great visual impact and project confidence at the same time as build on our heritage of durability and extreme product making,” says Nicola.
“We chose polycarbonate because of the colour approach we wanted to take – the ingredients that make up polycarbonate allow us to get the best intensity of colour.”
As well as being able to achieve vibrant colours with polycarbonate, the material is also durable, as well as flexible in how the designers can play with the finishes – matt or gloss – and still exude a Nokia character.
When I first got my Nokia Lumia 800, I told all my friends about how natural it feels in my hand. Again, this is largely down to the polycarbonate.
“The polycarbonate gives us a human touch – that is the best way to describe it,” says Nicola.
Ceramic and metallic
Another hi-tech material, and one that is making its first ever appearance within the range on the Nokia Lumia 920 is the ceramic zirconium camera detailing and side keys. This material is both scratch and wear resistance, which further drives Nokia focus on durability and strength.
This ceramic replaces the aluminium camera detailing and side keys in the Nokia Lumia 900. Nicola says metal remains an important material to Nokia, but this new ceramic ‘is a little bit different, a little more refined… and just works really well.’
Overall, on the wider issue of metal versus polycarbonate, Nicola concludes that:
“What we want to achieve with the Lumia range is absolute top performance. The colour ability with polycarbonate is giving us all that character but at the same time it enables the highest performance relative to the antenna, NFC enablement, wireless charging and so on.”
With those ceramic details and the polycarbonate monobody, that just leaves the screen.
Fans of the 2.5D curved glass on the Nokia Lumia 800 were thrilled to find out that it’s back on the Lumia 920. Nicola’s team had to work out how to scale up the curved glass for the larger screen size of the new flagship Lumia.
They also looked at how the glass transitions seamlessly into the body and how black the screen is. Not to mention the integration of the Nokia logo and the Microsoft keys.
In short, there is barely a square millimetre on your Nokia device that has not been considered, shaped and influenced by Nicola’s team. Again, it goes back to Nokia’s focus on materials.
Just a little colour… for now
Completely inherent in the materials are the colours. The colours are not applied or painted on afterwards.
For example, the yellow polycarbonate of a Nokia Lumia 920 is yellow all the way through and this starts right at the beginning of the manufacturing process.
Moreover, the colourful Lumia range has become one of Nokia’s defining and most beloved characteristics.
So, colour is a massive topic and we will be exploring this further in the second part of our interview with Nicola. Keep your eyes peeled on Conversations.