Joe Hollier & Kaiwei Tang

The Light Phone

Photos and videos courtesy of the Light Phone.

Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang are phone designers who care.

In a world where technology is constantly encouraging us to stay “connected,” they’ve set out to build a mobile phone that encourages us to disconnect from the digital realm and take more responsibility to own our time as humans.

As an enormous fan of their work, it was a pleasure getting to chat with Joe and Kaiwei about the benefits of disconnecting, the challenges with manufacturing technology, and what it means to take our lives back from technology.

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Can you give me an overview of both your backgrounds, how you met, and how you came to find yourselves creating the Light Phone together? We’re both designers. Joe studied more traditional graphic design and liked to explore animation and photography quite a lot. He lived in Brooklyn and worked as a freelancer, fine artist, and ran a little skateboard company called Five on That. Kaiwei is a product designer who has worked for over 10 years bringing a dozen phone projects to life for brands like Motorola, Nokia and Blackberry. He also more recently after leaving that world, received a second masters from IIT in human centered design. In the summer of 2014, Google reached out to us separately about joining an experimental incubator program that fall targeted at designers starting new technology companies. Their hypothesis was that design is at the core of some of the strongest companies today and should not be an after thought. They felt if designers were given the right guidance and resources they might be able to lead innovative new technology companies. 

We were encouraged to build software applications and were meeting with investors and founders daily to learn on a deeper level how and why different software products came to be. Of course, everything was claiming to “make our lives better”, but as we saw deeper under the hood, we realized that their metrics for success and business models were not at all aligned with what we felt like would be a “better life” for ourselves. For example, many apps were using the metric of retention, or how much time the user spends with their product, as their goal because many of these products will succeed by collecting data and selling advertisements if they can get users hooked. These products in turn were being engineered to use our vulnerabilities against us—they simply did not respect us as users.

We do believe that technology can make our lives better, but we quickly felt that the last thing the world needed was another app. Our time and attention are the most precious things we have, and we take them for granted tens to hundreds of times a day we reach for our phones. Our smartphones are mini computers that we bring everywhere because they are also our phones. We thought, is there a way we can encourage users to conciously choose to unplug, to leave the smartphone behind and enjoy the present world from time to time? It was in this train of thought that our first ideas for the Light Phone began.

We started testing our hypothesis, the idea that taking a break from the internet at large from time to time would in fact make a positive difference. We gave a few users (including ourselves) flip phones and helped set up call forwarding and left our smartphones behind for a few ‘light trips’. There is an initial anxiety that everyone describes, especially when going light by yourself. You find yourself tapping your pockets, feeling bored or frustrated even at first and you feel actually different walking down the street. It’s pretty powerful stuff. That being said, there was always a point in which everyone forgot about their FOMO, what Instagram post they might be missing, and just got lost in the real world, and it was amazing. Users described it as relaxing and refreshing, and we knew there was something real there.

An interesting thing that we also learned was that, although everyone had a phone and some speed dials (written out on paper), no one made any calls. The value of the experience had nothing to do with what the flip phone was capable of but rather everything to do with it being invisible and leaving the smartphone/internet behind. Out of this came our philosphy for the phone, “designed to be used as little as possible,” and we applied that to pretty much every design decision going forward from the interface to the form factor. 

We launched a Kickstarter campaign about 18 months ago in May of 2015 and actually doubled our initial goal and reached people from all around the world. Since then we’ve gone through the development and start up fundraising process, building out a team here in NY and Seattle and finally shipping the first Light Phones out to our earliest backers this past January. It’s been such an amazing trip, and we are humbled to be working on something we truly believe in everyday.

“We do believe that technology can make our lives better, but we quickly felt that the last thing the world needed was another app.

For a long time, people have been writing about ‘being present’ and creating habits that help control the temptation to pull out our phones. I think it’s really neat that you’re setting out to help people remove their temptations entirely. Looking further ahead, do you see yourselves entering other product categories in technology to achieve this same objective? Or will you simply continue to tell the story the Light Phone has to offer? Well the temptation will still be there, and we see that in the initial anxiety of going light. We just tried to make a phone that wouldn’t allow you to indulge in that temptation and that is hopefully special enough to make it possible to overcome that temptation. That is ultimately a much more satisfying experience and gratification.

We need to see the Light Phone story through, although we have been working on this for so long ourselves it seems, in the scheme of things the Light Phone has only just really hit the real world. It’s exciting to start to learn from real users about their own experiences. We want to continue to improve the software and maybe even come out with an updated version of the hardware down the road.

That being said, the Light Phone is our first product, and we are very interested in exploring other product categories. In general, technology has wonderful possibilities, and we aspire to use technology in respectful ways that can makes our lives simpler (not the same as easier) so that we can appreciate more. Light will continue to design beautiful objects that empower users. We have lots of ideas, but for the immediate future, we are pretty focused on the Light Phone.

As stated in your manifesto, the Light Phone is setting out to empower its users to ‘take their lives back’. I’d love to learn more—as humans, what in particular do you think technology has taken away from us, and what does it look like to take that back? This is a great question. See, even before technology, we’ve had trouble staying focused and present as humans. If we look back to Seneca, he speaks about the addiction of busyness that keeps us from really experiencing life, and that was thousands of years ago—well before the technology of which we are referring to today. As humans, we are vulnerable, and one of the hardest things to do is take responsibility for our time at any given moment. It’s easier to let our devices feed us information to react to, and the supply has become infinite and is only getting more targeted at us. The long-term harder questions about what I’m doing with my life can seem much too heavy to think about, so I get drunk from my feeds to avoid those thoughts.

The smartphone gives us the perception of productivity with a ton of stimulation that is socially acceptable to abuse. Multitasking is a myth—it is addictive and exhausting. When we consume so fast, there is no way for us to appreciate anything, and it is in that appreciation that our lives have meaning and purpose.

So when we refer to taking our lives back, we mean being conscious of that responsibility to own our time and to not just give it away so freely to the apps on our phones. Technology hasn’t exactly taken our lives away, but it gives our human vulnerabilities an outlet to take advantage of us and how we would really like to be spending our time. We all have things we want to be doing more of, maybe it’s learning a new language, a musical instrument, traveling more, spending more time with friends or family, but we all feel so overwhelmed, exhausted, and out of time. We are just trying to remind everyone, and ourselves at the same time, that we do have a lot of time if we can be a little smarter with how we use it. A quote we have always loved from Annie Dillard is, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

It’s easier to let our devices feed us information to react to … The long-term harder questions about what I’m doing with my life can seem much too heavy to think about, so I get drunk from my feeds to avoid those thoughts.

As for your personal experiences, what have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve both learned since going light, whether about yourselves or about the world around you? Is there anything in particular you see or think differently about since making the transition? We’ve discovered that actually it is the simple and regular light trips that have the most profound impact. The tendency is to think of going off the grid in the woods for three days—which is of course wonderful, but if once or twice a day we can leave our phones at our desks and take an actual coffee break, we can actually achieve a similar balance. Even just a half hour walk to the cafe you’ve been to a million times with out checking your email the whole time or scrolling at every red light can be profound in a time when we are so constantly over-saturated. It’s been amazing to hear similar stories from our initial users.

We mentioned earlier about the initial anxiety that happens, and it is quite real. Once you go light, now what? You are sort of faced with a lot of questions, and those questions are really important conversations with ourselves. Simple questions from where should I go this afternoon to what am I doing with my life? It is not easy, but there is a calmness that comes with having such conversations that last beyond any particular light trip; we are more in tune with ourselves. One user described a long day of being light as an accomplishment. He felt that he was his best self that day, and that satisfaction is more significant that these little dopamine hits that we get addicted to from social media that are not long lasting or deeply satisfying.

A Simple Errand

Can you speak on how learning to slow down and disconnect from our devices can have profound effects on us as entrepreneurs? There’s certainly this vibe within the entrepreneurial community that you have to constantly stay connected. It’d be liberating to break away from that. As an entrepreneur, or even as a freelancer, it is hard to have that sort of natural schedule of a more traditional career. There is no dedicated off time, weekends don’t really exist, and you can easily find yourself always “on” because there is always something to do when running a business. I think it comes down to being conscious of that and fighting to make that time to disconnect. There are a million excuses you can make for why you might need your smartphone at any given moment, but the case for leaving the smartphone at home is just as valid. Again—multitasking is a myth, it is addictive and exhausting. When I’m working on my smartphone, I’m multitasking, and it’s not a great way to work at all. When we are able to have a meaningful break away from that, which can be as simple as a half hour coffee break sometimes, it can do wonders for our productivity. Feeling refreshed, regaining a fresh perspective, these things are really important to be an efficient entrepreneur or designer in my opinion. 

You often mention how little we as consumers understand about the process of manufacturing technology. So, I’m curious, what is the most surprising thing you’ve found from manufacturing the Light Phone? Kai—even with 10 years of experience in bringing mobile phones to life—has this particular process been any different from others? We often hear complaints about how much we are charging for a phone that essentially does nothing. But if you start to realize the scale and just number of people that work together across the hundreds of factories where all our supplies come from, the idea of a phone for $10 seems absolutely absurd. This is the first time that we, or maybe anyone ever, has tried to bring a mobile device to life as two individuals rather than as a part of a huge company and team.  The Light Phone is built completely from scratch; selecting suppliers, negotiating with vendors, designing the experience, engineering the hardware, manufacturing the components and the logistics are getting it around the world. It’s an enormous process that is far more complex that we tend to understand as consumers, yet we have these unrealistic expectations around cost and unsustainable desires for new devices every year. It’s a story we have only just begun to tell, and look forward to really trying our best to share with others that don’t have the opportunity to see behind the “sexy” tech products in the store into the realities and people that make it possible. As we’ve gotten to know our team at Foxconn closely (I mean we speak daily and visit often and they share the same passion in creating the Light Phone as us,) they have become our friends, our family. You don’t just go to China to have something made cheaply, these are the most experienced phone designers in the world and they are regular people who want the same things in life that we do.

We’ve always believed that “design is not rendering” and for the Light Phone, we were able to oversee every aspect of even the smallest details, which is quite rare in a corporate environment as a product designer. Of course, renderings have a lot of conceptual merit, but making a product mass produce-able, feasible, and able to pass all regulations is a different challenge that designers don’t always go through. It’s an exciting and iterative process. 

You don’t just go to China to have something made cheaply, these are the most experienced phone designers in the world and they are regular people who want the same things in life that we do.

$100 for a phone that does nothing?

Aside from the actual undertaking of creating a mobile phone and those initial responses of skepticism from people unfamiliar with what you’re building, what are some other challenges you’re currently facing in your work? What’s helping? One of our biggest challenges is in keeping down the costs of the phone, or rather educating potential users why such a seemingly simple phone costs so much. On one hand, the cost realities are a part of a larger story we want to tell about understanding the process in manufacturing technology, but consumers these days expect incredibly unrealistically low pricing and that is just not possible for us yet. Our price is the biggest criticism we are currently seeing with new potential users. So trying to educate consumers on the fact that this is the first time that two individuals have made a phone from scratch and at our scale that is really expensive. Pretty much every piece inside the Light Phone has been customized to fit in that form factor.

We also want to get the idea out to as many people as possible. Naturally as a brand, we are pretty “anti-advertising” so it becomes an interesting challenge in finding ways to get the phone out there that we can morally live with internally. We’ve been trying some more artful advertising approaches like a flyer campaign in Brooklyn/NYC, but how can we scale those efforts is where our heads are at now. We hope that the Light Phone, although maybe not the right tool for everyone, can hopefully inspire through these efforts a hair more consciousness in our personal smartphone habits, whether or not you buy and use a Light Phone.

Personally, we are still wearing many hats within the company and our day to day work habits with multi-tasking can seem hypocritical to what we try to preach some days. Most days we might bounce from customer service to a call with our lawyer, to an investor meeting, a financial review, press interview and then to try to create and design after being spread thin most of the day can be difficult. It’s hard to find large chunks of undisturbed time that I feel is essential to making good work as a designer. Practicing what we preach is a good constant reminder that we do truly believe in what this product and brand represents. That is good for the morals as well as our abilities to focus and get the task at hand tackled while still making work that we are proud of. We go light often.

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