“Someone finally made a phone for me.”
That was my first thought when I unwrapped the ocean depths Essential Phone, which is neither blue nor green, but a deep jewel tone.
It’s made out of ceramic, and around the edge is a shiny, copper-coloured titanium band. Altogether, it’s a colour combination that’s never been used on a smartphone before – and it’s quite possibly the best-looking phone I’ve ever seen.
The Essential Phone, which is the brainchild of Android creator Andy Rubin, launched in August 2017. The phone debuted at $US700, but its price was slashed by $US200 a few months later amid reports of poor sales. Last month, research firm IDG estimated that Essential had sold fewer than 90,000 phones, a fraction of what Apple and Samsung typically sell.
Still, there’s no denying that the Essential Phone is one of the more innovative smartphones to launch in recent years, and after using the device for a few weeks, I wanted to know how Essential’s designers came up with the design for its phone – and why they chose such unusual colour combinations.
I talked with Linda Jiang, Essential’s head of industrial design and the woman responsible for creating one of the most beautiful and unusual phones you can buy:
With the Essential Phone — technically called “PH-1” — Jiang and her team were starting from scratch.
“It was actually really liberating,” Jiang told Business Insider. “Rather than focusing on a previous design and evolving it, we just started from the inside out. Design is one thing, but what are the technologies we want to feature, and what are some ways we can really push the boundaries of what a smartphone can be?”
Jiang said she wanted the Essential Phone to be “function first,” meaning she didn’t want there to be a lot of flash, or distractions from the technology itself.
If you look closely, you’ll notice something different about the Essential Phone: it doesn’t have any logos or branding on the back.
The Essential Phone’s lack of logos is unusual compared to other high-end smartphones.
Apple slaps its logo right on the center of the phone. Samsung places two different logos on that back of its Galaxy phones. Google places a small but noticeable “G” on the back of the Pixel.
But Jiang says Essential eschewed branding from the beginning, and wanted “the design to be the brand.”
Instead of logos, Jiang says, Essential made design choices like adding magnetic connectors for accessories like Essential’s 360 camera. Essential’s goal was to make the phone look different enough from the back that people would know who made it.
Plus, Jiang says she thinks logos aren’t what’s best for consumers.
“Sometimes it’s not fair to the customers to have this giant brand slapped on the back of the phone,” Jiang said. “They’re basically just walking advertisements – ‘whether you like it or not, you’re doing to be advertising for us.'”
The front of the Essential Phone looks like an average smartphone — except for the notch.
The Essential Phone came out in August, which means its “notch” – that cut-out towards the top of the display that houses the front-facing camera – pre-dates the iPhone X.
Since then, Android makers have started adding the notch to their own designs, which Jiang says is “gratifying.”
“It was actually controversial within our own company; some people hated it, some people loved it,” Jiang said. “But we kind of felt like, we’re trying to do something that’s never been done before and it was actually a nice thing to know that it started such controversy.”
The Essential Phone is also different from other smartphones because it’s made of ceramic and titanium, rather than glass and aluminium. The materials ultimately played a role in the colours chosen as well.
“When we were looking at colours, we knew with ceramic, the material is so different from glass or plastic or metal that we really had to choose colours that represented the material in its best light,” Jiang said. “That’s why we didn’t go with the really bright colours or the really saturated colours.”
The phone was originally only supposed to come in just one or two colours — but that didn’t quite work out.
“They were just all so good that we had a really hard time deciding on the colours,” Jiang said. “We decided, you know what, it’s just as hard to make one colour, we might as well just try it in all of them.”
Once Essential started testing different colours, they decided to release some of them in limited editions.
The Essential Phone now comes in five colours total: black moon, pure white, ocean depths, stellar grey, and copper black. The latter three colours are limited releases, which means once they run out, Essential may not make more.
When Jiang started working with ceramic manufacturers, she realised it was going to be challenging to create the colours she wanted.
“We quickly realised that there’s a reason why ceramic, especially in the consumer electronics world, only comes in black and white,” Jiang said.
“We thought it was like mixing paint – if you use white ceramic powder and mix it with black ceramic powder, you’ll get a grey ceramic. That wasn’t the case at all.”
Creating new colours of ceramics is a lot like making pottery. You have to glaze the material, and the temperature, pressure, and time it’s in the oven can affect the outcome.
In fact, that process is so experimental that Essential had a hard time finding ceramics manufacturers that would work with them.
“When we started looking into making different colours, a lot of the powder manufacturers that we were going to were like, ‘Uh uh, we’re not doing that,'” Jiang said. “Eventually we were able to find companies that were like, ‘Let’s do this together.'”
Essential’s ocean depths colour — my personal favourite — was created at a plant in Japan. Jiang and a fellow designer travelled there to oversee the process, which took weeks.
In order to get the ocean depths colour just right, the plant made almost 40 iterations of it until Jiang was satisfied – but they only made one chip of each colour per day.
Creating the right colour was dependent on factors like the weather patterns, atmospheric pressure, and temperature.
And in case you’re wondering, Jiang does have a favourite Essential Phone: stellar grey.
“It’s way more muted and matte,” Jiang said.
Jiang describes the ocean depths Essential Phone as “very fashion-forward.”
“It’s not a very expected or traditional colour combination,” Jiang said. “A lot of other cell phone manufacturers, when they think, ‘Oh let’s make it fashion-forward,’ they make it all pink. That’s a really easy way out.”
Essential’s phones feel premium — seriously, they’re heavy — and Jiang says that’s on purpose. “We’re trying to go for all-out sophistication,” she said. “It’s a phone for an adult.”
“We really wanted to make something that feels more premium for those people, because usually in that market, you’re left with a bunch of Apple copycats and lookalikes,” Jiang said. “I wanted to break that paradigm.”
“You don’t have to look like Apple to be a premium device in the Android world. You just have to look sophisticated and clean and premium, and that’s something that will make it stand out.”
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