Back in 2004, three years before the iPhone drew lines around the block, a flip phone from Motorola revolutionized cell phone design, attracting plenty of fans of its own. The Motorola Razr V3 wasn’t just a lifeline, it became a lifestyle.
By themselves, the V3’s features weren’t especially noteworthy, but they were packed in an sexy, incredibly thin profile that the world had never seen. It was a fashion statement and a status symbol and it was oh so satisfying to both flip it open and slip it into your jean pocket. It became an icon.
In the years since its introduction, some people’s affection for the Razr hasn’t waned, and the idea of a new Razr may be more than wishful thinking. Rumors are swirling after the Dutch blog MobielKopen spotted a Motorola patent for a foldable Android smartphone and concept videos of reimagined Razrs surfaced on YouTube garnering millions of views.
Despite all the continued fascination with the Razr, Paul Pierce is incredibly humble about his contributions in creating one of the most beloved tech gadgets ever. He, along with another designer, is responsible for the original Razr’s industrial design.
“I don’t typically tell people I was a part of that. You know, my mother likes to tell people I was a part of that team,” Pierce chuckles. “It was intended to be a relatively low-volume, high-price product that we thought might somewhat limit the audience that it would get to. But once it hit, once we saw the reaction, you know, it became something that people had to have it. We all knew it was going to be incredibly successful. But, none of us probably understood exactly how iconic it was going to be.”
We meet Pierce at Motorola headquarters in Chicago, where he still works as a distinguished designer overseeing a team focused on innovation and future products.
Laid out in front of us are more than a dozen versions of Razr phones, including the popular Maria Sharapova hot pink, the gold Dolce and Gabbana, the tattoo-inspired design by artist Ami James and one specifically created for the Korean market.
Pierce says a new chipset architecture was the real breakthrough in 2003 that enabled the incredible thinness.
“I have a circuit board. I stack that on top of my battery and I get to a product overall thickness,” Pierce explains. “This chipset allowed us to get the circuit board and the battery into the same plane. So instantly we lopped off a big portion of the thickness of the overall device. So this was clearly a breakthrough that we saw an opportunity to take advantage of and focus on developing something really unique.”
With most phones at the time measuring about 20 millimeters thick, the team’s goal was to slash the thickness in half while not compromising the quality of the calls and other functions. That desire lead to an iconic design element of the Razr: the chin bump. Though at the time Pierce wasn’t a fan.
“When I tell people the story, they’re surprised somewhat. But I’ll be honest, from within design we really didn’t like the chin when we first saw it,” he confesses. “But one of the things that really got us into the right spot on that was this idea of no compromise. The antenna is on the lower portion of Razor, what we call the chin, which was very different than the rest of the market at the time. What that enabled was fundamentally just better calling. We got the antenna further away from the user’s head, it allowed us to do things to just get better performance.”
Past function, the designers focused on inspiring an emotional connection and tapped into the keyboard.
“First time a person would open up the Razr, they would just be fundamentally surprised. They had never seen a metal keypad, and they’d never seen a metal keypad with this level of finish. It was something truly breakthrough. You added to that, the idea of the lighting, a very uniform lighting. The work that went into that was significant.”
Pierce brings with him several plastic bags filled with old parts and prototypes and shows us the different keyboard designs they were considering and what was finally selected.
“Engineers initially came to us with first thoughts on what was basically a microwave keyboard. We didn’t love the look of it,” Pierce recalls. “I had remembered very clearly the idea of what we called an eraser shield, which was a very thin piece of metal that had cutouts in it that allowed you to just erase part of your line. We grabbed that as a prototype to say this might work as a keypad. It was very thin, which we needed. It was structurally rigid, which we needed.”
Pierce still scrutinizes little details Razr owners may have never notice or considered, like the raised logo.
“It was something we pushed hard to get into that, stamped into of the form and then diamond cut,” Pierce reminisces, noting that people were concerned the raise metal would scratch furniture. “Well, we figured out the trade-off was worth it to get the kind of tactile quality you can feel. And people knew that it was real metal versus something that was plastic.”
So what about the buzz about resurrecting the Razr flip phone? Pierce says it’ll take another breakthrough.
“I think people are kind of yearning for and remembering back to that Razr — when it flipped open, and the sound of that, the feel of that. Where is that today? And it seems like an opportunity,” Pierce explained. “So we’re trying to understand what we can do to revive some of that but it’s got to be done in a way that fundamentally delivers on incredible experience. It can’t be done just for a gimmick or something of that nature. We’ve got to figure out how to deliver a breakthrough.”
Foldable phones with bendable screens may just be that breakthrough.
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