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Even before it shipped to a single user, the Light Phone was one of the most compelling riddles in tech.
The slender phone that only takes and receives calls has attracted a slew of attention and descriptors in the last year that simultaneously seemed to nail and slightly misunderstand its raison d’être.
It’s been called everything from the “anti-smartphone” to a “pro-human” phone, to just plain weird.
Its slight appearance and even more enigmatic function has challenged users in a way that the current tech vanguard isn’t exactly known for: Surfacing important philosophical questions, not just inventing a way for urbanites to lead slightly more convenient lives.
It’s a device that asks questions about necessity, freedom and relationships, and it does so with Ma-like concepts of non-use and “pauses” that are at once playful and dead serious.
Co-founder Joe Hollier gives us a deeper look at how a phone designed to be used as little as possible can impact everyday life—including work life.
I have to say I purchased a Light Phone recently and am a fan. In addition to being a beautiful device, the fact that it only makes and receives calls makes it seem almost whimsical. Which I mean as a compliment!
That said, the first time I took it on the road and left the smartphone behind, I actually felt the sensation of fear. And that was just for a trip down the street to the movie theater! Maybe it was fear of missing an important text or email, or maybe it was just the fear you get when you do something outside of your comfort zone. I imagine some other people felt the same way. Were you at all concerned that people would simply be too afraid to use it?
Well, hey, thanks again for giving it a shot! Ever since we first started testing the concept of leaving the smartphone behind two years ago with flip phones and a few other users, we have realized that there is a pretty extreme initial anxiety when you ‘go light’.
I actually find this to be quite powerful, especially for a product that is so simple, it makes the value or effect feel real. It’s quite an intense sensation. That experience is actually what we are selling with the Light Phone, it’s not about making calls as much as it is about encouraging us to step away even though it makes us uncomfortable.
Others have definitely described the experience, but ultimately we hear that the result of being light always ends on a high note. Maybe they felt bored or frustrated at some point, but they also feel acomplished in a way that no dopemine hit from a ‘like’ on Instagram could make you feel satisfied.
Users have described breakthroughs with themselves; that they felt the Light Phone helped give them the space to have that solitude conversation with themselves. There is a fear in designing the phone with such an ask of the user that of course they will simply not use the phone, like a book you might buy and never read. Some friends from the academic world have shared studies of how this is still actually helping someone grow and not a bad thing, although it doesn’t sit well with us.
Fortunately I think the fact that the experience of going light is so intense that it becomes a kind of wake up call makes me want to continue to go light. I’ve enjoyed the work and thoughts I’m able to get to when light that I’ve almost become addicted to going light, trying to find ways to make it possible to give myself those chunks of time that might otherwise get eaten up by aimless distractions. A general consciousness of my day to day life and time.
‘Going Light’ with the Light Phone
From The Light Phone.
The phone is so stripped down, it seems more like an abstraction of a phone. Which is part of the appeal, I guess. The mystery.
On the other hand, were you worried that people might not get it? Where did you locate the confidence that this was a product people would understand and a product people would need?
I would say that we started the Light Phone with a few principles that meant a lot to us. One was that the phone was designed to be used as little as possible. This came very clear after our first tests that I mentioned with the flip phones. Users described their light days in such details, the struggles and the ultimate joy that it brought them, but yet no one made any phone calls. The value of the Light Phone was not in any feature that the phone was capable of, but rather in that experience of leaving the smartphone. The more invisible the phone, the more effective it could be.
Of course many people do not “get it”, in fact many people seem incredibly frustrated at the entire premise and we’ve seen our fair share of hate towards the Light Phone. As artists ourselves, we began building the Light Phone to start a conversation, and the fact that people have such strong opinions is a great sign that it is hitting a cord. I don’t think it is a phone for everyone, but we also designed the phone very much as a “second” phone, not intended to be someone’s “only” phone. The right tool for the job, a casual phone for very specific moments. We have different shoes for different occasions, I have different cameras for different situations, why not phones?
I guess the confidence of the product came from our guts, when we had the idea it felt like we had no choice but to keep pushing it. Also, we are constantly testing the experience ourselves and it serves as a constant reminder that it is something I truly believe in.
What’s your response to people who say a flip phone can do the same thing, so why bother?
Yes of course, a flip phone could work as a second phone, but I would say that it was never designed to do so. The flip phones still have text, email clients, cameras, full contact books, which you don’t need to use, but the interface is not designed to be a second phone, it’s just a crappy phone experience.
We wanted to make the Light Phone special through the design of the phone, the interface, packaging and branding to inspire. Flip phones and even other small card sized phones have existed for years but yet no one is buying them as second phones and that’s what we sort of did with the Light Phone is say, “hey, do we always need a computer in our pocket?”, which isn’t necessarily a feature of the phone, but it is definitely embedded in the brand.
Also we have built software that makes the Light Phone keep your same phone number, which no flip phone does, if we are to think of technical differences. The Light Phone is smaller, more stripped down and hopefully inspiring in a way that flip phones just aren’t.
One thing I wanted to ask about in particular was the packaging. It combines both content in the form of photography and casing for the phone, and it’s as beautiful as the device itself. What were the sources of inspiration for the packaging and what role did you envision it playing in the Light experience?
When thinking of the packaging we had two real goals at a high level. We wanted to not create waste and we wanted to inspire the user, to really try to impress them.
The book came about as a way to remind the user right before they get to the phone that although the phone is pretty and special, it’s not about the phone at all, but rather everything else it allows you to do. Unlike other technology packaging, like Apple for instance, we didn’t want it to be all about the “sexy” phone object and that consumer orgasm and product lust. The photographs are actually all film photographs that I’ve been taking when going light on my own through the process of bringing the phone to life. Hopefully as a user the book can act as a reminder on your shelf or coffee table to take time for yourself.
The photographs themselves are pretty simple, a friend described them as photographs of nothing and I thought that was funny. It’s the little simple moments that can be so beautiful, many of those photographs were just on our normal commute or taking a plane somewhere for business and remembering to enjoy the ride and keep your eyes open. Even as busy as life can get, the busiest I have ever been in my life, it is still important and possible to make quality time for yourself. Also many users imagine the phone as a gift, so the book enhances that experience as well.
Let’s talk about the ‘ole work-life-balance story for a sec. Most of what I’ve read and seen about the phone positions it as almost a leisure device—something to help people unplug, unwind. Which makes me think of long weekends upstate or something. But did you guys envision that the Light Phone might play a role in people’s daily work life, for example? Have you heard any stories from people who feel like the phone has changed the way they work?
Totally see where you’re coming from, naturally we think of more exciting and longer chunks of “fun” time as how we would use the Light Phone.
However, I would say that personally the use cases I find most helpful and actually profound are very simple. I started leaving my phone and my desk with my computer when I walk 15 minutes down the street to grab a coffee break, and you know actually take a break instead of just doing email on my phone at the cafe. It can be little half hour breaks through out the day that allow you to get a few layers deeper into your thoughts before being bombarded with constant flow of information, notifications and things that need to be attended to. We’ve heard from initial users about similar stories, maybe it isn’t even leaving their house but going to the kitchen to cook for an hour, read a book, or get creative/productive.
Can you imagine a scenario where the Light Phone becomes a business solution one day? Sort of like the days when companies were handing employees Blackberry devices as their “work phone,” but instead it would be a Light Phone meant to discourage employees from doing things like syncing personal devices to business accounts so they can focus on the tangible output of their work?
I can imagine that as a possibility, whether the Light Phone was to be used at work or on weekends. There are a lot of studies on the effects of multitasking on our productivity and the positive effects of being able to relax away from the noise makes you much more productive when you return.
It’s really easy to feel perpetually overwhelmed constantly, and stay in tune with work emails all weekend long. I’d love employers to be sharing the Light Phone with their employees. Besides, do we really need more Foosball tables?
Speaking of work, you guys have taken space in Brooklyn’s New Lab, which is located in the Navy Yard. What does New Lab offer that you might have been challenged to find in industrial work space elsewhere?
The New Lab has been awesome for us. Kai and I worked out of what he likes to call “our closet” of a co-working space in Bushwick for a long time. It worked for our needs, was super cheap and close to where we live, but it wasn’t inspiring. In a way it helped me focus, but the New Lab is seriously beautiful space with lots of other inspiring companies inside.
The space is a converted hanger that used to build ships and has been built out tastefully. It has a ton of plants and nice places to move around and work from outside our little office. It comes with the community of people both working here daily or passing through the space. There is also a whole prototyping lab that is really unique for New York City, not that we’ve taken much of advantage of it just yet.
What’s next for you guys? Are you considering an expansion of the “Light” brand to similarly positioned devices? Are there other features on the way for Light Phone?
We have lots of ideas, both for iterating on the current Light Phone experience as well as developing other products. We’ve made some amazing partnerships in bringing the Light Phone to life and look forward to continuing to make cool things possible with the opportunities we have at hand.
We are also going to be working on a book about the process and concept of the phone. We want to keep sharing stories and learnings from our early users with the world. And finally, we want to continue to share more about the people behind the process of making the phone. We are all consumers of electronics but tend to know very little about how these things come to life, and as an artist I think I have a unique opportunity with the Light brand to do just that. I’ve personally learned so much, it changes how I perceive my consumption. In general I think we can all agree our current habits are unsustainable.
2017 will be an exciting year for us, can’t wait!