Mobile phones - design history

Motrola Handie-Talkie from WWII

Designers of new products often look to existing forms. The very first handheld mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Handie-Talkie (right) used by the US Military in the Second World War. It is no co-incidence as Motorola made both products.

Motrolo Personal Phone, 1992; the design resembled a cordless land line phone of the era

When consumer mobile phones became a possibility in the 1990s, the earliest designs looked like products that the non-mobile users had already experienced. The inspiration for Motorola's Personal Phone was the look and feel of the cordless landline phone. Today we are much more used to mobiles and designs have incorporated the look and feel of a mobile phone into the more sophisticated cordless phone designs.

In the early days of mobile phones the pressure on manufacturers was to produce smaller and lighter phones. Style and fashion were far less important than size and features.

Nokia found that ease of use was just as important a consideration. Their designs followed the form follows function aesthetic to create phones based around the user. This approach saw Nokia establish itself as the world's leading cell phone maker.

As phones became cheaper and the market expanded, manufacturers identified three markets: the business user, the consumer wanting the cheapest phone and the gadget-hungry consumer eager for the latest technology.

The 80s - size weight and cost

In the 80s, the race was on to produce the smallest, lightest mobile phone. Each new model was smaller, lighter or boasted more features than its competitors. Older designs remained on the market, but their retail value fell.

Motorola kept in the race by making headline capturing phones such as the 9800X, the first flip phone, which significantly reduced the size of mobile phones. Japanese firms NEC and Sony also entered the race for the world's smallest phone.


Nokia 101

However, size was not everything. Probably the most significant step in the evolution of the mobile phone from the early 90s was the Nokia 101 from 1992.

The Nokia 101 was designed to be easy to use. It came from an era when people were used to larger mobile phones and Nokia wanted to retain the ease of use of a large phone in a smaller, but far from tiny, package. Designers paid attention to the layout of the keys, their feel, and the distance between the mouth and earpieces.

Nokia also gave this phone a large screen which could display useful information and worked on the menu system. It was by no means perfect, but certainly made the phone a lot easier to use than the competition.

For Nokia the 101 set the company on a path that was to see it eclipse Motorola, Ericsson and Japanese giants, NEC and Sony, to become the world's number one cell phone maker.

Nokia 1610 (consumer) and Nokia 2110 (business): Nokia designed different products for different segments but sharing a common base


Nokia's next major design was the 2110 from 1994 This was a business phone for the GSM network. It had a large display, larger than the 101 and supported text messaging, as well as a selection of ringtones, including the now famous Nokia tune. It continued and developed the menu system designed for the 101.

A key part to Nokia's strategy was to design broadly similar products for different markets and price bands. Consumers initially had to make do with older designs originally aimed at business users.

The 2110 was joined by the 1610 in 1996, which was a consumer phone based an a similar chassis. It did need to be cheaper, so had fewer features, but Nokia emphasised those features consumers would most valueThe new design had a battery boasting an impressive standby time of over 100 hours.

Two visions for the future of mobile phones: the Motorola StarTAC and the Nokia 8110

Two visions

Nokia designers continued to develop usability with the 8110. It had a curved shape and a sliding mouth piece designed to fit around the face. It was perfect example of form follows function and quickly eclipsed other designs when it was launched in 1996.

In the same year Motorola introduced a new miniature phone with an eye watering price-tag, the StarTAC. It may have been influenced by the communicators used in the 60s' Sci-fi serial, Star Trek. The StarTAC introduced a new form, the clamshell. It enjoyed a brief spell as a high status business accessory, but the price quickly fell.



Three steps to customisable fascias: an Ericsson GH388 with aftermarket walnut cover (c1995); an Ericsson GA628 with customisable front panel (1997); a Nokia 5110 from 1998 with customisable facsia

The next development in mobile phone design was a change from utility to fun. It grew out of the after market industry. In the mid 90s, a number of companies made replacement cases for mobile phones. Users could customise the look of their phone with a smart new caseThey catered for any taste from burr walnut to Hawaiian palm trees with a variety of colour combinations.

However, users had to carefully prise apart their phone and reassemble it, which would then invalidate the warranty.

Handset manufacturers had experimented with different coloured phones in the early 90s. The Swatch phone brought vibrant colours to a phone based on the Nokia 100, but it was a step too far when most people could not afford even the basic black mobile. Nokia marketed different coloured 101s and Ericsson introduced a consumer phone with different coloured front panels, the GA318 in 1996.

All these designs were fixed. The customer could not easily change the look of their phones. Ericsson was the first manufacturer to offer an officially customisable phone in 1997. Users could change the front panel of the GA628 themselves.

It was Nokia though that grabbed this market when they launched the Nokia 5110 in the following year. The 5110 was the world's first phone with interchangeable fascias. Users could change the whole of the front of the phone and the keypad as well.

The 5110 quickly eclipsed Ericsson's cautious attempt at customisation. The mobile phone was now a fashion accessory as well as a way to communicate Customisation was craze that lasted a few years.

Market segments

A selection of Nokia phones from 2000: 3310 (basic consumer), 8210 (premium consumer), 6210 (basic business), 8850 (premium business)

The 5110 established a new market segment. Whilst mobile users were still in the minority, a group of consumers, rather than business users, were able to buy something other than the most basic functional phone. The thirst for new designs was helped by the way people paid for mobiles. Contracts were the norm and often when contracts were renewed each year the customer got a new phone.

At the bottom end of the market, pre-paid or PAYG phones appeared in the same year as the Nokia 5110 in 1997. However, the phones offered were basic black or grey models heading quickly towards obsolescence.

Manufacturers catered for at least three distinct segments: business users, price conscientious consumers and consumers wanting the latest novelty. Nokia engineers and designers managed to understand this segmentisation completely. They invented new subdivisions within these markets, creating phones for fashionistas, for gadget addicts, for sporty users as well as people just looking for a basic mobile phone.

Nokia also subdivided the business market. They created basic, easy to use, business phones such as the 6210, which formed the platform for their first tri-band phone, the 6310i, as well as ultra chic business phones such as the aluminium cased 8850.

The illustration above shows some of Nokia's line up for 2000. From left to right, the ultra basic 3310, which became one of the world's best selling phones; the 8210, Nokia's smallest and lightest phone to date aimed at the fashionable user who wanted to be one step ahead of the pack; the basic business phone, the 6210, and the ultra chic business phone, the 8850 aimed at style conscientious executives.


In fulfilling the brief of creating an easy to use and functional product, Nokia designers succeeded in creating designs which in any other field would have become long lived. The 101, the 2110 and the 8110 could have defined the look of a mobile phone for a decade or more. However, the mobile market was ever changing and engineers, designers and marketers invented new ways to use the basic platform of a mobile phone.

In the early 2000s a craze for camera phones spread from Japan, making all phones without a camera obsolete and the first Apple iPhone from 2007 once again changed the way we used mobile phones.

Article by Steven Braggs, May 2012

Mobile phone history