Skip to content

A Nostalgic Look Back at Nokia‘s Most Hilarious and Brilliant Phone Designs

Before the iPhone and Android dominated the smartphone landscape, one company reigned supreme when it came to mobile phone innovation: Nokia. The Finnish telecommunications giant first entered the mobile market in the late 1980s and quickly became a household name. At its peak in the early 2000s, Nokia controlled over 40% of the global handset market.

While today‘s slick glass slabs have converged on a fairly standard slate design, Nokia was never afraid to take huge risks with its phone designs, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many of these experiments produced some truly wild and hilarious looking devices that were nonetheless way ahead of their time.

As we‘ll see, Nokia‘s design team clearly had a lot of fun coming up with creative new form factors, even if they didn‘t always translate into commercial success. Let‘s take a nostalgic stroll down memory lane and revisit some of Nokia‘s most iconic and out-there designs from a technical and historical perspective.

Nokia 3650 (2003)

Nothing exemplifies Nokia‘s unorthodox design approach better than the 3650. Running the Symbian Series 60 operating system, this device took the bizarre step of arranging the numerical keys in a circular layout surrounding the 5-way navigation pad.

Supposedly this was done to make room for a larger 2.1", 176 x 208 pixel color screen, which was huge for the time. But the end result looked more like an old rotary telephone. While certainly attention-grabbing, the circular keypad wasn‘t the most ergonomic for typing out texts.

Still, you have to give Nokia points for originality. And amazingly, the 3650 also featured a VGA camera capable of capturing video, a rarity in 2003. It could even run scaled down Java versions of games like Tomb Raider and Tony Hawk‘s Pro Skater. So underneath that gimmicky exterior was a surprisingly advanced device.

Nokia 7600 (2003)

Nokia was clearly going through a bit of an experimental phase in 2003. Not content with just the 3650‘s circular keypad, they also released the aggressively fashion-forward 7600.

Shaped like an elongated teardrop with interchangeable color covers, the 7600 was aimed squarely at trendy, style-conscious consumers. But with only a 2" QVGA screen crammed into that awkward stretched-out case, it wasn‘t the most user-friendly.

Under the hood though, the 7600 was actually Nokia‘s first 3G capable phone. It was powered by a 104 MHz ARM processor and had 29 MB of internal storage. So while its out-there looks grabbed the headlines, the 7600 was also an important technical milestone on the path to high-speed mobile data.

Nokia N-Gage QD (2003)

Long before the iPhone sparked a mobile gaming revolution, Nokia tried to combine a handheld game console and phone with the N-Gage. The device‘s taco-like shape and odd side-talking speaker/mic placement quickly made it the butt of many internet jokes.

But the N-Gage was way ahead of its time in trying to bring serious gaming experiences like Tomb Raider, Tony Hawk‘s Pro Skater, and Call of Duty to the small screen. It supported online play over Nokia‘s GPRS network, had a respectable (for the time) 3D graphics chip, and featured a user-swappable MMC card slot for expandable storage.

The N-Gage was ultimately a commercial flop, selling only around 3 million units total. But its legacy can be seen in every modern smartphone game. And its taco shape, while ridiculous looking, was actually a clever bit of engineering to cram in a larger landscape-oriented screen and long-lasting battery. Sometimes genius looks a bit silly at first glance.

Nokia 7280 (2004)

Perhaps the most hilarious and impractical Nokia design of all, the "lipstick" 7280 didn‘t even have a keypad. Instead, you were supposed to use a click-wheel to tediously scroll through letters one-by-one when typing out a text.

Luckily, this fashion-victim phone had a built-in 640-entry contact list. So the idea was you would mostly just be scrolling to a name and hitting the call button on this sleek little device that was designed explicitly for style over substance. At only 84g and 75cc in volume, it was by far the smallest phone Nokia had ever made.

Somehow this triumph of form over function won a prestigious iF Product Design Gold Award in 2004 before being quickly forgotten by the buying public. While the 7280 was a bit ridiculous, you have to respect Nokia‘s willingness to explore the boundaries of phone design and try to create devices that didn‘t even look like phones at all.

Nokia 7710 (2004)

One of Nokia‘s first true smartphones, the 7710 had a large 3.5" resistive touchscreen and ran the Series 90 Symbian OS. But what made it truly hilarious was the optional "Enhance TV" receiver attachment which clamped onto the back and allowed you to watch analog TV broadcasts on the go.

With the clunky headset antenna attached, the 7710 resembled an early-1990s brick phone more than a cutting-edge smart device. And at 190g, it was an absolute unit compared to other phones of the time. But that extra heft allowed for some impressive specs:

  • 252 MHz Texas Instruments OMAP 1510 CPU
  • 128 MB flash memory, 70 MB free for user data
  • Up to 4 hours movie playback time
  • Full HTML browser with JavaScript/SSL support
  • Word/Excel/PowerPoint document viewer
  • Handwriting recognition

So while the 7710 looked a bit silly with the TV attachment, it was an incredibly powerful device for its era and offered a glimpse of the smartphone future to come. It‘s just a shame that future didn‘t really involve watching much analog TV on tiny screens.

Nokia 6800 series (2003)

In the early 2000s, BlackBerry was starting to gain traction with business users thanks to its email and messaging focused devices. Nokia‘s response was the 6800 series and its truly bizarre fold-out QWERTY keyboard.

On these models, the screen and number pad were split across two halves of the phone, connected by a central hinge. When you needed to type, you would pivot the two halves outward to form a makeshift mini-laptop.

It was a clever idea in theory that provided a much roomier typing experience than the standard T9 phone keypad. But in practice, the unfolded 6800 was a bit of a thick, awkward handful. Still, you have to applaud Nokia for thinking outside the clamshell flip phone box and experimenting with transforming designs.

Lasting impact and legacy

While many of these quirky Nokia devices look downright ridiculous by today‘s smartphone standards, it‘s important to remember the context of the early 2000s cell phone market. This was an era of rapid experimentation and innovation, when mobile phones were evolving from simple communication tools into miniature computers. No one was quite sure what the ideal form factor was yet.

So Nokia‘s willingness to take big design risks was actually quite admirable and forward-thinking. The goal was to push the boundaries of what a phone could look like and do. Some of these design elements were actually quite brilliant from an engineering perspective, even if the final device looked a bit goofy.

Take the N-Gage‘s taco shape for example. While easy to mock, this design allowed Nokia to fit in a much larger, higher resolution landscape display than other phones at the time. The side-talking mic/speaker placement also left more room for the all-important D-pad and gaming buttons.

Of course, Nokia‘s experimental designs didn‘t always translate into commercial hits. The N-Gage sold fewer than 3 million units total, while the 7280 "lipstick" phone was little more than a fashion-week novelty.

But even the flops helped to generate buzz and establish Nokia as an iconic brand on the cutting edge of cell phone design. And some of the technical innovations in these ahead-of-their-time devices, like the 7710‘s touchscreen and 6800‘s QWERTY keyboard, would go on to become standard features in modern smartphones.

More broadly, Nokia‘s design risks helped to transform the cultural perception of mobile phones. By making bold fashion statements and targeting niche audiences like gamers, Nokia turned cell phones into desirable lifestyle accessories with the same cache as watches or jewelry. Before the iPhone, Nokia made the "designer phone" a reality.

The company‘s eventual downfall had more to do with software than hardware. As touchscreen smartphones took off in the late 2000s, Nokia failed to respond with a modern OS and apps ecosystem. No amount of wacky designs could save Nokia once the iPhone and Android raised the bar for the mobile user experience.

Still, today‘s phone makers could learn a thing or two from Nokia‘s heyday. The modern smartphone market has matured and plateaued, with even bargain bin Android phones delivering great core functionality. To truly stand out, companies may need to start taking bigger risks again on bold new form factors and designs.

We‘re already seeing the first glimpses of this with foldable screens and dual-display devices from Samsung, Motorola and Microsoft. As smartphone hardware gets ever more commoditized, design will be a key differentiator and way to grab consumer attention again.

So while we may chuckle at Nokia‘s hilarious old designs, we should also appreciate the spirit of innovation behind them. Without Nokia‘s willingness to try seemingly crazy ideas, the mobile industry would be a lot more boring. Here‘s hoping today‘s phone makers can recapture some of that magic from the glory days of mobile.

Sales figures and market share data

To put Nokia‘s success in context, here are some key stats from its golden age in the early 2000s:

Year Global market share
2000 30.6%
2001 35.0%
2002 35.8%
2003 34.7%
2004 30.7%

Source: Gartner

At its peak in 2002, Nokia sold over 151 million phones, accounting for more than a third of the entire worldwide market. The iconic Nokia 1100, released in 2003, went on to become the best selling consumer electronics device of all time, with over 250 million units sold.

Even seemingly niche devices like the N-Gage performed respectably, moving around 2 million units in its first year before being redesigned as the smaller N-Gage QD in 2004. For comparison, the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, released in 2001, sold 81.5 million units over its entire lifespan.

So while Nokia may be remembered for its more outlandish designs, its dominance of the early mobile phone market cannot be overstated. Before the rise of smartphones, Nokia was the undisputed king of mobile.


Looking back at Nokia‘s design history, it‘s clear the company was never afraid to take risks and push the envelope. From the circular keypad of the 3650 to the lipstick-like 7280, Nokia consistently challenged the notion of what a mobile phone could look like.

Not all of these gambles paid off, and Nokia‘s eventual decline had more to do with its failure to adapt to the touchscreen smartphone era than any design missteps. But there‘s no denying the influential legacy Nokia left on the mobile industry.

Many of the features and form factors we take for granted in modern smartphones, like front-facing cameras, media playback controls, and QWERTY keyboards, were pioneered or popularized by Nokia‘s quirky designs. And the N-Gage, while a commercial flop, was incredibly prescient in imagining a converged device for communication and gaming.

More than any specific design element though, it‘s the spirit of playful innovation behind these wacky Nokia devices that deserves remembering. In today‘s sea of interchangeable glass slabs, it‘s easy to forget how exciting and unpredictable the mobile industry once was. Here‘s hoping the next wave of folding phones and AR wearables can recapture some of that boundless potential.

Because the cell phone market could certainly use a few more lipstick communicators and taco-shaped gaming machines. Sometimes, you need to risk looking a little ridiculous to change the world.