This intriguing question was posed by the BBC to a number of well-known designers for its Imagineering series looking at creating 21st century solutions to everyday objects and products.

Jared Mankelow, senior designer at London-based urban design, architecture and interior design practice Conran & Partners, was one of these designers and together with his design team, they immediately thought of the digital camera. They then set about reimagining every aspect, from the form factor to the technology inside. “We wanted to get at the essence of photography – capturing the beauty or the joy of what’s in front of you. This meant challenging conventions of what a camera is and how it’s used,” explains Mankelow.

“Given our background, we also tried to rethink the camera as an object. Is it something you put on your mantelpiece or your table, or is it something you squirrel away in a drawer?”

The starting point was looking at old cameras, which they drew a great deal of inspiration from, preferring them to today’s digital counterparts. They particularly liked the detailing and change of textures, which is no longer apparent on new cameras.

“More widely, we also looked at social and cultural trends,” says Mankelow. “It’s interesting that more and more people are buying analogue products – focusing on the art of doing things, rather than just getting them done. This applies to everything from cycling to cookery – and, we think, to photography.”

The team then translated their thoughts directly onto paper. As Mankelow explains, discussion and sketching are always the first steps at Conran & Partners as it allows the team to design in a very free way – to share ideas and annotate. They never jump straight into CAD as these tools can often get in the way and be constraining in these initial stages. “It’s also worth mentioning the importance of happy accidents – when your pencil strays and you end up with something wonderful. That doesn’t happen so much on a computer.”

They also carried out user research with the most obvious observation being that, as cameras are such a large mass, more often than not they obstruct the user’s view when held up to their face. “Even with a decent viewfinder, you feel disconnected. How often have you heard someone say ‘the photo doesn’t do it justice’ or ‘the camera doesn’t see what I see’?” says Mankelow.

This led to the creation of the most striking feature of their concept and also the heart of the whole design – a round aperture punched right through the camera’s centre. Doing this allows the user to take a photo of what they see without any obstruction.

“In a way, our design harks back to old-fashioned view cameras, when you put a black cloth over your head to compose the shot. We want people to be totally immersed in the act of photography,” says Mankelow. “We also really think that this design will allow you to take better photos, and it’s fun and playful to boot.”

Another notable feature is that, unlike all of today’s digital cameras, there is no screen. Screens have two functions – first, they contain the menu for the various features and functions of the camera and, second, they allow users to view an image of the photograph they’ve just taken. Concerning the latter, most people carry either a smartphone, tablet or PC around with them, which all feature high-resolution screens. So with the camera connecting wirelessly to one of these devices via Bluetooth means that the user can view their photos that way.

But Mankelow and his team also liked the idea of users not immediately seeing the photograph that they’ve just taken, of recapturing that delight of a film camera by not looking. “There’s a lot of fun in not seeing your photos straight away. The experience is quite close to that of a Polaroid camera – the joy of waiting,” he says.

“Also, one thing we got from talking to photographers is that review screens tend to get in the way of picture-taking – and of enjoying whatever it is you’re doing. It’s the feeling you get when you see someone at a gig staring at their phone. You’re doing it wrong!”

The fact that screens eat battery life was another reason as to why they decided to do without it.
With no screen and a giant hole in the middle, this meant that the designers could really redesign the camera’s form factor. Cameras were traditionally long, flat rectangles due to the shape of the film inside and, later, with the introduction of digital cameras, the shape of review screens. With both of these removed, the camera can shrink down to a square, small enough to fit into a pocket alongside a phone or a wallet.

Having decided on a form, the design team spent a lot of time sketching and printing out their views of the camera. They then stuck them to blocks of Post-It notes, which are roughly the size of the camera, to get a sense of how they would work in three dimensions. Paper and card models were made before eventually moving to the computer and modelling the design 
in CAD.

In terms of the features – old cameras had many buttons and dials on them, most of which have been replaced with screen-based menus. However, with so many options it has also increased the complexity of cameras, with most users only using half of their camera’s functionality.

“Most people’s regular photography experience is pressing two or three buttons on their smartphone and, hey presto, they can take a photo right away. We tried to bear that in mind with our design – the manual controls are there for those who want them, but there are no modes or scenes to select,” explains Mankelow.

So, instead of the fiddly screen-based menu, the Conran team went back to physical controls – grooves, knurls and ridges – that allow the user to change the settings without looking. “In photography, tactility is important – many photographers say that what they want to be able to do is use their camera ‘blind’. Hence, the knurled dials and textured grips, which we have retained in our design. In many ways, this project was about ‘the art of subtraction’ – working out what we could remove that would enhance, rather than compromise, the experience,” he says.

They also thought very carefully about the functional grouping of controls and came up with a ‘two band’ structure. The bottom band of the camera is ‘point and shoot’. So, literally, as soon as the product is turned on, the user can take photographs straightaway. Whereas the top band features the additional functionality, including the adjustment of aperture, light settings and speed.

As the team wanted this to be a tactile experience, they designed physical details such as a raised lip around the lens so that the user can feel if their fingers are getting too close to the lens. “The shutter button on the camera is also another nice detail; it is gently concave and really draws the finger. We chose to put it on the back side of the camera to minimise the shake introduced by pressing it,” explains Mankelow.

They also didn’t want to make the camera too light, although the technology probably would have allowed them to. Weight gives a sense of quality and is also important for the stable composition of photographs.

In terms of the technology, the image quality obviously needs to be higher than the in-built camera in current smartphones in order to tempt people to purchase the camera. This was achieved though an array of light sensors that surround the central aperture, allowing the camera to resolve images with incredible clarity. A ring flash allows lighting of even close-up subjects.

Such multi-sensor technology could even make stereoscopy photography possible – creating the illusion of three-dimensional depth. “Taking 3D photographs isn’t a new idea – people were taking stereo photographs in the 19th century but both the technology and the appetite for it has grown,” describes Mankelow.

This camera project was completed in a relatively short time frame. A number of different mock-ups and rapid prototypes were created, with each iteration designed to perfect the feeling of the camera in-hand. The final prototype received a great deal of feedback when it was launched.

“The fact that we put it out there at such an early stage has been great,” says Mankelow. “It has generated a lot of discussion, both about the design itself and about the act of photography. We’re really happy with how people have engaged with the idea.”

The beauty of the Conran camera is that all of the technology embodied within it is currently available, which means that the design could feasibly be taken forward and developed in a reasonably short time frame. “This is a concept design, but it has generated a lot of interest from manufacturers we’ve spoken to,” says Mankelow. “Watch this space!”

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Back to the future

Back to the future

Retro. It was a golden word in the auto industry for a while. And, of course, car designers are keen on linking the past with the present. But recently the failure in the marketplace of some retro designs has automotive executives scratching their heads and thinking maybe ‘retro’ isn’t a fail-safe way to go.

Play, Share, You
Russell Kennedy and the voice of design

Russell Kennedy and the voice of design

Russell Kennedy, discusses his new role as the president of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda), and the organisations’ progression from simply an international network of designers, towards an advocacy role made up of representatives from many smaller groups and government bodies – collectively speaking as a voice of design.


Profiting from your IP

Like any commodity, a company’s Intellectual Property (IP) is a powerful and valuable asset – generally created for financial gain. In some cases it can represent a monopoly in product, service or design.