• Chris Sherwin

Telling Stories through Sustainable Products

This article was originally published at Seymourpowell on their blog

"I want our new phone to be a storytelling product.”

This was the exciting and daunting challenge laid down to us by Fairphone CEO Bas van Abel, just over a year ago, in the first briefing for their new ethical phone handset design.

We simultaneously whooped and gulped in equal measure. First of all, Fairphone is ‘building a movement for fairer electronics’ and it’s not everyday our clients come to us with such lofty sustainability ambitions. On top of that it’s not immediately obvious how a physical artefact can ‘tell stories’; no matter how much that new gadget/garment/car seems to scream ‘buy me,' products simply can’t talk! We knew we’d need to be at the top of our design game.

Over the following months, Fairphone kicked off the industrial design and engineering simultaneously, literally designing the phone from the inside out. Our own design work ran chiefly throughout the second half of 2014. Launched in June this year, you can check out the resulting Fairphone 2 for yourself, now designed to be longer lasting and repairable as well as ethically sourced, and which is due to start shipping in December.

Storytelling products

Telling sustainability stories is a fairly well-established communications and change strategy, usually the domain of the advertising and marketing industry. Our challenge was to embody Fairphone’s ethical and sustainability principles into the physical product itself, rather than through supporting communications. With Fairphone, the product is the communications device; aiming to present an inspiring yet practical vision of how electronics can be made better.

As a result, sustainability stories are built into products from the beginning, not bolted-on at the end, reducing the risk of greenwash. This also makes those stories more authentic and immediate as the sustainable solution can literally be in your hand.

The Story Behind the Fairphone 2 Design

All that said storytelling design still sounds mysterious, so we made the below video and supporting blog to explain how we went about the design process in detail. Here we talk about two important design steps:

It’s normal practice to explore analogous projects and this was no different: this ‘out-of-the-box’ Samsung concept project helps users to overcome the problems of setting up and using complex mobile phones, whilst the product and pack design guides you through the steps to assemble an SLR camera from a kit of parts from scratch. We also saw potential in a fascinating trend amongst hackers and makers in which printed wiring boards are now coloured and graphically designed to help DIYers assemble or dismantle them in projects. All this provided valuable stimulus for our design work.

Early on we also formed an experiential vision for the product, which we called the café story. In this, our FP2 user joins friends in a café or bar, where everyone ritually removes phones from pockets and places them on the table. However, rather than simply boasting about her new phone's technology — the larger wrap-around screen, the increased megapixel camera, its 4G capabilities — instead she starts disassembling her Fairphone to the amazement of her friends. As she removes the case, the battery, the screen, she tells the story behind the separate components: the minerals that power it, what happens to it after she’s finished with it. The conversation is twisted from gadgetry and novelty on to the ethics of global supply chains, consumerism and e-waste mountains — all triggered by the device itself. The café story captured the essence of a storytelling product for us.

What Does Your Product Say?

So what stories does the Fairphone 2 actually tell? The first area is around Fairphone’s objective that “users can easily open the device, remove the battery and explore the different 'layers' of the phone," increasing the users' sense of access and ownership. Users can simply remove the FP2 case to see inside, revealing the inner workings of their device, which has no back cover. Major components — the battery, camera, speaker, and receiver — are simply displayed as stand-alone units, presented with visual icons. Connectors are visible, screws are even graphically highlighted. A visual map, printed on the frame, highlights the conflict-free minerals’ country of origin, helping communicate the ethical sourcing story as you explore the phones inner workings. The product is a lesson in your phone’s life.

Fairphone also required the device to “be disassembled to allow owners to repair the most commonly broken parts,” chiefly the display, camera, speaker and receiver. Many people are intimidated or disinterested in maintaining products, and electronic devices are among the most inaccessible. A second area of Fairphone storytelling is around its repair and maintenance, which is designed for three skill levels: The first is simple disassembly by hand — the cover off, the battery out, the screen unlocked, all by hand. The second level is for more skilled DIYers to be able to unscrew and replace broken components, using simple tools. More fundamental, third-level repairs (circuit board, connector replacement) are done by specialists and professionals, requiring users to send back their phones.

Fairphone supports this with tutorials and spare parts sales to encourage users to have a deeper relationship with their phones and take more responsibility for keeping them in working condition.

Design Goes Full Circle

Many everyday products have a story to tell but much of this remains hidden from customers — which is both a risk and a missed opportunity. I also think the Fairphone 2 design is a window into the future of design in the 21st century: a process that marries the best of user-centred innovation with sustainable design.


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