The core element of our product is minimalism. Designing this device from the hardware to the user experience we wanted the phone to be task-focused. Nothing is decorated and everything exists out of pure necessity.
Mladen Hoyss is the cofounder and product designer of Blloc—a small German technology company and makers of the minimalist smartphone, Zero18. We spoke to Mladen to discuss the importance of taking a minimalist approach to tech, what he has learned about colour, and some of the design decisions behind the phone’s hardware and software.
You live in Berlin, which is known as a highly creative city and startup hub of Germany. In what ways has Berlin influenced your ideas about creativity, and also tech?
There is a rawness and edge to the city that is quite unique. I’m inspired by the outlines of Berlin, it’s architecture and spirit. The city doesn’t try to be pretty or neat or anyone’s traditional archetypes of beauty. It’s gritty and dark and industrial and I think you can see design elements within Blloc that have been influenced by our surroundings here. There is a multi-faceted synthesis of culture, fashion, art, and tech that's putting the city on the map. It’s definitely catching up to bigger hubs like New York and San Francisco.
How did Blloc come to be? What was the main driver behind building your own smartphone?
Blloc actually emerged from a mutual frustration that my cofounder Adham and I experienced while working together at our last company. I was head of product design and Adham worked alongside me as head of engineering. Often we would be communicating digitally, sharing documents and files, while on the go and sometimes in different countries. With so many apps available to communicate and share files, we wasted a lot of time switching between them and would often lose track of what platform we used and when. Then you have the different apps that only work and are native to certain software, and apps that are illegal in certain countries. It was really frustrating. We thought, wouldn’t it be easier and more productive if we had one phone with one feed to communicate on? Everything centralised, with no more switching between apps. Adham and I also observed the rise in smartphone addiction over the past few years. Suddenly, no matter where you were, people’s necks are craned down glued to their devices. Most of us are guilty of it, that moment where you realised you picked up your phone hours ago to do one thing, and you got lost down the rabbit hole doing something completely different. We wanted to somehow support people to be more productive with their devices. At that point, the seed was planted, and Blloc was born.
What is the makeup of the Blloc team? Is everyone based in Berlin, and does anyone work remotely?
Our team is a mix of creatives, engineers, developers, UI/UX designers, and product designers. The majority are based in Berlin, while a small team of engineers work in Spain and China. None of this would have been possible without them. I feel very lucky to have found a group of people who are so passionate and dedicated to making Blloc what it has become. We are small, but fierce.
Let’s focus on the hardware. The phone design is different yet familiar. Interestingly, you kept the headphone jack. Why did you decide to keep that when other tech companies are choosing to omit it?
When I started designing the Zero18, the goal was to maintain a certain level of familiarity in the look and feel of the hardware. With the software being very different to what’s on the market, I chose to have the phone look like something people could understand and adopt right away. Of course, we are a hardware company and so the hardware will evolve in the future. We kept the headphone jack because of demand. As a small company we have the chance to listen to what our consumers want and make pivotal decisions and changes quite quickly. I have this routine in the morning where I drink coffee and watch new videos about products and launches in this industry. I immediately scroll to the comments section and pay attention to what consumers are expressing. It’s so real and opinionated down in the comments section, that it makes for a very fascinating morning read. A year ago a headphone jack was an essential feature and something people really wanted. Perhaps in the future with the changing headphone technology and the rise of wireless headphones this will change.
A common question we are asked when someone asks about Blloc is, “How good is the camera?” It’s clear that the camera is a key factor in deciding which device to invest in. What moves are you making to compete with the market’s big players in this regard?
We have worked so hard on the concept of this device; to create something that is beautiful and designed in a way where you can be productive and get on with real life. The camera hasn’t been at the forefront of our priorities, but we can’t deny that people now use their cellphone as their main camera. This is still something we are improving every day. However, it’s not our intention to compete with the big players.
What is your vision for future editions of the physical phone?
As a product designer, I’m taking notes everyday on my own behaviour and interaction with the phone. I also often observe how others handle it and consolidate those findings. What’s interesting is when I give people any phone and ask them about the size, the first thing they do is put the phone in their pocket! That’s a common test of measurement. They think how do I feel with it in my pocket? Can I sit down? Is it comfortable? It’s where your phone will be 50% of the time. These human interactions and insights have been so valuable. I want to put effort into bringing a smaller phone to the market which has all the trimmings of a larger device. Packing all the power, but not taking up as much space.
Shifting focus to the UI—the monochrome design language is the most notable element. Can you talk us through the thinking behind this approach?
The core element of our product is minimalism. Designing this device from the hardware to the user experience we wanted the phone to be task-focused. Meaning, no gimmicks and no fluff. Nothing is decorated and everything exists out of pure necessity. Unlike other devices, we didn’t include any addictive elements to keep you wired in and absorbed to the phone. Rather, we created the UI to enhance reading and focus with no other graphical elements to disrupt your view. What we ended up with is this clean and trimmed interface that is so enjoyable to use.
The Colour Touch function of the Blloc phone is a significant feature. What have you learned about how colour affects us; particularly in digital form?
Colour is a remarkable communication tool that can be used to spark emotions, signal action, and even influence your mood. I think with products and advertising specifically, we are over stimulated and over saturated in order to gain and keep our attention. It’s exhausting. It was clear to us while making Blloc OS that we wanted to create something stripped back. We based it on a monochromatic design language to not tire your eyes and cut unnecessary screen time. However when you want to appreciate your content in full colour we made sure to make it as easy as possible. You don’t have to press a button or go digging into your settings to shift between colour and black and white—it’s accessible with a touch of your finger. There is a balance there. I find it more appealing to use my phone in monochrome. It’s a feature I didn’t think I would use so much until it was made this easy.
You’re about to launch a desktop software product, which syncs with the phone. Can you explain the concept behind the app?
I’m really excited about the desktop app and how it will round out the Blloc experience. There is nothing out there like it in the market, a complete synchronised central station on your laptop for backups, photos, files, and usage time. As ironic as it sounds, we want to empower our users to spend less time on their phone. To do that we intend to make the most important information you need from your phone as accessible as possible, on any device. Again, it comes back to a seamless minimality and creating an experience whereby you don’t need to waste time and be sucked within any apps. While your phone is still in your bag, you can open your computer and receive all the most important information through a wifi-sync. All in real time.
Our favourite feature of the UI has to be the Lines icon pack. It brings such a beautiful uniformity to the app library. What feature of the phone are you most proud of?
We were so lucky to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Nate Wren on the UI. He had a beautiful product before and we reached out to him to help modify and adapt his designs to represent the Blloc brand. He did such a great job. It’s very hard to pick a favourite feature, as we put so much effort into every tiny detail of the software. If I had to choose, I’d say I’m proud of a rather small but useful feature, which doesn’t come natively on other phones. We integrated inside the OS the ability to lock every single app with your fingerprint so your data and important information is protected even while your phone is unlocked. Perhaps you lock your online banking app or your work communication app, whatever it is, it’s secured.
Can you explain the differences between the Tiles, the Tree, and Root?
Our goal is to create a people-centered OS, where people come first and apps second. This concept is embedded in all three parts (root-tiles-tree) of BllocMode. The Root is basically your command centre. It’s where you can easily access information without opening any apps at all. It simplifies all services into a single timeline, merging all interactions into one single view. It’s designed to save screen time and double productivity. The Tree is your communication hub. It unifies your conversations with your friends and contacts across all popular instant messaging apps so you focus on texting with people not apps. The best part is the ability to read and write in one single screen across all platforms, instead of switching between apps. The Tiles are your basic apps. This area is what looks most familiar to a common smartphone and its app layout.
A common principle of minimal design is timelessness. With technology, this is one of the most challenging factors to overcome, no more so than with smartphones. What is Blloc’s approach to remain relevant and useful for a sustained period of time?
Blloc’s approach to remaining relevant and useful is embedded in our design. We are trying to create something timeless that sticks to our principles. Our design is very raw, it’s simple, it’s not trying to be something it's not. We embrace this in our packaging with magnifying our barcodes and keeping a monochromatic and almost industrial appearance. The device is designed for a niche group of people, which we believe will eventually be the majority. It’s for those who relinquish the excess, for a life of pure necessity. Those who care about their privacy and about being mindful of their phone use. The pillars of a minimal lifestyle are based on simplicity, sustainability, and seamlessness. This doesn’t go out of style. What will make the phone itself timeless is our commitment to good and simple design and not attaching ourselves to any trends because they come and go. Our user experience is always evolving because of our commitment to actually listen to what people want. We put our users at the forefront of every decision and commit ourselves to making changes faster and adapt faster than the bigger players. Having this relationship and open communication with our users will ensure we can deliver on what they want and need from their smartphone.
It’s remarkable that with such a small team, you have already achieved so much. What is the biggest risk you have taken?
Yes, I’m incredibly proud of our team and what we’ve been able to accomplish. We are small, but everyone has an influence on all facets of the company. I’d say the biggest risk would be creating a smartphone! It’s not something people wake up one morning and decide they are going to tackle. Often when I tell people what I do, it’s met with a quizzical look. But I’ve grown rather fond of this response and makes the challenge even more rewarding.
Are we going to see the phone more widely available to consumers beyond the European market?
We actually just recently finalised the last steps in becoming a US-based company. Our product has such a high demand in North America and we’re very excited to launch their soon. We will definitely share updates on this process on our social media.
At this moment in your career, do you feel satisfied with where you’re at; creatively or otherwise?
I’m never going to be fully satisfied, this is the reality of being a creative. Doubting designs and concepts happens very often. However, there’s no doubt I am satisfied with the level of continual learning. Through the creation of Blloc and the people I’ve met, I have experienced so much that no school can possibly prepare you for. My team continues to inspire me and that has been no doubt one of the most fulfilling aspects of this whole journey.
Do the philosophies of minimalism apply to your life outside of the Blloc office? If so, how?
Yes, minimalism weaves through every part of my life. As a product designer and founder of a company that preaches minimalism, it’s at the forefront of my mind every day. It’s important for me to make sure people understand what minimalism is and certainly what it is not. It’s recently become something of a phenomenon, or a movement, which is great. Although it's hard to explain as it's not a colour or a shape. For me, it’s a way of life. It’s a choice that influences perception, decision-making, and mindset. Everything should have a purpose or serve some sort of function in my life. I try not to carry excess. It plays into the decisions I make every day based on needs and not wants. It influences how I eat, how I commute, and how I communicate. It’s not always tangible or visual as well. Mentally, I try to not clutter my mind. I love how personal and subjective it is, I’ve met people you would never assume to be minimalist but they are approaching life in a very minimalist fashion and that is beautiful.