BlackBerry: Good design wears in rather than wearing out

“I like restaurants with small menus because it shows they are good at those things. Too many choices mean they aren’t good for anything,” Todd Wood, Senior Vice President for Industrial Design at Research In Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry smartphones, tells Pocket-lint over Eggs Benedict in a bustling London restaurant.

We're here to talk design to the man responsible for the look and feel of all the BlackBerry handsets the company produces, whether it's the BlackBerry Bold 9900, or the collaboration with Porsche Design to create the recently announced Porsche Design P’9981 smartphone.

That idea of a small menu is one that has served RIM well in its product line up. In the UK, excluding the newly announced Porsche Design, the company has just four phones - the Torch, the Pearl, the Bold, and the Curve. It sells just one tablet, the BlackBerry Playbook. It’s a similar tactic to Apple who has just three phones - the iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and iPhone 3GS - but a vastly different approach to Samsung, LG, and HTC’s 67 on sale in the UK and US at the moment.

“Someone has to say that’s enough salt or pepper,” Wood continues with his culinary analogy, “but it's not just about saying 'no'.”

Wood, who relaxes by sailing barefoot on his teak-decked, 30ft, carbon fibre-made sailing boat on Lake Ontario, has been in the job for 5 years. Before that, he was at Nokia and responsible, amoung other things, for the creation of the stainless steal clad Nokia 8800.

“Products should wear in rather than wear out.”

It's a design ethos we can start to see in the latest BlackBerry phones on the market. The new Bold 9900 carries a stainless steel band around its edge, and a carbon fibre back plate which, no doubt, was inspired by Wood’s sailing boat.

“Five years ago, when I started, BlackBerry was all about pure utility. But people really like beautiful things,” admits the designer.

That beauty to Wood comes in cleanliness to the design, something that was perhaps instilled in him when he worked as an intern in the Netherlands, but how does one design a phone with a QWERTY keyboard that's both clean and beautiful?

“It’s difficult,” confesses Wood but not impossible. Instead the head of industrial design turned to the guitar and its frets for the Bold's inspiration. He doesn’t play music, but he is a big fan.

Looking at a guitar and the keyboard of a BlackBerry Bold you can see where the vision comes from The metal lines make the keys look like notes just ready to be played.

Materials are also important. There's clear love affair with carbon fibre with Wood mentioning the lightweight but strong substance a number of times in our interview including reference to a guitar maker called BlackBird that uses it for its instruments.

The material has even made it on to the back of the BlackBerry Bold 9900. It's what allows the battery casing to be so thin. However, as Wood tells us, he had to lose the carbon element to the material. It messes with signal reception, apparently.

So what other materials would Wood like to work with?

“What like unobtainium?” Wood says jokingly talking about the hard to find material from the film Avatar before adding:

“I haven’t done anything with titanium commercially yet.”

Like carbon fibre, titanium has strength but a lightness that makes it desirable to work with. It's also durable and clean, but Wood acknowledges that it's also very masculine. One material that we're unlikely to see officially used, however, is gold.

“I start hearing my professor telling me no.”

That’s not to say it's not possible. Gold-plated BlackBerry phones are very popular with some and Wood’s department has access to any materials he wants to build with. So, what is the man’s favourite material at the moment?

“It has to be stainless steel. I love the way it wears. It’s like good cutlery.”

Materials are, of course, just one element to a design explains Wood. The products are all designed as a family and then those ideas, that design ethos, is distilled into the range. Everything is taken into account, whether it's social parameters, like who the phone is for, economics, and everything in-between.

To create “that” perfect range, the design team head to a different location around the world to get inspiration each time. Not a a bad gig if you can get it. For the latest crop of BlackBerry OS 7 phones, it was Bellagio in Italy. 

Knowing that now, and looking at the Bold 9900 and the Curve 9360, it's easy to see the influence. The classic lines, the stylish approach, the Italian attention to detail are all there. The team clearly drank the wine, ate the food, and enjoyed the lake as their muse.

Giving us a glimpse at what is to come, Wood tells us where the latest design workshop for 2012s models was held. This time, rather than the classic scenery of Italy, the design workshop session was in Malmo, Sweden. The latest words for the experience? “Charming, whimsical, and fun” according to Wood suggesting a very different direction from the company.

This approach to design, where Wood runs his department like a school with him as the professor, is starting to pay-off he says. The company is beginning to take notice of industrial design.

“Our design voice is now heard and we are recognised within RIM,” Wood tells us suggesting that hasn’t always been the case.

“Text input is a huge part of communication. In a world of black slabs you have to be curvy like the Torch. Even if it is about getting things done, you can still do it with grace.”

BlackBerry smartphones have always been very distinct but design hasn’t always been their strong point. It's as if the latest batch has finally stepped it all up a gear.

“A few times with the Bold, the design was rejected and we had to go back and retool. Everyone is now pushing for us to do better. Hopefully one day one of my students will become the professor.”

It isn’t just those in the company that keep Wood pushing for better phones. It is ultimately BlackBerry’s customers and, in particular, the ones in the fashion industry.

“The best designers in the world are on our side,” Wood explains of the large amount of fashion, furniture and other design savvy users who clutch the company’s phones day in day out and make Wood try to do better at every turn.

“BlackBerry doesn’t need to make a fashion focused phone. We are one of the accessories already.”

That pushing, Wood hopes, will mean that he and his department will strive to create more “iconic products” that aren’t just black slabs. “You don’t design for the mass market.”

It is at this point, as we order more coffee, that we see a chink in the armour.

“We have had very little competition in the last 10 years. That has changed. The products are a reflection of the company.”

Hardware isn’t going to be enough to impress in today’s fast-paced market. That’s where the company’s software efforts come in. Wood’s job title might be SVP of industrial design, but he's also involved in managing the software elements of the company’s phones too. That main responsibilities there, though, fall to Dan Dodge, creator of RIM QNX operating system at Research In Motion, and The Astonishing Tribe (TAT) the software design agency it bought in 2010.

“Consumers just see it as all BlackBerry, rather than software and hardware being separate.”

It’s something the company is continuing to build on as it moves into its next chapter, BBX.

“Good response gives you the momentum to do better.”

So where does the inspiration come from and what would Wood be if he wasn’t designing phones? Like Scott Croyle, HTC’s head of design, Wood is most interested in furniture design.

“I like to go to the furniture fairs. They're very similar to consumer electronics. I think I would be a furniture designer. I wouldn’t be an architect.”

On the inspiration front, perhaps thanks to all those QWERTY keyboards, Wood is a fan of Ettore Sottsass who, among other things, designed the Olivetti Valentine typewriter in 1969 - the iPod of its day.

“He had a great sense of humour, a great sense of colour. He was a true master. His approach to design was to humanise technology. He would always have something to share.”

That something to share included suggesting that Dieter Rams and his 10 principals of good design were “so boring it was poetic”.

Dieter Rams was a designer of the same era, worked at Braun, and largely regarded by many, as where Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of industrial design at Apple gets his inspiration.

Eggs benedict finished, coffee and juice drunk, our interview starts coming to an end. We clock Wood checking the time. His watch is a limited edition ceramic made Paneria.

It isn’t a name you would probably have ever heard of unless you are into your watches, but instantly encapsulates the man in front of us. The watch is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, has to be manually wound every day and fits the “wear in rather than wear out mantra.”

The colour, black, reminds of a question that we forgot to ask.

"Why are phones predominantly black rather than white?" we ask as we fold our notepad away.

The answer surprises us, but we now understand why.

“White is always a problem with blue jeans,” explains Wood. “The organic dye clothing makers use today isn’t as sure fast as it use to be. That discolours the phone and causes manufacturers like us real headaches.”

A little more practical than we'd hoped for but certainly reassuring as we stuff our black phone into our pocket and head off.

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