HTC's new One Series phones have caught the fancy of many, thanks to their impressive specs and sleek looks.
I sat down with Daniel Hundt, creative director of One & Co, HTC's design consultancy, to learn how HTC goes about dreaming up a new generation of phone hardware to delight its fans.
The One Series phones are sleeker, lighter and more premium-looking than previous generations of devices created by the Taiwanese phone maker. Yet they are still recognisably HTC handsets.
"There's certainly an HTC DNA in here that we've been carrying on for years," Hundt tells me. "I think it would be fatal to not carry on what we've done... I'm really proud of the history of designs that we've put out. I think to start afresh would make no sense, but there's definitely elements that we introduce [in the One series] that are new to HTC."
What were HTC's design priorities for the One Series?
There are three priority catchwords, says Hundt: 'simplicity', 'crafted' and 'human'. "We don't want any technology getting between you and your content," he explains of the simplifying approach. "We want to create something that's of course beautiful but doesn't get in the way of you, your mobile world, your friends, your family."
Keeping the hardware unobtrusive doesn't mean it shouldn't also be well crafted -- which is where the second priority comes in.
"We really obsess about every little detail. Every little button click," says Hundt. "How does it feel? We have five, six, seven variations of how we want this button to click -- how tight do we want those? Those little lines that create the spin cut [on the camera's protective metal collar] -- how close do we want those to be together? We think way beyond what anybody could see... Into every button, every speaker detail goes a lot of exploration, a lot of heart and a lot of passion. We are obsessive."
The third attribute -- human -- is more about how the phone makes you feel when you use it, adds Hundt: "Does it create an emotional connection?
"'Human' is a little bit more of an abstract attribute... What we mean by human is that the phone at first looks natural. If you look at [the HTC One X and One S], if you see the side profile, how it's curved, it almost feels like a leaf or a feather just fell off a tree and landed on a surface," he continues.
"The curved side walls [on the One X] respond to you, they react to you looking at it -- and that makes it more human. Also, when you hold the phone up to your face, the side wall cradles the side of your head and it just looks kind of natural."
How big is the One & Co design studio?
There are around 20 designers from 10 nations, says Hundt: "We have people from all over the world sitting in our studio... People from Germany, Italy, England, Taiwan, Singapore... That's the strength of HTC, that's where East and West meet.
"You get a certain amount of Eastern culture, you get a great work ethic, very flexible, very quick. You have the American side of things that is very optimistic -- it's all about the story. And then you also have the European side that's maybe a little more thoughtful, not quite as optimistic, but which also brings a certain sensibility to the design process," he adds.
"It's really a melting pot of cultures and ideas that come together in our studio. That's what I love about it. It never gets boring when you have people from all over the world working together, collaborating."
How do you begin designing a new phone?
"We usually start from a blank," says Hundt. "Of course, the HTC DNA is deep-embedded in every designer we have, but we want to start from a blank, not look at what we've done last year, not look at the layouts [components] that we had last year, start fresh. Dream big, dream bold and don't worry right now if something's doable or not -- come up with an idea, with a vision and see if we can make it happen.
"This work starts with a sketch. We usually start with white foam models, where designers take foam into their hands, they shave it off, carve it off. This is something very important, something that brings us to our roots as designers, to really feel how a surface works, how a surface transition works, how it feels in your hands. You get an idea of how a design works or not even before you go to a computer and start putting it into a CAD program. And from there, once people get excited, once Peter [Chou, HTC CEO] gets excited about one of our designs, things happen pretty quickly and we start this process of back-and-forth with the engineering team."
How many designers work on one phone?
"In the final execution there are probably about three or four people involved on the hardware design side. [But] we have so many designers who have inputted, it's really hard to say what is this designer's work, what is that designer's work... It's really a great type of team work that happens at HTC. We really try not to create a competitive environment but a collaborative environment where people share their ideas, share their inspiration," says Hundt.
"We never say 'I', we always say 'we'... We have a design language programme at the beginning of the year where the whole team comes together to create the vision for the year to come."
How many iterations does a phone typically go through before the final design is agreed upon?
"I could fill this whole room with mock-ups for either [the One X or the One S]," he says. "Prints, cosmetic mock-ups, we have a 3D printer in our studio... Not thousands, closer to hundreds.
"Every time we iterate, we have an idea we kick off to the engineering team, they come back with feedback, we change the design, print it out, look at it, go back to the engineering team, ask 'can we try this?' They come back -- it goes on for a year."
At HTC, which comes first: design or engineering?
"It goes hand in hand," explains Hundt. "There's definitely a negotiation going on but we also trust our engineering team -- we don't work against them, they don't work against us, we work together to create a great product.
"The best manifestation, or the most obvious one [of the collaboration between HTC designers and engineers], was the HTC Incredible S," he adds. "It was designed from the inside out to really highlight HTC's engineering strength and power. It was as much designed by the engineers as by us because of the components... It was a great collaboration. It also bonded the engineering and design teams, where everyone took pride in what was going on."
How do you know when a design is finished?
"We usually work to the deadlines," he says. "There's a certain launch date that we have to fit. Designers can be a little bit obsessive. We always want to change things... [Without a deadline] it would never be finished."
Who gets final sign-off of an HTC phone design?
"Peter [Chou] is very involved in every programme," reveals Hundt. "He knows what's going on throughout the course of a project -- he not only reviews it at the end or at certain milestones, he really knows what's going on, is really interested in each single step of the design process."
How do you think smart phone design will evolve?
"I think we're going to evolve in terms of simplicity -- I want nothing in between me and my content... I want nothing to distract me from my content. However, what's going to happen [in the future] is a hard thing to talk about."