Scott Croyle is the vice-president of Design at HTC. He knows something about how phones should look. But taking over from Horace Luke - the man who brought the world the award-winning Legend and the Desire - in 2011, you might think that Croyle has had quite the drawing board to fill.
However, as a partner in San Francisco industrial design firm One & Co - acquired by HTC in 2008 - Croyle is no stranger to this business. He's had a hand in the look and feel of the original Amazon Kindle and the Microsoft Arc keyboard and mouse, as well as all of HTC phones since the HTC Diamond.
Pocket-lint caught up with Croyle in a one-to-one at the launch of the HTC One series - latest batch of phones from the Taiwanese mobile maker.
PL: You’ve said in the past that anyone should be able to recognise an HTC phone even if the label falls off, but some HTC phones look so alike that telling them apart can be a different problem. How do you square the circle and make the phones unmistakably HTC but still new and different?
SC: Each phone is approached differently. We start with the front view, so if you think of the One X, it’s the way that the white polycarbonate unibody comes round the front that sets it apart from others. The underlying theme with the One series is the very simple surface breaks that we have on the back that really maximise the precision and beauty of each material.
The One X has this piano-gloss sidewall – we’re taking what could be really normal and making it feel really awesome. That matte and gloss intersection creates a crisp line that feels terrific.
PL: A surface break is to do with the way the different elements like screen and body hold together, yes?
SC: Yes. Instead of making the join flat, it’s just broken slightly. The One S has a top line around the perimeter of the phone. You can see you have a beautifully machined piece of metal. There’s this little element that shines through.
PL: You’ve been criticised for producing just too many phones but this announcement seems like a slimmer portfolio.
SC: We’re working really hard not only to reduce the number of products that we do but to make sure they’re the right products to drive them globally. These phones deliver amazing cameras, authentic sound, a great experience. They all have that, hence the unified naming strategy.
PL: One of the things about Android is that it’s easy to make a cheap Android handset. And the fear is it’s a drive to the bottom.
SC: That’s not the case here, even with the most affordable One series phone. The One V still has an amazing camera, a unibody design, all the technical elements that let you deliver strong experiences. We have to find what’s authentic to us and the drive to the bottom doesn’t feel like what we’re about.
Obviously we’re a business, and that’s something when we design phones that we think about. We start with design and how we’re going to strike an emotional connection and how you float above the din when there’s a rush to the bottom.
PL: The One V manages to evoke the HTC Legend, but on a lower budget. As a designer how do you start out when you know there are going to be tight budget constraints?
SC: We try not to think about it too much. The Legend was a real juncture for us, delivering the iconic design and the unibody. Since then we’ve developed such expertise that we’re getting better and better at making those trade-offs and we can put it on the One V.
PL: Polycarbonate seemed to come along with the Nokia Lumia 800. What’s the value of it?
SC: There are two things. First, the mentality in the design community has changed. We think about plastic differently now. If you think about when plastic first came into mass industrialisation, designers came up with these crazy forms, because you could. And then, when there was 3D computer-aided design and injection moulding tools, then you got even crazier forms. Now it’s matured and there’s this thing that it’s not so much about the tools you use as how do you get the most out of your design? Well, playing with textures is one.
The precision-drilled holes in polycarbonate are a good example. Often you put a thin coat of paint, or a UV coat on and so you want to go back and machine the holes after that. Otherwise it just doesn’t look that premium if you drill first and then paint. You can see paint left in the holes.
The second thing is now you can do the processes more affordably, and you’re able to drive premium finishes which we couldn’t have 15 years ago. Now, they’re more affordable and more sophisticated. The processes for machining holes are so fast and so precise, it’s amazing. They’re leveraging other industries now. I mean, these holes are so tiny, can you imagine the drill bit that drills them – the wear and tear on that drill bit? People have really pushed the boundaries of what you can do.
It started with metal – the micro arc oxidation on the HTC One S is a case in point. It’s so matte black it really sucks up all the light. It’s really cool. Other people have done matte, but they look nothing like this process.
PL: But the One X is polycarbonate. Is that a better material at this size?
SC: It’s not like we go in saying “this is a big phone, we want to use plastic" but, when I think about where we’ve been, we always want to come up with a unique iconic gesture. And sometimes that means it doesn’t have to be metal. It can be plastic if we can figure out a way to do that in a really beautiful, premium way, we can create something unique. When you buy a pair of pants or shoes, they don’t have to be leather to be the most valuable shoe or belt. They can be something more off the wall.