It’s been a big week for phones with skinny bezels. The iPhone X was finally revealed, of course, featuring a design where almost the entire front of the phone is taken up by the screen. And one day earlier, Xiaomi announced the Mi Mix 2, its followup to the phone that was the first to put this kind of design in the spotlight last year.
I’ve been wondering, though. If this is the logical endpoint of phone design — where almost all you can see is the screen — how are companies and designers going to be able to differentiate their products in the future? How will they stand out?
Following the Mi Mix 2 launch event in Beijing this week, I put this question to legendary industrial designer and architect Philippe Starck, who worked with Xiaomi on both of the Mi Mix phones. Starck’s expansive resume includes projects as diverse as a controversial lemon squeezer, an iconic yet bizarre beer hall in Tokyo, and a yacht commissioned by Steve Jobs.
As it happened, Starck shared my concerns, also offering thoughts on what constitutes “honest” phone design and how Xiaomi’s ability to compete on price is a design element in itself.
It’s a real subject. All the intelligent parts of human production go with the strategy of dematerialization — less and less and less materiality, more and more and more intelligence. The computer was a very good example, and now the telephone is a fantastic example. That’s because in a telephone, only the image and the sound is important. And yes, we work to have less and less and less and less. We don’t have solutions today to make a difference just to make a difference. If we make a difference just to make a difference, that will be more. [That] which is more is less, now.
That’s why we are really, with the telephone, in front of the end of dematerialisation. That means we go directly to bionics. Bionics is when the service — telephone, computer, anything — goes in your body. And in this case, there is no more design. The designer is your coach, is your dietician, but there is no more. For all intelligent human production, the designer will be dead very very very fast.
That’s why today, the duty of an honest designer like me, with an honest company like Xiaomi, is to continue to make less and less until that will not be possible. [So] there is no answer today. We don’t need to make a difference. In Xiaomi products, final differences stay inside. The quality, the price — the price is less and less and less. That’s why it’s a difference — when you see that it’s half of the competitor, it’s a huge difference.
Starck later returned to the topic when asked what the attraction and challenges of working with Xiaomi were.
I think the best investment in everything, and especially in the future, is honesty. You know, when you listen to [Xiaomi CEO] Lei Jun during the show, you realize how everything is clear. It’s honest. There is no lie. The company who lies will die. And also, there is an incredible amount of intelligence in this company.
The biggest challenge for the next product is, as we said before, the end of dematerialization. Today with the Mix 2 we give the most possible with the least possible. That’s why we have to accept that design like we thought of before is disappearing.
Now the difference will be just what is the profit for us, what is the best service, what is the best price, what is the most intelligence. That is design now. That’s why a designer like me now, in Xiaomi, speaks more about philosophy and vision than design. Times are changing fast, but Xiaomi makes time change even faster.
Finally, despite the potential challenges to his profession, Starck was unequivocal on whether this was the right path to pursue.
There is no choice! *laughs* Nobody proposed it, because it’s just the right thing to do. You don’t need to speak about evidence, you don’t propose evidence, everybody knows around our table that the main goal is the full-size screen. There’s no question.