Was Fabula Peak Smartphone Design? (Video)

Nokia N9's design is timeless
Nokia N9’s design is timeless

Here is something you didn’t know about me, I’m an architect! Well, kind of. I graduated from architecture college but never practiced it. But something I truly am passionate about is design, and so many purchasing decisions I make come from a design-first approach.

Which is a big reason I ended up being a Nokia fan in the first place. Even though I liked Nokia products in the past, it was only around 2010 that I became a fan. And Fabula, which was introduced with the Nokia N9 and later adopted by Lumia, is peak design in my opinion. But why is that the case? What makes Fabula design language so special? And even outside of phones, why is it that we still find some classic cars so appealing, while most modern designs age so badly?

To find out, I have to go back to the basics. What makes a design good?

Renowned industrial designer Deiter Rams talks about 10 key principles of good design and I break down how the principles apply to the Nokia N9 and the fabula design language in the video.

Good Design:

  1. Is innovative.
  2. Makes a product useful.
  3. Is aesthetic.
  4. Makes a product understandable.
  5. Is unobtrusive.
  6. Is honest.
  7. Is long-lasting.
  8. Is thorough down to the last detail.
  9. Is environmentally friendly.
  10. Involves as little design as possible.
Look at how the screen melts with the rest of the body

Want to know why the N9’s design still looks stunning even today? Because it’s a complex shape that has been made to look incredibly simple. All the lines you see are clear and cohesive. There are almost 0 unnecessary design elements here, overcomplicated lines that break the flow of the design, or useless design elements that are only added for differentiation. This phone will still look good 50 years from now, for the same reasons a classic Jaguar or a Merc sportscar still looks good today. Compare that to what BMW is currently doing with their new designs, or what some phone brands do with tacky text and weird shapes on gaming phones. Those won’t age well.

The N9's design paved the way for the Lumia lineup
The N9’s design paved the way for the Lumia lineup

Modern Day Issues

Modern-day smartphones, specifically midrange and budget-friendly devices all look pretty similar. In fact, so many of them are almost indistinguishable without a logo. This is because most OEMs rely on ODM partners which have standardized design elements. This helps OEMs cut down a lot of expenses that would have been spent in the manufacturing and testing process. Creating a truly unique mold has become almost exclusive to high-end devices, and that cost is usually transferred directly to the consumer. It’s one of many reasons flagships are around 2 to 3 times more expensive, without having 2 or 3 times better components.

The sad reality is, as long as the emphasis within the tech community is on spec stuffing, which is then reflected in how products are assessed and perceived by consumers, there is little reason for brands to invest in other areas including design or actual quality. To oversimplify, phones have become boring because the way they are assessed is boring and one-dimensional. Look no further than what happened with LG, or what is happening with Microsoft’s Duo 2 or Sony flagships as a good example of this, all assessed by the metrics some of their competitors excel in, while their own merits are downplayed or undermined.

I hope this video also explains why I was personally very disappointed when I saw the Nokia G400’s renders. It’s so un-Nokia, and as someone whos super passionate about design, it left me with a very bitter taste in my mouth. Anyway, now I would like to hear from you. Which phone design do you think aligns with these values the most? Would you like to see Nokia Mobile bring back Fabula as unrealistic as that is? Let’s discuss in the comments.