The devil wears a Prada phone

As cell phones increasingly wed tech and fashion, designers from both worlds chime in about which devices make their best- and worst-dressed lists. Photos: Phone design hits and misses

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
5 min read
The devil wears a Prada phone Like trucker caps and formal shorts, cell phone styles are equally subject to the ever-changing whims of the couture set.

Just when many are finally comfortable enough with a trend to add it to their repertoire, something fresher and hipper supplants it: though it's been the most popular phone in the U.S. for almost two years, by summer the Motorola Razr could be a yawner for friends who've moved on to the LG Shine or the ballyhooed Apple iPhone.

CNET News.com recently spoke with a panel of fashion and industrial designers to get their opinions regarding the best-designed phones on the market right now (or for the next few days, anyway). Our panelists included a former Project Runway contestant, a vice president for a handbag maker, and two well-respected product designers.

What, exactly, makes a phone well-designed? A good design principle is to ensure that features make an impact on the form of the phone, said Gregor Mittersinker, design director for Altitude, a design consulting firm in Boston. "Once you pack a lot of features onto a phone, it makes it harder and harder to make a good design impact," he said.

Cell phone fashion

Translation: less is more. Phones with fun extras, like cameras, QWERTY keyboards or music players can "tend to look more generic." The key, he said, is in "minimizing the features and having that control over the details."

But what makes a phone fashionable? It should be "simple, sleek and small," said Marcello Belasco, vice president of product development for handbag maker The Sak.

Handsets are certainly appealing to the couture world. LG has partnered with Prada for its latest phone, Motorola minted a Dolce & Gabbana-edition Razr last year, Samsung tried a Versace handset, Juicy Couture put its pink signature on a T-Mobile Sidekick II, and designer Diane von Furstenberg lent her name to the Sidekick 3.

But can a phone really serve the two masters of function and fashion? "There's a lot of eye candy out there, but now, what do (users) want to do with the phone?" asked John Youger, senior strategist for the industrial design firm Fitch. Apple is one of the few companies designing with this in mind, he said. The iPod maker just recently made its fanfare-filled foray into the cell phone industry with the iPhone, expected to hit stores in June.

So without further ado, here are the favorites and least favorites of our panel:

John Youger, senior strategist for Fitch: LG and Samsung "are two companies that have really grown a lot in the cell phone industry. Motorola has pushed boundaries as far as thinness, getting a sexier look" to phones, he said. Youger says he loves LG's Chocolate and Nokia phones because both treat handsets "as a decorative expression that just happens to be a phone. I think it's very interesting because it removes itself from being a piece of technology and (becomes) an expression of who you are. The cell phone is sort of a miniature version of a car."

"Unless you're a doctor, and you need to be paged and found, there's no need to be clipping them on. (A phone) is not a belt. It's not a piece of jewelry."
--Nick Verreos, designer

Nick Verreos, L.A.-based designer and former contestant on Project Runway: The former reality TV star carries a gunmetal-gray Razr V3t, which is so skinny he lost it when it slipped out of his coat pocket during a New Year's celebration in New York last month, he said. The choices of colors and styles available for the Motorola phone are great, and the same goes for the colorful LG Chocolate, which comes in black, red, green and white flavors, he added. But his alternate phone of choice? He'd leave Verizon in a heartbeat to get his hands on a BlackBerry Pearl. Verreos' highest praise was reserved for, what else?--The iPhone, which he termed "out-of-control amazing."

Gregor Mittersinker, design director for Altitude: He's a big fan of LG's Chocolate--in particular the version sold on the European market--as well as the iPhone and LG's new Prada handset. The Pebl is "probably the best phone from Motorola from a purist, designer perspective," he added. Mittersinker said he appreciates the handset's integrated styling, the sliding hinge and the soft-touch material used on the exterior. "It's just a nice phone," he said.

Marcello Belasco, vice president of product development for The Sak: Formerly a Nokia devotee, Belasco says he switched to the Motorola Razr a few years ago after he perceived a shift in Nokia's overall design concept. The company "tried to put too much into one phone and made it too clunky," he said, referring to the digital camera features contained in several models. "The Razr is the cleanest (phone) out there. It's simple, sleek, small. It does other stuff, but its main function is just a cell phone." But Belasco says he plans to upgrade soon: "I'm definitely going to buy the iPhone when it comes out. For sure. For one thing, I love Apple, their whole design."

Verreos: While he professes to love technology, Verreos says he detests how it can ruin a well-chosen outfit, especially in the case of the dreaded phone clip accessory. "Unless you're a doctor, and you need to be paged and found, there's no need to be clipping them on. (A phone) is not a belt. It's not a piece of jewelry," he said.

As far as phones go, Verreos is not a fan of the ruggedized Casio GzOne, which he sees as a definite fashion don't: "It's more Eddie Bauer, Seattle, granola-crunch type. Too Sporty Spice." Swarovski-crystal encrusted gadgets also violate his definition of chic. "It's too much--it's a little Paris Hilton two years ago."

Mittersinker: The design director says smart phones present the biggest challenge to clean, simple lines. "None of them look really great. The Motorola Q, to the Palm Treo, to Samsung's (BlackJack). It seems like there are so many features that even if you have the greatest design team in the world work on it, it still won't look good," he said.

Youger: The user experience in general has room for improvement, he said. "When you say 'Apple' to people, there's an understanding of what that interface might be. When you say 'Samsung,' I don't immediately picture what that interface might be," Youger said. The reason, he explained, is the lack of "shared experience" that carries over among all products in a particular brand. Besides Apple, Nokia has done well with that, he said.

Belasco: There's a reason he likes his Razr--phones any larger just don't fit into his lifestyle. "I don't like the BlackBerry. I just don't like the design of it," Belasco said. "I think it's too...I don't know. I'd rather carry my laptop than have a BlackBerry."