Diving deep into the OnePlus Design Philosophy with Hope Liu
Once it’s in your hands, a OnePlus phone feels so final, it’s hard to imagine just how much work and passion went into its creation. Industrial designer, Hope Liu has been passionate about product design his entire life. Under his leadership, OnePlus has constantly been able to push the boundaries of design through an approach focused on functionality, refinement, elegance, and a touch of rebelliousness. We talked to Hope about his process, his personal vision on design, and the OnePlus design philosophy.
Hope has been a part of OnePlus since 2014. Since joining, his thoughts on design pervade every single one of our flagship products, whether that be the OnePlus 2 or the OnePlus 8 Pro. The through-line of our product design has always centered on design excellence. Every button press, every curve, from the placement of the camera to the form of the speaker grille, the OnePlus design philosophy demands that every aspect of a product’s design feels deliberate and considered.
Chris de Boer: Could you explain your design philosophy to us?
Hope Liu: You should first get the basics right, before you get creative. The products I design are for people to use, they’re meant to be in people’s hands rather than grabbing the limelight. Good design should appeal to as many users as possible, rather than meeting the needs of a small niche of users. After a design is finished, I always ask myself what elements can be removed, rather than what I can add. I really agree with Dieter Rams’ idea of ‘Less, but better’.
Could you explain OnePlus’ design philosophy to us?
In 2018, we summed up OnePlus’s design philosophy as simple, rational, elegant with a focus on refined textures, but slightly rebellious. Good product design always feels familiar, while bad products are always different. Simplicity and rationality are universally valued in products and form the basic principles of good product design. Product design that stays true to all four principles is already in a good place. As for elegance and texture, these both enhance the value of a product. Being slightly rebellious is more about trying to break outdated stereotypes and changeable concepts, as we want OnePlus to be viewed as a challenger.
How has OnePlus’ design philosophy changed since the OnePlus One?
Initially, we focused primarily on satisfying a small niche of users. Now, we’re looking to fulfill the needs of a larger audience. Our design concepts also have broader appeal, while staying faithful to the principles on which we were founded. Our design also has moved from the pursuit of distinctiveness for the sake of being distinct, to being more functional. Only when our product design excels at a functional level do we consider the elegance and temperament of a product on a more emotional level. We carefully consider the materials we use and focus on maintaining their identity and core characteristics. I don’t want the materials to “lie”. They have to face consumers in their most authentic form, be durable, and be conscious of the materials we use, how we use them, and how we treat our environment.
How do you balance form and function?
Form always follows function, and the goal of our design is to strike an emotional chord with users on the basis of satisfying the function.
Which designers inspire you?
At different stages of my career, I’ve been inspired by many different designers. They may be masters or students who just graduated. There is an old saying in China, ‘The speaker has no intention, but the listener has heart’. I got a lot of ideas and inspiration from many designers. For example, former ASUS design director Wen Han and the original OPPO design leader King, I’ve also been inspired by too many Japanese designers to list here. It should come as no surprise that Dieter Rams is my favorite, and I even believe that Apple’s design philosophy was in parts inspired by Rams. Their ideas inspired specific areas of my work. But, no matter how good the ideas and methods are, you still need to break them down into small parts and reorganize the knowledge to make them suitable to your style and way working.
What other examples of great design do you personally admire, and why?
Chinese chopsticks and the toothbrush stand out. What many people don’t know is that the toothbrush was also a tool designed in China. I can’t help but admire products with a history of thousands of years, but have never needed to be redesigned. It’s difficult to match that level of elegant simplicity in products today, as we are more focused on developing the attitudes of our designs, and make constant optimizations to our design. The longevity of product design today isn’t anything like what you find in chopsticks and toothbrushes. The most recent example of such great design in an electronic product is still the iPhone 4, which laid the foundation for mobile phone design for the next 10 years. It’s hard to believe that Imagine under such a fast-paced product category, there is still design like this that could have long-lasting influence. It is very admirable.
How has your upbringing influenced your design?
Ever since I was little, my mother has been telling me: ‘A person should be kind.’ These were the words she lived by when she was a child, and she showed me how important they were through her actions. I firmly believe in this point. Kindness is a big starting point when I do design. It may be difficult to explain, but it does affect my attitude towards anything.
What’s your favorite aspect of design?
Changing people’s lifestyle. I get a great sense of accomplishment from that.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to design?
Every product is difficult to design while you’re designing it, it only feels simple after the design is finished.
When are you at your happiest?
I enjoy every step of the design process, but if I had to pick one moment it would have to be our product launch events. There’s nothing like sharing the results of your hard work with the world for the first time.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be doing?
First of all, that will never happen! This is my dream job, and it’s a supreme honor to do what I do. If I had to be something other than a designer, maybe I’d be a teacher and train aspiring designers.
What’s the best and worst feedback you’ve ever received?
The best: I really like your design
Worst: I hate your design
What’s the most important tip you would share with a beginning designer?
Do things in good faith, be honest and treat others well. Only by doing this can we live up to our promise!
How important is aesthetic beauty to the design of a product?
Everyone’s sense of beauty is different, making it difficult to quantify. There is usually no way to perfectly describe how you feel about a product, which means a designer needs to be attuned to the emotional needs of the user. Review the object first, then look at it through the eyes of the user and consider how they might feel about it. This is an essential ability to any industrial designer, without it is extremely difficult to create great products.
How do you innovate in design, while keeping a consistent visual identity?
The visually consistent design is to let people know who you are, it will not have any relationship with innovation. They are not mutually exclusive. You are wearing white clothes today, wouldn’t it be you if you are in black tomorrow? Visual consistency is only a means for others to easily recognize you. Feeling consistent is the most difficult to achieve.
How do you collaborate with the product team, when balancing features / specs with design and form factor?
We are friends and rivals. We help each other and question each other. Product development is about maintaining balance, one thing is never more important than anything else. Across our teams, we constantly discuss what aspects we should be focusing on.
What do you say to people who criticize your designs?
It’s important to be honest when we do “bad things”. No one is perfect, and our products will never be all-around perfect either. I just hope that we can stick to our original intention of designing with the goal of making the world a better place.
Like the tech industry as a whole, we are constantly rethinking the role of design in our products and brand. It’s a challenging process that forces us to improvise when needed, without betraying the core principles that have driven our designs from day one. Thank you for continuing to support our ideas and beliefs over all these years. The most rewarding aspect of product design is seeing the final product in the hands of our community. Thank you.