When BlackBerry set out to design the phones that would take the company into the next decade, it faced a big challenge. The flagship device of the new BlackBerry 10 platform needed to simultaneously satisfy what today's customers want in a smartphone while at the same time stay true to the essence of BlackBerry -- which, if the company's market over the last few years is any indication, customers didn't want.
The man tasked with redesigning BlackBerry phones was Todd Wood, the company's senior vice president of design. Leading industrial design at BlackBerry since 2006, Wood is a veteran of industrial design, previously doing design work for Nokia and, before that, Nortel. Mashable sat down with Wood this week while he was in town for the BlackBerry 10 launch.
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Wood speaks with the same thoughtfulness of other design leaders, such as Apple's Jony Ive, but with none of the showiness. He's been with BlackBerry (formerly Research In Motion) for long enough to see its fortunes rise and fall. As he describes the Z10, you feel that he's heard enough praise and criticism about BlackBerry's products that it all just bounces off.
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When I bring up the BlackBerry Storm -- the company's previous (failed) attempt to create a touchscreen phone -- Wood doesn't bristle or even acknowledge the disaster it was. He simply describes certain design elements that a similar to the BlackBerry Z10, BlackBerry's new flagship phone. And he makes them sound kind of cool.
"There's still the 'waterfall' that was pronounced on Storm -- these flowing surfaces," Wood says as he points to the top and bottom of the Z10, which are ever-so-slightly sloped. "We've brought that with the margins [on the Z10], but it's very subtle. There are some principles that we carry forward, but nothing's been cut and pasted."
As CEO Thorsten Heins described at the launch, BlackBerry faced a decision three years ago: adopt someone else's mobile OS or go it alone. It opted for the latter, acquiring QNX software in 2010 and adapting it to build first the PlayBook, then BlackBerry 10.
Completely switching mobile platforms was risky and extremely challenging, but it was also a huge design opportunity, says Wood.
"We were starting the platform from scratch. We wanted to build on the design DNA [BlackBerry] had, and we wanted to keep certain attributes -- the fit to face, fit to hand -- the general comfort of the device, the build quality of the device."
No Home Button
Key decisions about the device itself depended on how the software worked. There's no home button on the Z10, for example -- a user controls basic functions (like switching between apps) via gestures, such as swiping up from the edge of the screen.
Much of the design was influenced by the need for easy, one-handed operation.
"How can you design a system where you could multitask more elegantly?" Wood asks, rhetorically. "It's not unlike shuffling cards. And we started to realize you can really do that with one hand and one thumb.
"Almost every phone has a UI paradigm of 'You go home to go somewhere else.' Here you can flow from app to app."
Soft Touch Backside
The phone has a semi-rubberized back, a material that BlackBerry refers to as "soft touch." The company has used it before -- in the trim of the latest Bold smartphone, for example. But in the Z10, Wood's team added a perforated pattern.
"Soft touch is a special coating that we use," he explains. "It provides grip, and it's very silky. What we did was add some microtexture to it, which is something that you don't notice until you pick the phone up and run your hand across it. It's a nice subtlety."
If you've ever thought the physical buttons on Samsung's phones felt cheap, or the iPhone's too bland, you'll appreciate RIM's contoured buttons for volume and media playback. The volume buttons have a slight notch on one side, and the play/pause button has a small upraised piece -- all detectable by touch.
"We wanted to keep them really precise and clean," says Wood. "We sculpted the keys so it's always really apparent without looking, almost like braille, exactly where you are."
Wood also played a role in choosing the system font for BlackBerry 10, which is called Slate. Designed by Canadian Rod McDonald (who also designed the font for Maclean's, one of Canada's top national news magazines), BlackBerry chose Slate for its legibility, Wood says.
"Slate really works for screen and print, so we decided to adopt it. When you have such a high-res display, you get really accurate letterforms. When you have a really great font design, that improves productivity. You're not squinting, and letters are not misinterpreted."
Of course, Wood also led the team that designed the Q10, the BlackBerry 10 phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard, coming about a month after the Z10 debuts. Although the Q10 borrows more design DNA from the BlackBerry of old, BB10 afforded some big departures as well.
For starters, the Q10's keyboard is straight whereas most previous BlackBerry phone keyboards had a curve to them -- which even led to the company calling one of its product lines the Curve.
"That is a big change," Wood says of straightening out the keyboard for the Q10. "It was very logical, but also it signals 'This is different.' And there's no performance tradeoff with it being straight -- we've measured it."
Besides being straight, the keyboard is larger than the ones on previous BlackBerry phones.
"What allows us to get that extra size is we've replaced the home key, the back key and the send/end keys, since everything in BB10 is controlled by gestures and direct manipulation of the data. Without the curve, each key is the same size, and they're 3% larger."
The Red LED
No BlackBerry phone would be complete without the trademark -- and at times notorious -- blinking red LED that indicates a message is waiting. Wood says the attribute is hard-wired into BlackBerry design at this point and at no point did the company consider ditching it.
"That's probably the strongest, most iconic element of the DNA we carry forward," he says. "It's origins were 'Let's save on battery life,' and it continues today. For us, we call it the spark, or the splat. It's a hallmark of BlackBerry it makes some people excited, and it makes some people neurotic, but it's up to end users to manage that."
How do you like the design of BlackBerry's new phones? Let us know in the comments.
BONUS: BlackBerry Z10 Review
Lead image by Nina Frazier, Mashable
Images by Nina Frazier, Christina Warren and Pete Pachal, Mashable
This story originally published on Mashable here.