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Guys, in what will become a regular feature here on the blog to give you a little insight in what goes into the creation of Xperia smartphones from Sony, I recently sat down with two of our designers – Tom Waldner, Acting Head of Creative Product Design and David de Léon, Interaction Director Human Interface Design, to talk about personal inspirations, Sony design philosophy and the synergy between technology and design.


Please tell us a little about yourself – who are you, where you’ve been and where you’re going…

TW: I´m a Californian that moved to Sweden in 1984 to be with my Swedish girlfriend; we celebrated 30 years together in August this year.

I started designing and stuff when I was small boy; we were into water sports so when I was 7-8 years-old, one of the first things I made was a skimboard.  I remember getting my mom to take me to the building supply store in Canoga Park so I could get a scrap of plywood. Somehow, I think my older friend Phil helped me, I figured out how to make one. Using my dad´s electric jigsaw I cut it out, filed the edges smooth and painted my initials on it – a big red TW. I varnished it with a can of varnish my dad had laying around. When it was done, I showed it proudly to my dad and he said, “wow, did you make that yourself?”, “yepp!” “What is it?” “A skimboard, Dad!” “Did you use the electric saw?” “Oops!” I knew I was forbidden to use the saw without his oversight, but reassured him I had used the eye protection.  He was happy with that and said, “looks like you had fun making it, be careful using the tools and don’t kill yourself using that thing at the beach.”

This is more or less what my life and career has been about since then: “have fun making and designing stuff, be careful, and don’t kill yourself doing it.”

DdL: I am a person with an insatiable curiosity, who loves ideas, as well as being surprised by new thoughts and perspectives. I guess that’s why I love stand-up comedy, magic tricks, and design. All of them involve a set up and a punch line. In the case of design, the set up is a problem to be solved, and the punch line is a clever and elegant solution to that problem.

At Sony Mobile I work with user interface designers, helping them to excel at what they do. I provide direction, give design feedback and help them overcome design hurdles. Before helping others design, I worked variously with usability testing, user research, interaction design, concept development, and have led teams of usability specialists and interaction designers.

My background is cognitive science, psychology and philosophy. Once upon a time I wrote a PhD thesis on the cognitive roles of artifacts…

The future? I expect that I will continue to suck parts of the world into my brain, try to make sense of it, create new ideas and then midwife them into various kinds of tangible existence.

Where do you find inspiration?

TW: Actually everywhere – Curiosity.

My colleagues are always full of ideas, challenging my ideas, making me think hard and giving new impetus.

Reading all kinds of stuff- from science, human behavior, psychology, to humor and sci-fi.  Listening to programs like Hearing Voices, This American Life, Sci Fri from National Public Radio podcasts.

Being active in sports like kite surfing and stand-up paddling and using web forums to communicate with people around the globe with common interests, but varying demographic and background gives me alternative perspectives.

DdL: Did I mention comedy, magic, and design? My inspiration also comes from the thinking about minutiae of ordinary everyday human behaviour, and from compulsively analysing designed objects and figuring out how they work. I also get a big kick out of working and talking with bright and creative people. Any spare moment I have is usually spent reading obsessively and promiscuously about all manner of things.

What design philosophy does the Xperia NXT series follow?

TW: To bring it down to earth- what is it that you have in your hand?

A minimalistic approach that retains a lot of character through very simple attributes.

DdL: The user interface for the Xperia NXT series is grounded in something we call Dynamic Minimalism. The goal is to create applications that focus on the most important things that users want to do. Then we layer in more complex functionality, making sure that it doesn’t get in the way of the basics things that people want to do. An alternative name for this is “good interaction design”.

How has becoming Sony impacted design philosophy?

TW: In general we have moved towards keeping the message simple – and having one pure essential message in the product design.

DdL: What we are trying to do remains, I think, the same, and was never far away from what the rest of what Sony has been trying to do. The difference is not philosophical, but practical. Being fully part of Sony has made it easier to integrate Sony technologies and services. I think it has also opened up our eyes, and made us pay even more attention to the ecology of things, how various devices interact, and services.

The transparent element is a unique part of Xperia NXT series’ design language – to what extent is it expressive over functional?

TW: Looking at it from the perspective of the consumer journey: first impression, first touch and over the life of the product, we strived to have a high level of Iconic impression with any logos or labels and recognizable for a distance.

Then when the product is touched, it gives a quality and precision feeling.  Finally, during day-to-day use, over time, there is functionality provided through the design attributes that add purpose and joy of use.

DdL: I think Tom should answer this, but can’t resist pointing out that design is rarely just expressive or functional. It can be both. The transparent element makes a clear statement, but it also enables us to do some fun and useful things with illumination.

How closely do you work with UX/UI teams – how does their vision impact yours? Are there any challenges?

TW & DdL: Yes we work together, sharing our insights and visions – getting inspiration from each other. Back and forth, iterating and repeated sharing, we then tend to pull apart for a while and explore separately. Eventually the creation directions start to go in the same directions. It’s not a one-way influence, it goes both ways.

Sometimes the influence is during a discussion over lunch, waiting for a plane or at the coffee area…. there is great deal of coffee drank at Sony Mobile.

The actual creation work is done in parallel but not synced in time- it’s more like a line of diagonal waves that arrive at their destination at different time, not parallel waves all arriving at the same time. The main challenge is that the UI/HID teams and hardware design team have different time-to-market deliverables and time plans.

Digital tech continues to transform design; how do you see disciplines (product, interaction, process, industrial) compounding in the future?

TW: There are at least 2 aspects to this:

One is the tools that are used and the resulting design processes. These have changed radically in the last 10 years. They continue to be more accessible and are getting more powerful and easy to use- for all professionals and even for the general public user. This is leading to the democratization of the creative professions- the death of the specialist, and even the end user taking over the creative work.  This has happened in other arenas and will happen with product design/UI too- but there are many significant barriers in the way.

The second level is the way the products can be made and the way the products are used due to advances in digital technology and functionality. I agree that the design disciplines will have to work more closely or even be integrated in order to create the products that are possible in the future.

DdL: I think there is a huge, untapped potential here. The best of the digital and the best of the analog realms have yet to be merged. We are already seeing how digital technologies are enhancing and transforming physical things objects, and how physical things and interactions are shaping how we design and use technology. More than ever, the designer of the future will have to be a true renaissance person.

Who is your design hero and why?

TW: My design hero is Richard Lindahl, a relatively unknown Swedish designer (retired) that I worked with for 15 years; a quiet, unpretentious man that created some of Sweden’s iconic products without taking credit due.

DdL: For me the computing pioneer Douglas Engelbart stands out. What I find inspiring is his goal to empower people with computing tools, and the range and breadth of his work to realize that vision.

What advice would you give to young designers?

TW: “GET OUT!” Just kidding. I actually say to interns (with a wink of the eye), that “if you have not reconsidered your career choice at the end of this internship, then we have failed.” My point being – grow a tough skin. Know your weaknesses and build competences in those areas.  Have a skill to sell, it will get you in the door – everyone is a creative these days.

DdL: There are many different ways of being an effective designer. If you are a young designer, be careful when heeding the advice of old designers!

Having said that, what I think you should find where your talents and passions overlap. And, if you can, find something that only you can do. Something that is unique to you probably involves a mix of skills, passion and your unique personality and interests.

Less abstract advice, perhaps, would be to cultivate interests outside of design, to develop your empathy, and to experiment.

If you want to get good fast, get good at eliciting and making use of the feedback that you get.


Thanks to David and Tom for their time! 

Is there anyone/any discipline you’d be interested in getting to know a little better? Let us know in the comments below 🙂