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Huawei’s top designer reveals how he made the P40 Pro a work of art

Quentin Ting was chief designer for some of the firm’s most attractive smartphones to date. His portfolio includes the Huawei P9, the P10, and the P30 Pro, plus the Mate 10 Pro, the Mate 20 Pro, and the Mate 30 Pro.

His latest work is the new Huawei P40 Pro, a truly stunning smartphone with a beautiful frosted glass rear panel and curved, comfortable body. Speaking to Digital Trends, Ting discussed the P40 Pro’s design, the difficult but necessary balance between design and technology, and what happens when technology is a step behind what the designer wants.

Aesthetics, the ocean, and frosted glass

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The P40 Pro’s unusual, highly tactile matte glass rear panel defines it the moment you pick it up. It’s similar to the glass panels on competitors — but Ting took it a unique direction, and it helps the P40 Pro stand out from its many competitors.

“This is the main design feature on the P40 Pro,” Ting confirmed. The inspiration came an “aesthetic experience,” something he repeatedly mentioned.

“When you stand in front of the ocean, it can feel like time has stopped,” said Ting. “You hear the waves and the seagulls. Even taste the saltwater. Time has been suspended. After that moment, it’s like the play button has been pressed and you go back to reality. I call this an aesthetic experience, and we want to offer this in the P Series.”

Where did the inspiration for the subdued, unique colors of the frosted glass P40 Pro come from?

“I was born near the southern sea in China,” Ting explained. “In the winter it was cold and young kids couldn’t go outside. I would sit in front of the window when the glass was frozen, the bright sunshine and the thin clouds in the air. I would spend a long time tilting my neck to see different things. This was the inspiration for the silver front and golden blush colors.”

The frosted look wasn’t easy to achieve. The panel is made of multiple layers, including polished matte glass, textured glass, a reflective metal layer, and even a layer of oil-coated glass. Ting had to choose between 100 different levels of finish to obtain the right texture and look. Get it wrong, and the deeper middle layers wouldn’t be seen at all.

“You need to forget about the function of something,” Ting explained. “For example, for people who live near a first or lake, they sometimes see it has a place for firewood or for fishing. Only when they stop seeing the functions, do they see the beauty.”

Maintaining the curve

Ting said being a designer sometimes feels like, “dancing with shackles on,” and used the curve of the P40 Pro’s screen as an example. It has a more dramatic angle at the base than it does at the sides. A symmetrical curve may be preferable, but it wasn’t a viable option.

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“The main shackle is the screen manufacturing,” he told us. “If we make the four curves the same, the production capacity would be lowered, and the price would be raised. We need to weigh the pros and cons.”

Balancing these design aspects against Ting’s desire for an aesthetic experience is just part of the challenge. He shared another reason he wants to make a phone that feels great in the hand.

“When you are pondering something, you often subconsciously play with something in your hands, and if you really like the texture, you often do so for a long time.”

Ting wants people to do this with the phones he designs, just as he often finds himself repeatedly clicking the top of a pen.

Designing the technology

It’s not just external elements that affect how a phone looks. Internal components influence the overall shape, weight, and design of a device. There are multiple cameras and new antenna layouts for 5G inside the P40 Pro, all of which require more power, and a bigger battery.

“We made a trade-off between the big camera module and the battery life. It was unavoidable.” Ting admitted. “We have 5G, more antenna frequencies, and multiple cameras and lenses. All of these occupy space in the smartphone, and at the same time, we also need to include basic needs like a decent battery life. We must consider all these elements and make a final decision.”

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The large camera bump on the back certainly grabs attention, but Ting saw it as an opportunity. “In the past, there was only one camera. Now with more lenses, we have more choices in our design and how to display the cameras. This allows us to create more interesting designs.”

The P40 is the first P Series phone to have 5G throughout the range, and it presented its own set of design issues.

“Because of 5G we had to abandon using metal for the back cover because this would interrupt the signal,” Ting revealed, adding that it was this which prompted the team to experiment with new materials. “Designers have a whole host of new technology to design, and must learn how to handle multiple elements — this is a requirement of the industry now.”

Regret, and how it shapes the future

Ting said making movies is sometimes seen as, “an art of regret,” where it’s often impossible to change the finished piece despite the director wanting to. He feels smartphone design has the same problem.

“When developing a new product, the total development time from concept to marketing is about 18 months, and sometimes new technologies are found to make something previously impossible, possible. However, at each phase, we cannot go back to the last.”

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Should something not be technically possible, or a breakthrough come too late to be used, Ting said he could, “only promise those things to future generations.” Ting wanted to introduce the P40 Pro’s sleek overflow screen, where the glass curves over the edges and corners of the phone like it’s made from water, last year on the P30 Pro.

“At the time, the screen technology we worked on for the P30 series could not support bringing this concept to reality,” Ting explained. “We could only create a slight curve by grinding and polishing the glass, which generated minor visual changes without improving the tactility. When we developed the P40 series, the screen technology had evolved allowing us to have curves on four sides of the screen while at the same time, keeping four round corners.”

Design evolution

Getting the design right, and maintaining the balance between what’s possible and what people want, has to happen throughout a smartphone’s design. But for Ting, the result still needs to fulfill two needs.

“To make sure people like our products, we need to have two elements: Familiarity and surprise. We need to offer something people are familiar with, and also something that was not expected. Just like a chef making a new dish, multiple ingredients are mixed together to create something delicious.”

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The P40 Pro achieves this, and although Ting would not talk about any design elements he couldn’t technically achieve this time, maybe that symmetrically curved screen that’s not possible now will become a reality on the next Huawei P Series flagship? We’ll have to wait for any P50 model in 2021 to find out.

“A [phone] concept is not frozen at the time of the product launch,” Ting concluded. “Instead, it will be gradually optimized as the industry and technology evolves.”

The Huawei P40 Pro is available to buy in selected regions around the world now. Check out my full Huawei P40 Pro review.

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