Samsung has done something very different with this year’s flagship – or different for Samsung, at least. The company that has long held on to the belief that it can produce top-tier hardware using plastics as the core component of device industrial design has switched to an all metal and glass enclosure.And for those who wondered what a Samsung smartphone using premium materials might feel like, the Galaxy S6 edge in particular is a very promising result. But how did Samsung, of all companies, ever launch a device where design was the primary tentpole feature?
To get to the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, Samsung says it had to start from zero – meaning tossing out the design book that led to dimpled plastic mock-leather backs and shiny plastic hamburger outer ridges. It means taking a step back and opening up the design process to feedback, listening to the complaints of both professionals and consumers regarding Samsung’s previous design choices, and then building anew from there.
Some might argue that Samsung didn’t start from nothing when it decided to move away from its plastic design legacy. Apple, after all, has created devices that look quite similar to the Galaxy S6, and details like the arrangement of ports and holes on the bottom edge of that hardware do look quite similar to the current setup at the base of an iPhone 6. But despite familiar port layouts, antenna placement and materials choices, the new Galaxy phones still feel distinctly Samsung, perhaps in part because they’ve retained familiar features like the rounded rectangle home button and center-set camera lens.
And the unique qualities of the curved display not the S6 edge are also Samsung through-and-through, with a reeling-in of a far-out feature the company introduced last year which in some ways helps illustrate down their entire product development process. The Note Edge has a curved edge with a dedicated display, which appears continuous with the rest. Reviewers mostly found that cute but ultimately extraneous, however, and the S6 edge is an iteration in action based on that response: it’s mostly aesthetic, rather than functional, and it contributes what it needs to without ending up feeling flippant.
At Odds, And In Parallel With The Past
Samsung says the design for these devices has been in the works for the past several years, rather than over the course of a few months or just since the Galaxy S5 was introduced. Its design came about in parallel with the choices made on the S5, Note and Note Edge line, though you also get the sense from the company that there were clear camps that favored one track vs. the other, and that the kind of metal-and-glass approach used on the S6 didn’t gain ascendancy without struggle.
It’s possible that Samsung’s recent struggles in its dominance of the global smartphone market helped give credence to voices within the company that sought to change their reputation for making handsets that seemed more functional than fashionable. It’s also likely due to the changing nature of Samsung’s business: The company was knocked off its lofty perch atop the key greater China smartphone market, first by Xiaomi undercutting its wide product range on price, then by Apple outdoing it in the premium sector with iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.
Whatever the reason, Samsung has decided to break with tradition and take a risk on a design more in line with what premium customers expect. It’s not a guarantee that they’ll be able to retake lost ground in that segment, but it’s clear the opposite strategy wasn’t working in terms of long-term growth.
Practicality And Personality
Even though they changed their material strategy, with the added pressure to continue to offer ever-thinner and sleeker devices, Samsung didn’t want to also make their devices colder and less approachable. That’s why they developed, in-house, the sub-surface reflective coating that gives the GS6 and S6 edge its metallic- or jewel-like finish, which has the added benefit of being protected from scratching or marring itself thanks to being underneath the Gorilla Glass 4 outer surface.
The color options, including the bold and bright exclusive options for each model, were Samsung’s attempt to acknowledge that increasing desire on the part of consumers for a device that reflects their own personality. In smart watches, the trend towards greater customization is clear, but Samsung’s design choices are meant to appeal to that same instinct, in a way that still maintains the same general device feel and handheld user experience across variations.
On the practical side, Samsung’s designers made some changes that reflect usability challenges with previous designs. The rear-facing speaker is replaced with a downward facing one, which Samsung says makes for 1.5 times louder sound. There’s also a customizable LED with color options based on who’s contacting you, and quick reply settings that you can assign to the rear IR sensor next to the camera, so that you can automatically respond with just a finger press without ever lifting the phone off the table.
Designers also made sure to extend the metallic frame above the glass surface all the way around the edge, in an effort to make it less likely to shatter in case of a fall. This was a passion project that emphasized user experience in minute detail.
Can Design Save?
The big question about making design the central selling point of the Galaxy S6 is whether or not it can turn things around for Samsung’s smartphone division, and help it resume growth and reclaim its position of absolute global device dominance. There’s no question, in my mind, that what Samsung has done vastly improves upon its existing track record of hardware look and feel, but ultimately the market will have the final say.
That may dictate whether or not Samsung takes more of these kinds of design risks in the future, instead of the kind of conservative approach that has been the hallmark of Samsung’s Galaxy flagships over the course of the past few years.