The New Shape of Chocolate: Mobile

“Down the road graphics” is a phrase that automobile designers use. The phrase refers to a body shape that “reads” to the observer’s eye as clearly as a logo on a page, a line of roof, or a fender that says “Ford” as boldly as an oval logo or Chevrolet as indisputably as its bowtie. Other product designers aspire to the clarity of graphic designers: they want their coffeemakers or computers to become “typeforms,” shapes that stand for their categories, as cartoons or logos, like airport graphics. The shape of the Apple iPod, for instance, is almost identical to its face. It reads in the hand like a 2-D design.

Now, designers of the most ubiquitous personal device are showing the same aspiration. Cellphone makers want “in the hand graphics,” shapes that show personality and separate them from generic phones. Instead of numbers—Motorola 88 or Nokia 8800—phone companies are marketing, as well as shaping, phones as electronic characters.

From the gilded and jeweled phones of Nokia’s luxury “Vertu” line to the simple models every bus boy now seems to have, graphics are helping lend model distinction and brand character as distinct as corny ring tones. Vertu not only offers gold and diamonds, but special editions, such as a limited edition with tire tread like Shell dedicated to famous auto racing tracks.

Auditory styling is sure to follow. “Earcons” like Motorola’s “moto” match icons in such vowel-challenged brand names as “Razr,” “Pebl,” and “Slvr.”

The earcon idea is not new: think of the NBC or BBC chimes, or AOL or Windows start-up tones. But there is something new in Nokia hiring the Finnish avant-garde musician Ryuichi Sakamoto to compose ring tones for the 8800 series.

Not long ago, Verizon launched a campaign for the LG “Chocolate” model, which resembles a candy bar and is shown wrapped in metal foil. “It’s totally sweet,” is the slogan, and the technical pitch is a wheel-like interface similar to that on an iPod. “Chocolate” is a sweeter name, too, than LG VX8500.

The same week Verizon rolled out the Chocolate, this word came from Iraq, via the New York Times, about customers who were doing the naming work for companies on their own. August 7: “The cool kids in Iraq all want an Apache, the cellphone they’ve named after an American military helicopter. Next on the scale of hipness comes a Humvee, followed by the Afendi, a Turkish word for dapper, and a sturdy, rounded Nokia known as the Allawi—a reference to the stocky former prime minister, Ayad Allawi.”

Most Americans are at least vaguely aware that European and Asian models are smaller and more stylish than most of the ones sold for the crude American network. Mark Newson’s design, the Talby, available in Japan only, is a rumor of what we wish we had here; consider similar objects of envy such as the Penck or Neon.

But there are not really many proven basic shapes for phones: the candy bar is one; the clam shell, another. It is as old as the Motorola StarTAK, once, say a dozen years ago, the only phone to own. Today we have the slider form, while more novel arrangements fail to catch on. Despite many design awards and its inclusion the goody bag of freebies for the Academy Awards in 2002, the Motorola V70 never quite took off. It is easy enough to lay on graphics, as easy as new screen images or ringtones. So we get the limited-edition Versace Versus or Dolce & Gabbana models.

More and more phones are seeking radically different, eye-catching shapes. The Serene, an expensive, Europe-only model offered jointly by Samsung and Bang & Olafsen opens up like a woman’s cosmetic compact to reveal a wheel-like control. David Lewis, the venerable B&O designer, devised turn-and-push wheel controls years ago, and deployed them in B&O desktop phones and such stereo units as the current BeoSound 3. Simply decorating a basic shape no longer seems enough.

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”