The Light Phone: Designed for Disconnecting

A mobile phone industry veteran and an artist-designer team up to create a discreet credit card-sized phone that accepts calls, not distractions

Phone addiction is real—as evidenced by a quick glance down the street, in the subway, even at the dinner table—and is one of the reasons why Apple developed a watch: so we would look at our screens less and be present more. For some, however, a smartwatch isn’t enough—it still leaves room for fiddling and distraction. Artist and designer Joe Hollier and mobile phone industry veteran Kaiwei Tang (who’s brought products like Motorola Defy, Droid 4, Razr to life) are taking control over how they want to interact with tech in their own lives: by creating a phone designed to be used as little as possible. The Light Phone only makes and receives calls (and tells the time). It works with your existing phone so that calls get forwarded, so you can leave your “personal computer” at home when you go for a jog, take a lunch break, escape for the weekend; for those moments when Twitter and email can wait, but calls from your very pregnant sister can’t. And the Light Phone is pretty much everything your current smartphone in rotation isn’t: it’s the size of a credit card, has 20 days of battery life, and meant to be timeless—not replaced every year.

After developing and building The Light Phone inside of Hyper Island and Google’s inaugural 30 Weeks incubator program for designers, the two are taking to Kickstarter to make it a reality for those who want to disconnect a little.


In essence, the Light Phone is an unlocked pre-paid cellphone (one that doesn’t make you look like a fugitive) that comes preloaded with 500 minutes and works independent of your carrier. This means if you actually don’t own a smartphone—or the more common case, if your smartphone dies—the Light Phone will still work, making it a useful emergency back-up phone. Hollier and Tang also note its potential as a child’s first phone: no apps, no social media, just calls. We see the Light Phone as a good balance between staying connected to what’s important, instead of the current options for “disconnecting,” which involve either turning off your phone, going in airplane mode, or entering each app and turning off notifications.


“Prior to having a phone, I loved the excuse of being unreachable by my parents when I would be out,” Hollier recalls to CH of his personal relationship with phones. “I found solitude incredibly therapeutic. And when I did go out for the day, my phone would usually die and I loved that. I used to joke about how freeing it was: no idea what time it was, no guilt of not answering or waiting for a reply.” He continues, “I also skateboard a lot and would leave my phone home. My girlfriend however would always tell me, ‘You’re going to get hurt and not be able to call help. You don’t even know my phone number,’ which was probably very true, but what always bothered me was after skating I’d want to get a drink or dinner with her and not be able to contact her.” When Hollier joined the Google incubator, he become exposed to more tech world conversations around apps or watches that “would give us our time back”—but he thought the direction was misguided. The Light Phone was created as a way to give back more than just time, but giving us back trains of thoughts, and focus: hours enjoying life without pings, dings and (shudder) phantom vibration syndrome.


From another perspective, Tang, who is older than Hollier, has been working on phones for a decade and recalls “growing scared of his phone ringing, especially during the middle of the night, because it would mean that most likely some work-related emergency was happening on the other side of the world.” This fear of the ringtone, coupled with the gloom of working on multiple “new” phones a year (which only involved minor upgrades and design changes), instilled a urge to create a groundbreaking phone that could change our relationship with it for the better. “Kaiwei left that world, pursued studies in human-centered design and now that we’ve met he’s making a phone, like he used to, but we’re doing in a very different way this time around,” says Hollier.


The team has been surprisingly frank and practical about the lengthy turnaround time; instead of making false promises, they’ve offer a clear schedule that notes the first shipment could take up to one year, arriving May 2016. They’ve also been regularly documenting their process in a dedicated Tumblr, which will continue to be updated.


Donate $100 to the Light Phone Kickstarter campaign, launched today, to reserve yours. On a separate note, if you’re a fellow designer feeling inspired by this project, applications for the second Hyper Island + Google 30 Weeks incubator program are open until 10 June 2015.

Images courtesy of the Light Phone