We talk with Kaiwei Tang, the designer behind the Light Phone, a simplistic yet inspiring device designed to end your addiction to technology once and for all.
What is the Light Phone?
The Light Phone is a phone for humans. It’s a credit-card-sized mobile phone designed to be used as little as possible. It gives us back the important things we take for granted – our time and attention. It has a few essential tools that empower, not enslave us, like calling, messaging, alarms, directions and ridesharing. There are no apps, social media, ads or any distraction. The Light Phone can be a supplement to your smartphone, or a replacement.
You helped to develop a number of phones, including the iconic Motorola Razr, but at one point you thought you would never design another phone again. How did you go from that to the Light Phone?
Phone companies were introducing between 10 and 20 smartphones every year in the last decade. I was just tired of it and honestly, I don’t think anyone needs a better camera or more storage on your phone every few months.
I was invited to a designer-only incubator Google started in New York City and that’s when I met Joe Hollier, my cofounder. We were encouraged to build a mobile app just like every other start-up, but we soon realised that’s the last thing we wanted to do.
Instead, we decided to do the opposite and the idea of creating a way to inspire people to take a break made a lot of sense. The Light Phone happens to be one of the most exciting solutions.
Why choose the Light Phone over any other non-smart phone?
There aren’t many other non-smartphones out there. Old phones that rely on the 2G network are becoming extinct as they phase out that network. If we look at something like the Nokia candy bar phone, for example, which was recently brought back into production, it seems like a simple phone, but it actually comes with Facebook, an internet browser, a camera, games and T9 texting.
The Light Phone II keeps the sophistication of modern UX design we’ve become accustomed to and offers other functions like ridesharing and directions that aren’t available on other vintage devices.
There’s been a backlash against smartphones. Why do you think this is?
People are feeling overwhelmed and it is exhausting to be constantly distracted by our smartphones. A lot of our time is spent scrolling social media or the news, which studies have shown skew us towards negative thoughts.
I think it’s only human that we push back against the manipulation from advertisers and demand that our technology creators respect us, our time, attention and personal data.
Smartphones have obviously changed how we communicate. Is this good or bad?
Like everything in our lives, there are positive and negative impacts. I can face-time my family thousands of miles away, but I also suffer with the mindless scrolling and browsing. The FOMO (fear of missing out), anxiety and jealousy that our smartphone/apps/social media trigger, in my opinion, outweigh the positive effects.
The worse effect, in my opinion, is that apps and social media bring out the worst of us. Our negative emotions are easily triggers, and the most effective way to push us to engage. We become “internet trolls” who have no compassion or empathy.
We are human. We learn to communicate by listening to others and observing people’s facial expressions so that we can empathise with other people for example. When most of our communication stays on our devices, I’m afraid that very soon we’ll lose our empathy.
We’re all pretty reliant on our phones. Do you have any suggestions for breaking the habit?
It’s not easy and we’ve certainly seen some initial anxiety when one leaves the smartphone. We’ve also found that finding something you’re passionate about to fill the time really helps. Whether it’s a new hobby, like learning an instrument or just spending time doing things you’ve always loved, keeping yourself preoccupied is key to not feeling like you are missing out.
Smartphones have become a crucial business tool. Is there a way to minimise this?
I think that allowing people to be bombarded with emails and notifications can backfire in terms of quality work being done. There’s an illusion of productivity that persists with the use of smartphones; I think a laptop will always be a better tool for work, and they’re just as easy to bring around these days.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to strike out on their own business idea?
Stay true to yourself and the morals which inspired you in the first place. That is your uniqueness and you can’t lose it if you are to achieve your initial goal of helping the world. There is an enormous amount of competition, and in that struggle, it can be easy to drift away from your principles.
I would also suggest finding a partner/co-founder as it will be quite the rollercoaster of ups and downs, and having someone there to share those is crucial to getting through the hard times.
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