Design Essay: Back to Basics

30 March 2017 | by Aidan Walsh

Design Essay: Back to Basics

1999 Ford 021C concept: the art of doing a lot with a little

Anyone who remembers the early ‘noughties’ will likely be familiar with the Nokia 3310 – this iconic mobile (cell) phone was originally launched back in 2000, and quickly became a must-have consumer item. Its (for the time) sleek, compact design with hidden antenna, interchangeable casings and intuitive controls set it apart from competitors, helping shift an estimated 126 million units over its lifecycle. Mobile technology however, waits for no-one, and as newer devices boasting colour screens, built-in cameras and internet access flooded onto the market Nokia's classic faded from view, seemingly consigned to the history books.

Until now that is. 2017 has brought about a surprising development in the novelty-crazed phone world, as ‘the world’s most reliable phone’ is making a comeback. A refreshed version of the 3310 is currently making waves in the industry, with its long battery life, sturdy construction and simple functionality throwing it into stark contrast with today’s brittle, power-sapping, techno-fest smartphones. Whilst nostalgia is clearly playing a part, perhaps the renewed interest in the 3310 also signals the beginning of something else – a backlash against overcomplexity, fragility and built-in obsolescence; a newfound appreciation for the simple, the unpretentious and the durable. A longing for a product which simply ‘does what it says on the tin’.

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Nokia's reinvented 3310 ought to inspire purer, simpler cars

How could this be relevant to car designers? Well, not unlike today’s phones, many of today’s cars have become extraordinarily complex and fragile, with even run-of-the-mill machines now packed with once-upmarket features, making them unnecessarily expensive to buy and maintain, not to mention confusing to operate. Of course, the huge advances made in safety and efficiency are to be applauded, but are 18-inch wheels (and the associated 35 profile tyres) really necessary on a family hatchback? Does every car need an ‘infotainment’ system? And whatever happened to bumpers? It seems we now have a lot of four-wheeled smartphones, but how about a four-wheeled 3310 – a truly attractive, ‘back-to-basics’ car?

So where can car designers find inspiration in Nokia’s icon? One obvious draw of the 3310 is that it doesn’t attempt to be a jack of all trades, only a master of one. Despite the addition of a camera to the revised version, it remains a straightforward telephone, not a wannabe supercomputer. Its lack of auxiliary functions means there’s less to drain the battery (which can last up to a month on a single charge) and makes for an intuitive user experience.

The back-to-basics car should be equally single-minded, with its interior prioritising essential driving controls above all else. Why bombard the driver with information, when a simple speedometer and fuel gauge are sufficient much of the time? Climate functions can be controlled by just three rotary switches, rather than a multitude of fiddly buttons and/or touch screen menus. Any additional features, such as satellite navigation, should be hidden away whilst not in use. Furthermore, a generous glass area would help visibility, thus negating the need for sensors or cameras. All would help focus the vehicle on its core task; transporting people and things with a minimum of fuss.

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Like the 3310, the Smart ForFour uses removable panels

Another obvious benefit of simplicity is less to go wrong, which brings us onto another Nokia strong point: durability. The 3310’s robustness is the stuff of legend (see the multiple 3310 internet memes) and that should be a must for any automotive equivalent. Ample body protection would be required, stylishly integrated of course. Easily removable and replaceable body panels, like those found on many Nokia handsets, would be a major bonus. Interior fabrics could also be removable, for ease of cleaning and replacement, which would also provide customisation opportunities – another 3310 selling point. Additionally, a move away from the gigantic wheels and ‘rubber band’ tyres so commonplace today would reduce the cringe factor of hitting a large pothole or protruding kerb, alongside the associated maintenance costs.

The 3310’s appeal is not purely functional however; the familiar ‘U’ shaped graphic and ellipsoid keys create a recognisable aesthetic, without screaming ‘look at me’. It also has a distinctive two-tone colour scheme, which the back-to-basics car could share. This has the potential to create interesting graphics, and could be achieved in a credible way through use of contrasting materials (perhaps rubber body protection and plastic removable panels).

Moreover, the 3310 has a quality ambience which helps lift it above lesser products, something not to be lost on its automotive equivalent. Despite its simplicity, the car should avoid looking or feeling ‘cheap’, especially in its interior. Plenty of authentic metal and high caliber plastics should be used, but nothing so extravagant as leather. Overt sporting or luxury pretensions are to be avoided, as is anything too ‘of the moment’ such as diamond-cut alloy wheels.

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C4 Cactus: arguably the closest to a roadgoing 3310

So, with all that in mind, do any current cars fit the bill? The Citroen C4 Cactus, with its ‘airbumps’, pared-down interior and downsized wheels, is probably the closest. The quirky Citroen certainly demonstrates a thoughtful and rational approach to modern motoring, although its wilfully divisive appearance means it’s unlikely to replicate the success of the 3310. Fiat’s Panda also has a back to basics feel, but gawky proportions limit its appeal; likewise Smart’s ForTwo and ForFour. BMW’s i3 has the necessary quality feel and straightforward controls, but is expensive and aesthetically fussy. Dacia – with its Sandero and Duster – has simplicity and accessibility nailed, but its products have too much of the ‘cheap and nasty’ feeling that the 3310 so skilfully avoids. Vehicles for developing markets, like the Tata Nano, can also be ruled out on this point.

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Ford could have done it 18 years ago with the 021C

Spreading the net a little wider, Ford’s beautifully minimalist 021C concept (designed by Marc Newson) might be the closest fit, if only it had made it into production. The 021C represents the very essence of a car, as the Nokia 3310 represents the essence of a phone. The car’s IP is a particular delight, with only two exquisite dials and a single row of buttons. Unfortunately, the 021C can hardly be classed as current – unveiled in 1999, it actually predates the original 3310 by a year. Despite this, however, its design has grown more attractive with age (to these eyes at least), and in many ways seems more relevant now than ever.

Perhaps Ford should give it a second look. Now might just be the time for a back-to-basics car to shine.