The future rarely stops hurtling forward long enough to be seen, but the jury found a true where-we-are-heading artifact in the Treo 600, by Design Partners. The fullest integration to date of voice, mail, data, and image-transferring functions—in a compact, ergonomic package—the device leaps beyond anything in its category. No wonder that late last year consumer electronics connoisseurs were dubbing it “this year’s iPod.”
The Treo 600 packs a 144 MHz Palm OS 5 organizer, a full QWERTY keyboard, a five-way navigation pad, a 160×160-pixel vivid color screen, a 640×480-pixel camera, and 32 MB of RAM into an instrument whose profile is not much larger than a conventional mobile phone’s. It has become a badge of identity among the flitterati, a totem of convergence that fits comfortably in the hand.
“It’s the first smart-phone that works, and works well,” pronounced Rojas, who reflexively thumbed away at his own 600 during lulls in the judging. “There’s never been a phone with this form-factor—it’s designed to look smaller than it is.” Jurors praised the designers for crafting a keyboard whose buttons feel larger than they are, thanks to innovative shaping and placement. Patton, though, longed for a truly larger keyboard, and Plat proposed that the Treo represented a triumph of sheer technological capability rather than design. “To me, it’s an object you need, rather than one you want,” he said. “It’s not desirable as an object in itself.”
Rojas mounted a vigorous defense. “In terms of where smart-phones and technology are going, people will look at the Treo as a landmark in cell-phone design. Like the Mac, they’ll see it as the turning point.”
Design Partners is a 20-person industrial design consultancy based just outside Dublin. In addition to designing handheld products for such clients as Logitech, Terraillon, and Cmapingaz, the firm’s multidisciplinary team is working on a number of medical-device projects for Ireland’s healthcare industry.
Q+A with Cathal Loughnane
How did Design Partners land this job?
This was Handspring’s second-generation phone and they wanted to get a European voice. We pitched for the business against other international design firms and, in the first concept stage, we were competitive with one other team. They chose Design Partners for our track record designing handheld devices for clients such as Logitech-and we certainly had the hunger to do the project.
Does the Treo’s design take any cues from your past work?
Yes and no. What makes Design Partners stand out is that we value tactile response very highly and have a hands-on approach to developing complex and subtle surfaces. What made the Treo 600 project different was that Handspring passionately believed that industrial design solutions should directly reflect performance criteria and that each element must work seamlessly with the technology. For us, this meant every design decision had a functional logic, and I think we created a tightly controlled aesthetic that is mature and authoritative. It’s quite different from the direction other brands are taking.
How does the design balance phone and PDA functions?
To be honest, we started out trying to define a completely new kind of product that did not emphasize telephony so much. Remember, we were working for the inventors of the PDA! But after a lot of research by Handspring, Treo 600 evolved into a product that was deliberately familiar to regular phone users. People love to talk.
Could you describe the process by which you arrived at the Treo’s ‘pillow’ form?
After a number of distinct design themes in the concept stage, we chose “Pillow,” with its pointed corners and soft inflated back. The form is influenced by traditional pocketable items, such as hip flasks or cigarette cases. Maintaining this soft form was a major challenge as the project progressed and space for componentry was at a premium. We were working around a very tight package, and growing the size of the phone in any direction to add some curvature was an absolute no. When you look carefully, you’ll see that Treo 600 has an almost imperceptible waisting when viewed from the front, giving the product a slim look with broad shoulders. Without this, the phone would look blocky and heavy. The contouring of the side panels enhances the slimming effect and makes a rectangular form soft and comfortable.
Can these lessons about product sculpting and detailing be used again elsewhere?
I feel Treo 600 defines the category of smart-phones, and could also provide a strong foundation for many other handheld devices.
Palm One Inc. (formerly Handspring), Milpitas, CA: David Hoenig, lead designer; Phil Hobson, Mike Yurochko, and Peter Skillman, product designers; Greg Shirai, product marketing; Rob Haitani, user interface design
Design Partners, Bray, Ireland: Cathal Loughnane, Peter Sheehan
In-mold decoration, special paint and surface finishes
Corel Draw, ProEngineer