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Invisible Cells: the Aesthetic Challenge of Small Cells


frog recently developed a new design and vision roadmap with Alcatel-Lucent for the company’s family of small cells products. Small cells power the connected world by providing a low-power signal in close distance to mobile users, improving mobile coverage, capacity and the quality of experience in networks.

Alcatel-Lucent approached us with an interesting and innovative technology that solves an increasingly common consumer issue – the demand for more data capacity on mobile networks. In the next five years, mobile data demands will increase dramatically. Mobile cell towers will be replaced by small cells technology, making the new technology relatively common across operator networks and ubiquitous in the built landscape.

This trend doesn’t come without problems. As frog’s initial design research in various countries uncovered, people are increasingly reluctant to have new infrastructure technology installed in public spaces, as they are now accustomed to rather unattractive equipment that clutters the built landscape. However, they do want the benefits of the technology. So how can our neighborhoods, corporate campuses and city streets absorb the new mobile wireless infrastructure? The answer is design-driven: Small cells need to become aesthetic and blend with existing elements like lampposts, buildings, benches or signage. This will reduce their visual impact, aiding operators with site acquisition negotiations and minimizing resistance from a range of stakeholders. frog worked with Alcatel-Lucent to develop a design language for the small cells station, creating a new design that would discretely integrate into high population outdoor urban areas like pedestrian areas, public places, parks and airports, without compromising affordability, accessibility and performance.

Designing "invisible" small cells

As we began the design process, a critical point was that the new small cells design would have appropriate aesthetics while being feasible to mass produce and practical to implement. Creating an attractive cell that would blend into the built environment was the primary goal, but it still had to function in the real world. The design had to account for all internal components and any requirements for installation, mounting, sealing, and serviceability of the device. It was expected to work outside in all weather conditions, and be safeguarded against tampering. The design and source materials also needed to be cost-effective and compatible with the company’s manufacturing infrastructure.

With these considerations in mind, we began a three-stage design process:

Stage 1: Discover


The first stage of our process began with an immersion together with Alcatel Lucent into aesthetics and practical requirements, to ensure any design matched the existing and future product portfolio. At the same time, we asked our team to take photos and sketches of existing technology infrastructure in urban environments. We found the majority of technology in open spaces is not “owned” as such by any company or individual, and therefore is often visually unappealing. It is often partly painted, with untidy wires or using unattractive materials. We dubbed these existing small cell products “techno-parasites.”

To ensure the design brief was not one-sided, we conducted a series of interviews with decision makers for public spaces in the UK and Germany. These people are ultimately responsible for purchasing any small cells installed in an urban environment. The interviews provided us deep insights into their concerns, and the requirements and challenges of installing and mounting cells in urban spaces. 

We combined this research to help develop a clear brief for the design team. The ultimate outcome was to design a product people either appreciate aesthetically, or do not notice at all.

Stage 2: Design


In the next stage we sketched out various illustrative designs for the small cells stations. We incorporated internal components, such as printed circuit boards and aerials, to ensure the design matched the devices’ technological requirements.

We then prototyped the most promising concepts as basic models, crafted from foam, giving a clear idea of size and dimensions for each small cell. The models were ultimately mounted on fake lamp posts in frog’s Munich studio, giving an impression of the appearance in an urban environment. We included sealing and mounting solutions in the basic models to ensure they formed part of the final design. Without a realistic mounting scenario the small cell could have looked good but have been difficult or impossible to install, and we wanted to ensure our design concepts and hardware models provided a profound base for evaluation, further iteration, and selection.

At the same time, our design team created photorealistic renderings to give an impression of color, material and finish of the product. These renderings included considerations for sealing and mounting, as well as an overview of how the cells’ internal components would be assembled. This provided the most realistic data possible to inform the model-making process, ensuring the design both met the visual requirements of the brief and actually worked when put together. With the final appearance models we fabricated, we could provide Alcatel Lucent with a detailed, emotional and realistic look and feel of their new product.

Stage 3: Deliver


With the design completed and the final concept selected, our process moved on to a final production analysis of the design. Designers and engineers worked hand in hand throughout the project to ensure suitable and cost-effective manufacturing processes and materials could be used to produce a mass-production version of the selected design. Alcatel-Lucent’s internal hardware development teams were working in parallel to frog, the agile process of continuous exchange between these two tracks, finalized and aligned all details of the new product design language system with manufacturing.

The result is a well thought-through balance of design and engineering - with construction as simple as possible while maxing out the scalability of the visual language to be adapted to many possible future variations. The new, growing family of Metro Cell products ensures that small cells can take their place in the built environment while visually blending into an urban context. As small cells continue to benefit the mobile user and grow likely to become ubiquitous in everyday life in the near future, good design will fuel this mobile revolution.

Holger Hampf is an Executive Creative Director at frog's Munich studio. Ralph Bremenkamp is a Principal Director, also at frog Munich. Another version of this post is published here