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The best-designed phones of all time, according to the experts

We’re constantly inundated with claims about the latest, greatest phone design. Here’s what the experts have to say.

The best-designed phones of all time, according to the experts

With every smartphone launch, we hear the same thing from phone makers: This is the best phone ever. Of course, they could hardly say anything else. But the “best phone ever” is a deeply subjective title, whether by the judgment of Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, or an anonymous Amazon reviewer. So we decided to ask the experts: What’s the best-designed phone of all time? See below for selections from leading designers and design thinkers, plus the Fast Company staff.

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[Photo: Stephen Foskett/Wiki Commons]

BlackBerry

“Say what you will about BlackBerry smartphones–and the Alex P. Keaton cultural moment they engendered–but their explosive popularity in the aughts highlighted an important user insight: The best design isn’t always the prettiest or the sleekest, it’s the one that helps you get shit done. With their utilitarian interfaces and miniaturized QWERTY keyboards, the BlackBerries of yore were ideal for making calls and tapping out emails, and not much more. They were productivity tools in the strictest sense–your drab office computer rendered small. Compare that to today’s touch-screen phones, beautiful glass slabs that entice you to swipe, tap, and pinch endlessly, taking over not just your work life but also your social life (and maybe even your soul). BlackBerry’s complete lack of charm was an asset: a reminder to get off the phone and live a little, just as soon as you sent your colleague that last email.” –Suzanne LaBarre, senior editor, Fast Company

[Photo: Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Museum/Wiki Commons]

Enorme

“My favorite phone would probably be the Enorme, designed by Ettore Sottsass and David Kelley. I still love the weird vibe of it–exactly one-half 1980s power suit, and one-half Mondrian. The looks alone tell this story of how beauty gets adapted and updated, remixed and reused–because beauty is a tool like anything else, used to make you want something. But there’s another tension, too. Kelley of course cofounded Ideo. He’s the most famous evangelist for today’s dominant design philosophy: that design is about deference to user need. Sottsass represented a totally different idea. He epitomized the designer as artist, guided by personal vision. That Kelley and Sottsass got together to make a phone is this perfect encapsulation of design’s own competing impulses.” Cliff Kuang, UX designer and author of the forthcoming book User Friendly

[Photo: Apple]

iPhone (original)

“My favorite phone by far, far, far is the original iPhone. It represented the largest leap forward of any phone design, maybe the largest leap forward of any product in any category I have witnessed in my lifetime. Pretty much any phone available for purchase now anywhere still takes its major design cues from that significant breakthrough.” –Stefan Sagmeister, partner, Sagmeister & Walsh

[Photo: Apple]

iPhone 3G

“The greatest iPhone was the iPhone 3G–the phone that beat out the Motorola RAZR and turned the mainstream cell phone into the smartphone. Yes, history might also remember the 3G as the first plastic iPhone that abandoned the metal back. Perhaps that means it doesn’t age as well in photos, but phones aren’t meant to be photographed, they’re meant to be held. And the 3G’s rounded posterior sat in your palm like it was made for you, with a fundamental concern to ergonomics that outweighed Apple’s soon-to-be overpowering zeal for thinness. The iPhone 4 would become a sharp razor blade in your hand, and Apple wouldn’t approach the 3G’s level of comfort again until the iPhone 7 with its curved glass screen (which, for what it’s worth, is my second favorite iPhone). The 3G was more than a testament to Apple’s industrial design, though. It was also the first iPhone that realized the smartphone’s potential for connectivity. With 3G speeds–a wonder at the time–you really could browse the web without Wi-Fi. And even more importantly, the 3G was the first iPhone on which the App Store came preinstalled, which established both the software distribution and payment model for billions of smartphones to come.” –Mark Wilson, senior writer, Fast Company

[Photo: Apple]

iPhone 4

“I owned an iPhone 4 up until 2016. It was a perfect little device that fit snugly in my hand and in the side pocket of my favorite backpack. It did not have a fingerprint reader that doesn’t work half the time, or endless notifications about how my iCloud storage is almost full. Its screen was much smaller than my phone now, but that made sense–I didn’t need to see so many apps at once, with their nagging red notification alerts. I didn’t understand why I needed a bigger screen, which I knew would make it difficult to type with one hand. I didn’t realize how effortlessly the iPhone 4 had functioned until it was suddenly dead after I left it on the side of the tub and it got splashed one too many times. I picked up my iPhone 6s the next day, which now looks simplistic in comparison to the slew of phones that Apple just released. It still has a headphone port, after all. As our phones get more complex, with more speed and better cameras and larger screens, they aim to become more and more indispensable to us, ensuring that we rely on them to mediate every interaction and guide us through the world. But sometimes I long for the simplicity of my iPhone 4, still a feat of design and engineering, that’s just a little smaller and a lot simpler.” –Katharine Schwab, associate editor, Fast Company

[Photo: Apple]

iPhone SE

“I loved the iPhone 4. When I first saw it, it looked like the most beautiful phone ever. The symmetry of that obsidian sandwich held together by a simple steel band reminded me of Dieter Rams’s wondrous Braun consumer electronic designs from the ’70s. But its aesthetic perfection was marred by its extreme fragility: ‘Glass is not a good material to make products that are constantly being moved around, under stress, and in the hands of users,’ I wrote at the time. ‘Glass breaks.’ That’s why the iPhone 5 then became Apple’s perfect design. In fact, it became the apex of phone design, period. It kept the ethos of the iPhone 4 while adopting a material–a full aluminum back–that was honest and functional, just like Dieter Rams’s principles dictate. The iPhone 4 essence was there, with a sightly larger but still manageable screen. Eventually, the iPhone 5 became the iPhone SE, which had the guts of the iPhone 6s, making it very fast and capable of recording 4K video. That’s why the iPhone SE–despite it not being quite as beautiful as the iPhone 4–became my favorite Apple phone of all time. Too bad Apple just killed it.” –Jesus Diaz, contributing writer, Fast Company

[Photo: Apple]

iPhone 7

“Good functional product design shouldn’t be polarizing or superfluous. It must continue to improve the integrity of the product and deliver a better overall experience than the last iteration. There should be no debate there. For this reason, I believe the pinnacle of mobile phone design is the iPhone 7. It was thinner, it was faster, it was stronger, and, with the introduction of the AirPods, it was liberating. It represented the most flawless execution of features thus far, with no new compromise–but let’s not forget that we’re still very much in the infancy stage of what a ‘mobile phone’ is and could be.” Imran Chaudhri, designer and inventor 

[Photo: Flickr user Ged Carroll]

Motorola StarTAC Rainbow

“The Motorola StarTAC Rainbow was a clamshell special-edition mobile phone manufactured by Motorola, but offered exclusively in Europe. Though the classic StarTAC has the special designation of ‘first flip phone’–the Rainbow was the eccentric multicolored variation, akin to the Volkswagen Golf Harlequin, also a similarly color-schemed variation of the standard issue. The phone measures only 98 x 57 x 23 mm, and was the lightest and most expensive phone of its era, retailing for around $1,000. The Rainbow was the even rarer and treasured release. I own one, even though it isn’t functional in the U.S. yet. The Rainbow felt like a dreamy ‘collab’ in a time before there were signature design collabs like Off-White × Nike. The cover is a strikingly colorful topography of tomato red, sky blue, racing green, and cadmium yellow. Inside, the buttons float as black ellipses on a vibrant yellow field, set against a green clamshell interior cover. Flawless.” Forest Young, head of design and global principal, Wolff Olins 

[Photo: HansRoht/Wiki Commons]

Motorola V220

“The Motorola V220 isn’t a beautiful object. Like so many other flip phones of the early 2000s, it’s been lost in the fog of iPhone pre-history–apart from the odd YouTube hands-on video of a battered model, identified only as an ‘old Motorola flip flop mobile.’ It took me a long time to even figure out which phone my sister and I both received for Christmas in 2003 (and in the end, it might have been a different model). What I do remember is discovering the first emoji I’d ever seen on its novel color screen as we sat in the airport the next day, probably on the way to visit our grandparents over the holiday, and sending thousands of these strange little pictograms back and forth to each other, crying with laughter, regardless of the insane cost of data or our fellow fliers.

“It seems like a weird thing to find hilarious now (especially when Old Masters sticker packs exist). But it was delightful, as were other aspects of its design–from the satisfying snap of its durable plastic to the magic of its early text autocomplete. This era of phone design lacked the sheen of Cupertino, but looking back, it was the beginning of the world we live in now. RIP, flip flop mobile.” –Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, editor, Fast Company

[Photo: Soltys0/Wiki Commons]

Nokia 5110

“I remember my dad lending me his Nokia 5110 a long road trip. Being able to call ahead to figure out where we’d sleep that night felt like science fiction. It was around then I also started using SMS (or texting) to check in with friends and family. I remember thinking it was just like IRC that you can use anywhere. It was one of the first phones to come with Snake, a perfect phone game before phone games were even a thing. These two features made it feel more like the future of computers rather than the future of phones.” –Alex Schleifer, head of design, Airbnb

[Photo: Luigi Bertello/Shutterstock]

Olivetti Miram by George Sowden circa 1988

“Not the biggest fan of the Memphis Group work, but one has to admire the niceties of this telephone. Simple, bold, a modern objet d’art, a graphic wonder, all commanding traits of the Olivetti’s outstanding understanding of design and object, that can easily adorn a designer’s desk today–and is just a phone, nothing more. Nice job, Mr. Sowden.” –Eddie Opara, partner, Pentagram 

[Photo: Danger]

T-Mobile Sidekick

“In 2003, when I worked at PC World magazine, we named T-Mobile’s Sidekick–a smartphone created by a startup named Danger–as our product of the year. The decision was far from unanimous, but I think it holds up well: The Sidekick was the first device to put the real internet in your pocket rather than a fundamentally dumbed-down, hobbled version. With a screen that swiveled up to reveal a wide QWERTY keyboard, the Sidekick had a PC-like feel, which made perfect sense in the era before multi-touch interfaces. It offered a surprisingly usable web browser and–hey, this was important in 2003–built-in support for AOL Instant Messenger. Rather than having lasting influence, the Sidekick’s approach to the mobile internet ended up being washed away by the iPhone; even Danger cofounder Andy Rubin followed Apple’s lead when he oversaw the creation of Android. But the phone gave us the right set of features at the right time, a surprisingly tricky feat that’s always worthy of celebration.” –Harry McCracken, technology editor, Fast Company

[Photo: supertramp/iStock]

Western Electric Model 500

“The standard Bell System desk phone from 1950 through 1984 was the Western Electric Model 500. Plastic, often black, basically indestructible, tens of millions in production. It was a simple voice-driven interface to a vast global telecommunications network of goods and services, but you could turn off the ringer during dinner. I love my smartphones, but they nag and whine and update and need me to care for them every day. Try as we all might in terms of pure interface design, nothing comes close to picking up a phone and hearing that hmmmmmmmmm.” –Paul Ford, CEO, Postlight

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