As Nokia extends its portfolio through new mobile phones and a more affordable extension of its Lumia smartphone range, Marko Ahtisaari, the company’s head of design, talks about aspects of product-making and his “heads up” principle, where technology increases users’ interaction with their physical environment instead of curtailing it.

Marko Ahtisaari has been heading design at Nokia since 2009, since then overseeing the launch of products such the N9 and Nokia Lumia 920. At the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona recently, the company launched four new models — Nokia 105 (set to replace the entry-level Nokia 1280) and Nokia 301 mobile phones, and the Nokia Lumia 520 and Lumia 720 smartphones on the Windows Phone 8 platform — all touted to hit the market before Q2 this year. Responsible for the design of all Nokia products, Ahtisaari has previously been CEO and co-founder of the international travellers’ social network Doppir. Excerpts from an interview on the sidelines of MWC…

At the launch, there has been a lot of emphasis on a “unified design approach”, where an entry level Nokia 105 and the high-end Lumia 920 are infused with the same design codes. What have the challenges been here?

We have one design approach that expresses itself visually across the portfolio, and it makes sense right now, that we have a very branded approach to design that’s very recognisable. It’s a very noisy market out there, not only in respect of smartphones but also mobile phones, and cutting through requires that we stand for something visually too.

But the areas where our functionality would be better than the others are — photography, music, maps and location. The challenges as we move towards increasingly affordable price points is making sure that experience is good enough, responsive enough. Often, it has to do with the speed of that experience. But I think what we’ve done with the Lumia 520 is a good example; we can do the digital parts of computational photography even though the lenses, and the physical components are more affordable in the case of a 5-megapixel camera. So we can compensate digitally and with computation; and that’s one area where we continue to push; how we can do things with software and make the experience competitive.

In a highly competitive market, where the touch-and-feel of a product is a big USP, how important is visual design for Nokia, which, though long associated with sturdy, no-nonsense mobile phones, lost out eventually to more glossy competitors?

This factor is still a very important driver when it comes to choosing a phone, but I would say that even more important than our approach in design — and this might be a subtle distinction — is the way we work and the principles of product-making we believe in. That visual expression might change — it’ll still be tied to an identity and it will be for the whole portfolio — but right now the products still have very organic shapes, very reduced, there’s nothing unnecessary. So, I would say, visual design remains very, very important. In a sea of largely flat and grey products — white ones with a grey screen when the screen is off, and products with rounded corners with a little bit of fake metal around the end — we’re trying to do something that’s giving people more self-expression. It’s actually something that Nokia too did with mobile phones earlier as an innovator — swathes of colour choice, replaceable shells. So we’re just bringing, in a way, that same humanness.

Though, in addition to that, I think the degree to which you can make the experience personal to you in the software is also important, and in the case of our Lumia Windows phones it is much more. It’s very people-centric. Pinning to Start, for example, compresses taps from maybe 10, 15 or 20 to one. Plus, it can update with live information. So it’s making the phone personal over time. It’s also important. And in both those areas, we’re very competitive.

What, according to you, is good design?

Finnish architect Alvar Aalto had this wonderful phrase. He used to say the role of a good designer is to create a gentler structure to life. And our products fit into the structure of your life. That means to make better those things that people do many times a day. You reduce friction in those, you refine those. So that’s what, I think, great design is.

The other long-term goal that I have is to create technology that ensures people have their heads up again — the “heads-up” principle. In this respect, the Windows phone is the best example in not requiring that much attention. But smartphones today require way more attention than they need to in terms of user interfaces. They require you to check them, see them. Frankly, that’s the way to prevent us from being present for each other eye-to-eye in physical surroundings, or in a city from being present in you environment. And my goal — this is more like a 20-year-goal — is to design technology that doesn’t require so much attention. It would help ensure we are ‘heads up’ again; you need to use it only when it’s necessary, and you can get in and out as quickly as possible.

We’ve designed, in the past, products with notifications that quietly stay on the screen and don’t require you to turn it on. Simple things we have with NFC (near field communication) and wireless connectivity, like wireless charging. These are all simple things. We’re collapsing the actions, the chain of 12 or 15 things that people have to do.

You’ll see couples in restaurants, romantically ‘pinching’ and zooming. You can have two different views about it. One is, “Hey, that’s great. They’re using the phone, so they’re having a relationship with the brand.” We’re much more a people-connecting company, and I think a lot of this technology is still disconnecting people. It creates a lot of value and lots of things that we can do remotely, but I think ultimately even if people don’t ask for it — that kind of human interaction, and technology being there at the right time, unobtrusive but powerful when you want to use it — I think that’s deeply competitive.

To what extent have you been able to apply “heads up” to Nokia?

Some of it is so invisible if it’s successful. Sometimes great design just dissolves into behaviour. That’s the way Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa does it. He has this wonderful design for an umbrella holder against the wall; it’s just a slit in the floor, so you just hang your umbrella there. That’s also an example of good design — it’s completely dissolved into the environment, it’s not even a separate object, it’s not some tube you put the umbrella in.

It’s like how these “heads-up” interactions become, like, “Oh! Of course it’s that way.” I think the work on wireless charging is like that, the responsive user interface on the low-power mode on some of our smartphones, many of the things related NFC, so we use the physical environment rather than menus and pointers… those are examples today. Super-sensitive touch on the Lumia phones is improving heads up interaction, but you can’t point out “There was the heads-up moment!”

We’ll see more of it as we have more devices, and when I say ‘we’ I mean the world, not Nokia only. My goal is to design products that don’t require as much attention. I think it’s deeply human, and since it’s deeply human, people will recognise its value and, therefore, it’s deeply competitive. It’s not just saying this from an ethical point of view, that life would be better if people look each other in the eye. I’m saying if people would be more human, they would succeed, flourish better, and people would recognise this.

(The writer was in Barcelona at the invitation of Nokia.)