Digital, Product Design Blog

Superglue, Pizza and the Orbitel 901

Early photo of Product Design leader Nick at work

The Evolution of Product Design

Having just helped to deliver a new product identity for Swedish mobile brand Doro, then reading Simon Rockman’s Linkedin post about the Orbitel 901 GSM mobile phone, has allowed me to reflect and reminisce on my involvement in both projects and on a few of the ways that the role of the product designer has evolved over the last 30 years.


Primitive tools

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To place this in context, I began ‘design consultancy’ life with a parallel motion drawing board, adjustable set square and Rotring ink pens. Given that my first project was to design the rear housing of a cathode-ray TV and to hand draw hundreds of ventilation slots, no wonder the arrival soon after of 2 early model Apple Macs was an incredibly exciting event in our studio.

My recollections of the 901 project are a little sketchy, given how long ago it took place (1989/91) but a Google search has uncovered some surprising discoveries that I was unaware of until now. The Orbitel 901 claims to hold a number of firsts;

• 1st mobile phone designed, engineered and manufactured entirely in the UK.

• 1st GSM mobile in the world to receive official type approval.

• 1st mobile phone to receive a commercial text message (1992).



Researching the Uninvented

Today we routinely interview and observe end-users to quickly learn as much as we can about behaviours and needs, and to identify any frustrations. These insights, along with a number of activities such as competitor product analysis, trend studies and role-play all contribute towards creating an inspirational starting point for ideation.

Some of these activities would have been extremely difficult to carry out in 1989. Competitor products that we could scrutinise were few and far between. There were no High Street or online phone stores and nowhere I could have gone to interview or observe mobile phone users. It’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist, but a typical journey on the London underground back then saw commuters listening to a Sony Walkman whilst flicking through their Filofax diary.

Phone calls were things you did from home or the office. You had to find a working public payphone to make calls when out and about. No wonder then that the launch of the relatively lightweight and compact Motorola MicroTAC made headlines across the world. It did, however, cost the U.S. $3,000. The equivalent of around $6,000 today and roughly 4 times the cost of today’s range-topping iPhone.

Orbitel 901 was a hugely exciting project for this young (and green) designer to have been involved with but none of us at that time could have anticipated just how significant and ubiquitous these devices would become. Attending events like Mobile World Congress and hearing that mobile now connects over two-thirds of the world’s population helps you to appreciate the impact they’ve had.


Sticky Fingers

Recalling the concept phase, we had a very well-equipped workshop and would have used early 2D sketches and drawings to develop our ideas using card, blue foam and “chemical wood.” CAD and 3D printing ensure that today’s designer needs no longer run the gauntlet of accidentally supergluing their fingers together.

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Creating end of phase presentations was always incredibly time-consuming and the cut-off time for when you had to stop designing to pull everything together took place much earlier. Once you had created your 2D linework (lots of hand-drawn views; perspective, plan, elevations), they were ready to be carefully rendered using a combination of magic markers and coloured pencils before adding a final garnish of white gouache highlights. Burnishing dry-transfer graphics onto your renderings provided the icing on the cake.

Mounting renderings onto self-adhesive foam board was often a scary, late-night, pizza fuelled prospect too. You took great care not to trap air bubbles and hairs from your sweater beneath your precious artworks.


Back to the Future

Recalling my own experiences over 35 years in professional practice, it’s clear that product design has continued to adapt and meet changing economic, social and environmental needs. Design research and our understanding of end-users was probably not as thorough or informed back then but equally our lives were perhaps a little less complicated?

The concepts we create today are sweated and refined to much greater levels. It’s so much quicker and easier to use CAD to iterate and try different things than it was when everything you produced was hand-drawn. Both designers and clients, therefore, benefit from being able to make more informed decisions.

Our experiences, major technological advances and of course the internet bring richer detail to each new product development but ultimately, we somehow still achieved a result in the end.