Joon-Suh Kim and Roland Heiler on their companies' partnership, and the first Huawei/Porsche Design product — the new Mate 9.
An unexpected arrival alongside the regular Huawei Mate 9, the curvy, ridiculously-specced Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9 is supposed to represent the peak of smartphone technology and design. With a curved screen, pitch-black anodized aluminum rear, a 4,000mAh battery, 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, this phone would turn heads even without a major luxury brand on the front. So it's a fitting inaugural phone for the Chinese manufacturer and its German design partner.
The Porsche Design Mate 9 is less of a traditional "phablet" than most phones in the Mate series. And at first glance, it's closer to many of Samsung's recent designs than anything Huawei has put out recently. (Despite the very prominent Porsche branding on both sides of this phone.)
To get a feel for the new device, and the partnership that led to its creation, we sat down with Roland Heiler, Chief Design Officer of Porsche Design, and Joon-Suh Kim, Chief Design Officer of Huawei's Consumer Business Group, shortly after the announcement in Munich, Germany.
The announcement of the Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9 on November 3 — alongside the larger, more affordable regular Mate 9 — seemed to come out of nowhere. But in fact, the two companies have been working together for more than three years.
"I don't even know anymore exactly how it happened," Roland Heiler tells us, "But we were looking for a partner at the time, and Huawei was in a mood of co-operation at the time because we had already heard they had contact with Leica — which is another fascinating element in this smartphone."
"One thing came to the other, and I guess it... it's just like, when you meet the right people, something positive comes about. And this is something we learned afterwards, by the way — the Huawei culture inside the company, coming right down from the top management but also from the founder, is about people working together, about people communicating and exchanging knowledge."
Of course, under this partnership, Huawei still manufactures the Porsche Design Mate 9 itself. Internally, it uses most of the same guts as the regular Mate 9 — though with a few key upgrades. The key difference is branding — but it's not as superficial as it may sound. For the design company, it's about translating what makes the Porsche Design philosophy into smartphone form.
You cannot do everything yourself. You have to bring the good elements of the available partners together, and then it works.
"Our classic combination is that we bring our design, our brand to the table, and work with a very capable partner. So for example, Porsche Design Sport is with Adidas. We just launched a few weeks ago, three new audio products with a company called KEF, a very very high-quality, well-known British brand. We've done two [sets of] headphones with them — in-ear, over-ear — and also a soundbar."
"That's a classical way of co-operating. This is what is really important. You cannot do everything yourself. You have to bring the good elements of the available partners together, and then it works."
"Internally at Huawei, we call this 'collective wisdom,'" says Joon-Suh Kim, Heiler's counterpart at the Chinese phone maker. "This is how we strategically work with partners to create even more [than] what we can do by ourselves. So [these are] good examples — the way we work with Leica, the way we work with Porsche Design. It was a fantastic journey for Huawei to develop and reach even further."
The phone wasn't suddenly just made in less than one year. It took a whole three-and-a-half year collaboration.
"I remember, actually, it was three and a half years ago, Porsche Design came to Huawei. It was quite a long time ago. Porsche Design was looking for a technology partner which can achieve their expectation. So this is how we started, and it took a long time actually. [The phone] wasn't suddenly just made in less than one year. It took a whole three-and-a-half year collaboration. And then finally we achieved it."
To give some context, that means Porsche Design was talking to Huawei while it was still launching phones in partnership with BlackBerry. The last Porsche Design BlackBerry, the P'9983 Graphite, was announced in March 2015. The revelation is not entirely surprising — the writing has been on the wall for the ill-fated Canadian manufacturer for some time.
So what took so long? Well, Huawei and Porsche Design didn't begin work on a co-branded phone immediately. "It's like when people meet, you know?" says Heiler, "It takes a while to get to know each other."
"[In that time] we could have developed two phones, actually," Kim adds, "We had a certain [amount of] time to get to know each other, and it took a little bit longer."
The two also took their time so as to come up with a product that was a real joint effort, not just one company's phone with another's logo. "We really tried to have a real collaboration," Huawei's design boss says.
"What was more important for both companies was to do it with the right product," adds Heiler, "and not do something that would've been possible quicker. And when this opportunity showed up on the horizon, that we could actually co-operate on a phone of this quality, of this performance, we really are proud to be at the top performance level of the smartphone world at this time. That's when we both felt: 'This is the way to do it, and we're going for it!'"
"Because both companies have their own values and don't want to sell themselves cheaply."
For Porsche Design, the very name of the company, and its brand strategy, means it's putting a lot on the line when it starts working with a new partner. It also has its own design sensibilities, drawn from decades of previous products. Nevertheless, the team comprised of both companies' designers quickly gelled, as Roland Heiler explains:
"We bring a big package to a co-operation like that, because we bring the name 'Design' in our DNA. I think this was probably something that was unusual, or not so typical a thing for Huawei. But we quickly found a very good way of collaborating, because the design teams — that's the beauty of letting the people who do the work actually get together and figure this out — they harmonized very well. And so it was no big discussion, you know, how this design process has to go."
"We had deadlines, obviously the deadlines are always linked to some kind of milestone you have to pass in the development cycle. And to be honest, we did not waste a lot of time on this thing. Because it was a pretty tough path in the end."
The phone itself is unlike any previous Huawei design. For starters, there's a subtle left-to-right curve to its AMOLED screen. That's mirrored by the angle of the brushed aluminum back. And unlike the regular Mate 9, the Porsche Design version uses a front-facing fingerprint scanner, which doubles as a home key, flanked by two other capacitive buttons.
It's also a good deal smaller, with the display measuring 5.5 inches diagonally.
"Size-wise, I think it's perfect." Heiler tells us. "This is actually a very nice size, because... it's also kind of unisex, which is nice. Because it's not a very strong, masculine statement only. The softness of this curvature is also appealing to female customers, I should think."
It's kind of unisex, which is nice. Because it's not a very strong, masculine statement only.
"What's really beautiful about this surface treatment is that you don't get the classical situation where you have a curved edge, and then there is a flat piece, which reflects light completely differently, and there's another curved edge.... There's actually a light reflection which is very silky and smooth across the entire surface."
The murdered-out, Darth-Vader-black anodization also plays into the history of Porsche Design, Heiler tells us.
In combination with this brushed black finish, I think we're right on the brand
"In combination with this brushed black finish, I think we're right on the brand with this surface treatment. So we're very happy with this. And you have a little bit of shine where the polished edges are. But not too much. Not too much bling-bling, because that wouldn't go with our brand. It adds that touch of value and craftsmanship to the product."
"Of course in the past we've also had completely black products. In fact, the first product that Porsche Design came out [with] in 1972 was completely black. It was a watch. And it was also the very first black watch ever. Because nobody would've thought of making a watch black because a watch was considered jewellry. But [founder Ferdinand] Porsche didn't think of a watch like that. He actually looked at it as a precision instrument."
"So black plays a certain role in our brand, I have to admit."
But although both the Porsche Design Mate 9 and its larger, more affordable, non-Porsche sibling both share a name — and a technical platform — Joon-Suh Kim says they're aimed at very different types of consumers.
"The targeting is definitely different. That's why the price is also very different. Because Porsche Design is mainly for the high-end, premium consumer, who really, really cares about true premium-ness and really high performance and high spec. But for the [regular] Huawei Mate 9 it's for people who are looking for that high-performance product with a pretty reasonable price."
"So the segment itself is totally different. And design aspiration is also different. Even though we have the same name — Mate 9 — that represents the performance. In terms of performance category, they are the same level. Most specs are very similar, but the highest specs we've put into the Porsche Design [Mate 9], because it's a very, very special edition."
"In a way, it's from the same series, but with a different character. The target audience is different."
The surface quality has to be perfect because it's so close to you. It's an unforgiving object, basically, when it comes to design flaws.
That "character" has to do with not just how the Porsche Design model looks, but also the shape and size, and how it feels, says Roland Heiler.
"When it comes to the design, Porsche Design has a desire to create something that is in line with the DNA, that is very clean, very simple. And I think the architecture of having a very symmetrical device, that has basically the same shape that it has on the front — it's only a material difference. Otherwise, it's a very clean design. I consider this a big difference between the two products."
But when so much of the object you're designing is dominated by a single sheet of capacitive glass, it can be hard to differentiate.
"As a designer, it's kind of challenging anyway to design a smartphone nowadays because there's so little surface to design," Heiler says, "because most of it is screen, and then there's the back side. And then you have an area where you can actually do a little bit of detailing. But if you compare it with a car, the body of a car is a complete new design every time. You have a [much] bigger playground."
"The amount of surface to design is reduced — to the max, I'd say. I think people are very sensitive to the way they look at a smartphone, because you are up close, you actually look at the detail and chamfers, the finish, the way things are chamfered or polished. The surface quality has to be perfect because it's so close to you. It's an unforgiving object, basically, when it comes to design flaws."
For all this talk of differentiation, the inevitable comparison is with Samsung's "edge" series phones, which have pioneered curved screens in handsets. But Joon-Suh Kim — himself a former Samsung designer — says Huawei's approach to curved displays is "fundamentally different" to the competition.
"It's not about function. It's all about design, and usability. This is the importance of the beauty of symmetry," he explains.
He's also unimpressed, it seems, by Samsung's "edge screen" UI, which adds shortcuts and other software features on the curved portion of the display. By contrast, the Mate 9's left-to-right curve is incredibly subtle, mirroring the curvature of the metal back. And there are no software gimmicks attached.
"To the normal consumer's eye, it looks similar. But what I can say [is] that our starting point for this technology and design is fundamentally different. [Previous curved-screen phones] wanted to have functionality on the left and right, even though [the] smartphone design becomes very, very thin. So you can imagine having certain functions on the left and right is not really that meaningful anymore."
"We made it a very gentle curvature to make sure when you hold it, it's very comfortable. Some products, when you flip them over, maybe feel even better. But our product, like Roland mentioned, is pure front and back, symmetrical."
"You have less chance to misoperate it" compared to phones with wider curves, Kim says.
You couldn't do a product like this with bad manufacturing because it wouldn't work.
"What we like about this in terms of design is that it reflects the simplicity that most of our products have," Heiler adds.
"It's a certain combination of simplicity yet super-high quality that then brings simple shapes to life. You couldn't do a product like this with bad manufacturing because it wouldn't work. This symmetrical approach — top to bottom, but also back to front — is very much in line with a lot of things we've done in the past. So this is carrying the DNA and the identity of our company on the outside. And on the inside, it [also] has a lot of values that we appreciate."
Both designers are mum on whether any future Porsche Design/Huawei phones are in the works, but after taking more than three years to get the first collaborative product out the door, it seems unlikely they'll part company anytime soon.
So where next?
"We're dreaming," Heiler says with a laugh. "We're dreaming at the moment!"
The Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9 will go on sale in December in Europe, priced €1395, ahead of a global launch in January 2017. (Huawei tells us it has no plans to launch the phone in the United States.)