Anderson '84, one of the guys behind Nokia, brings interest in art
and architecture to making mobile phones
When Erik Anderson '84 went to work for Nokia's mobile phone unit
in 1989, the company was a Finnish conglomerate known for its rubber
boots and industrial cables. The phone factory near Anderson's office
in Salo, Finland, had been outfitted with high ceilings and an extra-thick
floor so that it could be used to build sailboats "in
case the mobile phone business didn't work out," Anderson said.
The phone business has worked out just fine. Last year, Nokia
sold an estimated 140 million mobile phones, 35 percent of the world
total and more than twice as many as any other manufacturer. And
Anderson has played no small part in the climb, helping design key
software for the phone models that started Nokia to the top and,
for the last several years, overseeing Nokia's largest line of phones,
those it sells in Europe and Asia.
In May he was promoted to head a new business unit that will seek
to extend Nokia's dominance into the market for corporate handheld
organizers that includes the Palm Pilot and Compaq iPAQ. .
Along the way, the 39-year-old has found a way to marry his interest
in Renaissance art and architecture, which first blossomed at Princeton,
with his work. "I think the approach to making architecture
in the Renaissance is very useful to making anything," says
Anderson, who has worked closely with the creative team that designs
the look of Nokia phones.
Anderson came to Finland originally not for Nokia, but for love.
After graduating from Princeton with a degree in electrical engineering
and computer science, he spent two years as a consultant at Booz
Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., then three years getting his
masters degree in fine arts at Harvard, where he concentrated on
Renaissance art and architecture.
On a trip to Europe while at Harvard, he detoured to Finland to
seek out a woman whom he'd met on a postcollege visit in 1984. Two
weeks later, he proposed to Tove Ringbom, now his wife, by telegram
and eventually moved to Finland.
He began working at Nokia, he says, because it was the only local
company that did not mind that he could not speak Finnish. Despite
his youth and inexperience, he was soon dispatched to meetings where
Nokia and other phone companies were writing the technical standards
for the relatively new industry.
"In those days, we had no idea what we were on to,"
he said. "We knew that mobile phones were fun, but we certainly
had no idea how big it was going to be."
Back at Nokia, he was designing the user interface the
software that controls how a user accesses a phone's functions
for the Nokia 101, its first phone to sell widely on a global basis,
and the 2100 series of phones, the round-face models that were its
breakthrough line. Nokia's user interface, much admired for its
simplicity, has been credited as a chief reason the company was
able to overtake competitors such as Motorola and Ericsson.
Anderson hadn't lost his interest in architecture, though. And
in 1994, after spending another semester at Harvard teaching as
a graduate assistant and taking his general exams, he left for Italy
with a Fulbright grant to do research on 16th-century architect
Andrea Palladio, the subject of his doctoral dissertation.
Even while in Italy, though, he remained an informal consultant
for Nokia, which continued to pay his mobile phone bills. And in
1995, he returned to Nokia, which had been struggling to develop
He found he could apply the lessons of his architects to his work.
"As a Renaissance architect, Palladio was struggling with the
issue of what we call in architecture typology: What does a church
look like, what does a house look like, what does a bridge look
like," he said. "How do architects create and people recognize
typologies and what visual and functional languages are used?"
"I started somehow thinking about the issue of trying to
approach product design and segmentation the way the Renaissance
architects approached building design. It sounds hokey, but it worked
for me," he says.
He incorporated Renaissance books and buildings in the presentations
that he gave to engineers and product managers. "It's very
simple stuff. My professors would probably throw up and consider
it vulgar sacrilege," he says. But, he says, the engineers
"come in thinking about making a piece of cheap plastic. We
talk about architecture for an hour, and they walk out of there
with a different attitude. They put their heart into it and they're
better able to make decisions and make choices."
Anderson and his group helped to develop Nokia's first phones
with built-in games and ringing tones that could be downloaded from
the Internet, as well as its first models with changeable covers.
"Those two phones took us to No. 1," Anderson says. The
new features, and the phones' fashionable look, helped separate
Nokia from its competitors.
Now, Anderson has turned his attention to the corporate sector,
where Nokia faces competition not only from its traditional rivals
in the mobile phone industry, but also from handheld-computer makers
such as Palm and even on the software side from Microsoft.
"The corporate space is very new for Nokia," he says.
"We have very little presence and very little track record
or experience in the corporate space. But we're very interested
The challenge is big enough, he says, that the doctoral dissertation,
still incomplete, will have to wait.
By Buster Kantrow '95
Buster Kantrow is a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires in Stockholm.