The Former Google Designer Creating a Beautifully Simple Anti-Technology Cell Phone

by Nick West

Our Chief Editor chats with Joe Hollier, the creator of the Light Phone - your antidote to phone addiction, without having to hit delete on your phone-friendly lifestyle.

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The Light Phone 2 is what we'd like to call "Anti-Technology Technology." It's both a realization that there are highly beneficial and even in today's culture, vital utilities to our everyday gadgets, and a recognition that we may have gone a bit too far. Highly stylized, with a black and white matte display, the Light Phone 2 is a  dumb version of your smart phone, stripped of an operating system that would allow for the unlimited world of apps. It's goal is to keep you connected from a communication standpoint, and not too much else.

The first iteration of creator Joe Hollier's phone was able to do one thing: make calls. The second is a collaboration as the Light Phone 2's ultimate feature set will be the result of both the amount of cash they raise - $1.5m is said to guarantee bluetooth functionality -  and the agreement of their backers on what other functionalities should be included. As of now, most of their press materials include 1) Calling 2) Texting 3) Music 4) Ride-Sharing. Note: their indiegogo page mentions they'd need some level of partnership from a ride-hailing company to do so). At press-time, they've raised slightly over $1.1M, a super impressive number given their initial goal of $250k. Joe has clearly struck a cultural nerve. 

We're all-in on this anti-tech-tech movement, so we reached out to Joe to ask him about his motivation to create the Light Phone, his design inspiration, what he hopes to achieve with his creation and more...

First off, tell us about yourself -- where are you from, what were you doing before you launched the first Light Phone and what led you down the path of entrepreneurship? (Feel free to add any other details here)

Hello! My name is Joe, I’m 27 years old. I moved to Brooklyn just about 10 years ago when I began my graphic design studies at the School of Visual Arts. After graduating I worked a mix of random gigs from going on tour with a rapper doing video/photo work, to making music videos or stop motion animations for various friends or clients like Nike & CNN. I considered myself an artist, focusing any other time on paintings, illustrations, collages, and films for various exhibitions including the Museum of Atlanta and the Smithsonian. I ran a small skateboard company called Five On That that also served as a platform to initiate fun art projects and exhibitions with my friends. 

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In September 2014, I was invited by Google to join an experimental incubator for designers here in NYC. The program’s structure was relatively vague, and I was curious enough to give it a shot. They wanted to see that if given the proper guidance and resources, would designers be able to create new kinds of smartphone apps? We met with various founders, investors and general tech thought leaders and learned on a deeper level how and why many apps were being created. A few things I quickly realized were that most of the businesses were based in an attention seeking business model, the more time users spent with the product, the more data and advertising they could sell, all branded to “solve our problems” and of course, “make the world a better place.” When you really thought about it, these apps could never align with our actual quality of life. I started to have a feeling of regret for joining this program and was talking with my now co-founder Kaiwei and told him if I were to make a smartphone app it would be to get off of our smartphones. We said what would that look like? And it’s how the idea of ‘going light’ and the Light Phone itself were born.

The phone immediately seemed to draw strong polarizing reactions when presented within the program and we knew that we were onto something really interesting conceptually. As an artist, I loved the conversation that just the concept of a Light Phone, which I presented as a piece of plastic and some bad photoshopping, was able to create. We launched a Kickstarter in May of 2015 as the program ended and that’s when we really began bringing the phone to life. Although it did feel premature in the larger mainstream awareness of our over connectedness to smartphones, we were amazed to see such a global response from such a variety of different types of users. We couldn’t quite imagine that across the world, the VP at Foxconn, who we later partnered with for development, was just as vulnerable to the smartphone as the users we studied here in NYC early on.

It feels like Light Phone 2 is coming out at the exact perfect time as society rightfully begins to push back on the magnetic pull of smart phones. What led you to personally pursue this idea? Was it defining moment, or a building feeling that you had?

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I was always skeptical of the technology giants or any corporate giant for that matter, but never really felt that I struggled with “smartphone addiction” per say. Obviously we are all vulnerable and I’ve snapped out of my own “scroll holes” many times. I think the tipping point was being so close to the technology world in the Google program and being unable to resist wanting to scream, “bullshit!” to so many of the new apps and products coming out. In my art, I’ve always been interested in how we as humans draw meaning from experience, how we get by and spend our lives. The smartphone was changing or rather exaggerating aspects of that in so many ways it was almost an irresistible medium to want to be about as an artist. The Light Phone became our platform for starting some of those conversations.

The timing for this launch of Light Phone 2 was pretty perfect. Compared to three years ago, when we launched our first campaign, it really does feel like there is a larger mainstream awareness now around the side effects of our smartphones and even to the extent of understanding how it is intentionally engineered by the tech monopolies like Facebook and Google. We’ve been exploring a second generation, working with some of our existing users for over a year now, and we did feel a building sensation that the time to launch the concept was now, although still very early in development.

The biggest benefit really comes down to space away. What one decides to do with that space is up to the them really. 

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 even more targeted. The long-term harder questions about what I’m doing with my life that can seem much too heavy to think about,so I fall into my smartphone feeds to avoid those thoughts. We’ve always had distractions, of course, and have always procrastinated as humans—we can see this in the writings of Seneca—but the smartphone gives us the perception of productivity with a ton of stimulation that is socially acceptable to abuse. 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. 

From the simple wonder that we’ve lost in being able to immediately Google anything, to our almost inability to sit still and alone, there are a lot of reasons why finding regular balance makes sense. We haven’t done studies as Light directly related to the productivity or even physical health benefits of going light, but I bet that would be interesting to understand as well.

In your opinion, is there a time and a place for all of the bells and whistles of a smartphone, or do you think those people who are working on truly becoming their best selves would be best served to ignore them altogether?

In your opinion, is there a time and a place for all of the bells and whistles of a smartphone, or do you think those people who are working on truly becoming their best selves would be best served to ignore them altogether?

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One can always find a suitable example of an appropriate use case for any of the bells or whistles in which we could agree, this app did something positive. Although one can just as easily see that it is usually more commonly abused than positive. What I find really interesting is the feeling of self-empowerment that our users describe when you take away these apps that we have convinced ourselves that we NEED and we realize we are actually fine without them. One user elegantly described them as minor inconveniences for getting one’s life back. 

Marty Cooper, inventor of the first cell phone and a critic of where modern smartphones have taken us, elegantly said, “a device that tries to do all things for all people, won’t do anything well.” From a purely design perspective I completely agree. For example a camera, when I don’t have my smartphone I bring my real cameras which not only take more meaningful photographs, but as a tool it is made to take photographs. The way I hold it in my hand, and look through a viewfinder, with manual focus on a physical ring, it’s a more rich experience than taking a photo on a smartphone could ever be. So sure, there is a maybe a time and place for some people to have a smartphone, but I’ve found that I get more pleasure by using fewer and more intention tools (camera, dedicated car GPS, books & sketchbooks, etc.).

What is some of the best feedback you've received from users of the original Light Phone?

We feel more confident than ever, having had 10,000 users now, that the idea of ‘going light’ is powerful and positive. The common feedback we heard from users, which is directly related to why we launched our second generation phone, is that they wanted to ‘go light’ even more often. Some users, myself included, are ready to try ‘going light’ for good. 

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In terms of using the original Light Phone, we loved that many shared not about the phone calls that were possible because of the Light Phone, but rather the epiphanies that they had while light. We hear a lot about the conversations that start around the phone itself when someone pulls out their Light Phone in public, which was exactly our initial goal.

From a design perspective, what other objects inspired the Light Phone? What inspires you in general?

Experientially, AOL Instant Messenger, in particular Away Messages, was a huge inspiration. It was some of my earliest internet experiences and I can remember clearly that when I left that chair in my dad’s study where the computer was, I left the internet behind, I thought that was a brilliant way to think of the Light Phone and a smartphone. From a more design perspective, I admire the work of Dietar Rams quite a lot. 

We had a sort of design philosophy that came from our initial user testing back in 2014 that we tried to bring into every aspect of the phone. From the form factor being a universal credit card shape to the lighting of the keypad leaving the phone completely blank when not in use, it was “designed to be used as little as possible”. 

In general I find myself incredibly inspired by literature, documentaries and music, all of pretty wide varieties. I find inspiration in conversations and day to day life, especially traveling. I always have the nagging feeling that almost everything I see could be done much better and somehow feeling single handily responsible for fixing them.

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Are there any other "anti-technology" technologies that you think are worth are trying out?

Not sure if I know any other “anti-technology” technologies per say, but there are definitely some awesome things about technology that I think have great potential. For one, Kickstarter is an amazing platform that made it possible for two guys, Kai and myself, to launch an idea into reality from scratch. That might not have been possible 10 years ago at all. I think there are technologies that empower us as humans and artists to achieve more than we maybe ever thought we were capable of, and that is really exciting to me.

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Thanks to Joe for chatting with us!

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