Carl Pei Has Nothing To Lose

We went to London to get a firsthand look at Nothing’s design studio and talk to the people waging a battle against an army of boring gadgets.

Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco, California,...
Bloomberg/Getty Images

Carl Pei is bored.

On the surface, that sounds like a bad thing for a self-appointed visionary to be — especially one whose entire brand is built on “making tech fun.” But as the founder of Nothing explains to me while touring the company’s posh design studio in London, boredom isn’t a fatal flaw, it’s actually the key.

“Humans get bored so we can keep pushing things forward,” Pei says. “And not being satisfied with the status quo — I think it's a great trait.”

To me, in this moment, Pei doesn’t look bored or inspired. He just looks tired. By the time we speak, he’s fresh off the heels of marathon-style interviews with YouTubers and journalists from across the globe. I’m his last sprint of the day. Even for someone whose ambitions are partly predicated on the time and attention of people like me, that’s a lot of public relations in one serving.

Pei isn’t alone. Everyone I talk to over the span of about eight hours at Nothing’s design headquarters looks tired. Maybe it's the constant travel between China, India, and the U.K. Maybe it’s just the banal C-suite stress of running an honest-to-God multinational tech company. It’s hard to say for sure, but I have a hunch after seeing firsthand a glimmer of the process behind what Nothing creates. My diagnosis? It’s creative-itis. And I suspect it’s terminal.

Something from Nothing

This October marked three years since Pei and friends took the stage to announce Nothing’s presence as a player in the cutthroat world of consumer electronics. Next to nothing the company has done since then has been done the easy way or the normal one.

Take Nothing’s calling card for hardware design — transparency. On the surface, see-through earbuds may seem like a relatively simple feat to pull off. This is 2023 and Nintendo was making soon-to-be iconic Atomic Purple Game Boys back in 1998. But simple, Nothing’s process is not.

In the case of the Ear 1, the mortal enemy was glue. As told by Nothing’s designers, assembling a pair of see-through earbuds in an aesthetically pleasing way was, in fact, a giant pain in the ass. Nothing’s lead designer, Adam Bates, who cut his teeth envisioning recognizable products at Dyson, tells me the same glue-induced headache plagued the Phone 2, Nothing’s second-gen Android smartphone.

Nothing’s design studio is full of 3D-printed prototypes that show the progressions between the design and fabrication phase.

Photograph by James Pero

During our time at Nothing’s studio, Bates goes so far as to refer to being a designer as an “affliction” of sorts, and the evidence of that sickness is everywhere you look. Tucked inside plastic crates there are dozens of 3D-printed prototypes of the Phone 1 and 2 stacked like employee files ready to be thumbed through or pored over like a touchable timeline. They’re physical reminders of the grueling process between vision and reality.

The same half-a-dozen 3D printers that made those models are going non-stop from the moment I arrive to the moment I leave, quietly crafting cases, chassis, and sometimes even convincing mock phones out of plastic or metal. Outside of electricity and money, it’s a type of creative obsession that keeps the printers moving.

“When you see a product launch and you think about those product launches that we remember, it doesn't feel like that anymore. I don't think that's just because we're older than we were then,” Bates tells me from inside the cramped studio where Nothing creates the weird blips and crackles that comprise the Phone 1 and 2’s sound palette.

“Even though the technology is still amazing, it's kind of more predictable. Like, the camera’s much better; the battery life is better; the display is better; the processor is better. But you could guess those things. And you can guess that next year.”

So in order to keep us guessing (and maybe themselves) Bates and friends try to recapture what he describes as the “childlike” excitement of a shiny, new, gadget launch. The way Nothing sees it, we’re all awash in a sea of sameness. They've tasked themselves with casting similarly bored onlookers a meticulously designed life preserver.

Lead designer Adam Bates showed media where Nothing makes its 3D printed prototypes.

Photograph by James Pero

Naturally, that necessitates some good old-fashioned inspiration. So sprinkled around its filled studio shelves are books on design from different parts of the world, bygone eras where conversation pits and gratuitous chest hair were a thing, and some niches that I, a layman in the world of design, didn’t even know existed. Bates says his favorite book at the moment is a compilation of ad campaigns spanning from the ‘50s until semi-recently.

“We don’t think design is better now than it was in the ‘70s,” he says.

The products that evidently inspire Nothing’s designers match his proclamation — they aren’t exactly modern. On shelves inside the bottom floor of its studio are vintage gadgets like Game Boys and see-through telephones (the ones with curled wires, not the kind that demands you beam TikTok into your eyeballs all day). In one case, I spot a curious blue transparent piece of plastic that I later determine is a skateboard wheel. This is inspiration to Nothing’s designers. It’s also the pinnacle of ‘90s product design.

Early drafts of Nothing products.

Photograph by James Pero

Cases full of products that inspire Nothing's design process.

Photograph by James Pero

Retro products and Game Boys in Nothing's design studio.

Photograph by James Pero

A case showing the internal parts of Nothing's Phone 1.

Photograph by James Pero
1 / 4

“It's like music. It's hard to say why you don't like something. But you know, how it feels when you love something and then you maybe figure out afterwards,” Bates tells me. “Is it the voice? Is it the way they recorded it? Is it this particular instrument? Is it the chord sequence? But the first thing is it hits you there.”

But it’s not all a creative dream. This is business and there’s a treacherous line to navigate between creativity and profitability. The older Nothing gets, the more pressure there is to prioritize refinement and growth over revolution. I ask everyone throughout the course of our day at Nothing’s studio the same question: “Are you afraid to throw everything you’ve done out the window and start new?” Their response? Diplomacy.

“We definitely cannot go all in on some crazy idea...”

“It's more about the balance between kind of survival, and doing the necessary to kind of make sure you keep on growing, so that we get a chance to kind of eventually take the lead on the next innovation,” co-founder of Nothing, Akis Evangelidis, tells me. “We definitely cannot go all in on some crazy idea, but you need to leave that space and be sure you can build the right business foundation to give you that flexibility to go crazy on one or two ideas.”

Nothing industrial designer, Christopher Weightman, explaining the Phone 2’s design process.

Photograph by James Pero

There is some evidence that the pie-in-the-sky mentality of “making tech fun” is coming back down to Earth to some extent. It’s called CMF — a recently launched subbrand of Nothing, short for “Colors, Materials, Finish,” that sells earbuds, a smartwatch, and a charger at more accessible price points. I ask Pei how CMF fits into the picture. The answer sounds more practical than idealistic.

“This industry does not allow niche brands to survive,” he says. “So either you go big or you leave. CMF is one of the better tools at our disposal to help us go big. It’s distracting. It takes time. Does it do that? Yes. Do we have to? Also, yes.”

I find out later that Nothing has sold at least 100,000 units of the Phone 2 in North America, the U.K., and Europe. For a phone that’s been out for less than a year, that’s not bad. But if I’m being honest, it’s not great either.

To call the battle an uphill one would be an understatement. With the creation of the Phone 1, Nothing chose to enter what’s possibly the most contested field of play for any American tech company: smartphones.

“The way the market is structured in the U.S. is not good for innovation.”

This year, Nothing brought its Phone 2 to the U.S. where a little company called Apple has all but asphyxiated anyone who would dare offer an alternative to its now 16-year-old iPhone. The competition isn’t getting any easier, Apple is still one of the only companies to maintain an upward trajectory in smartphone sales while other titans like Samsung stall out.

And to compound matters, Pei tells me the process of entering the market in the U.S. is not just ultra-competitive, it’s expensive.

“The way the market is structured in the U.S. is not good for innovation,” he says. “Every phone is bought through a carrier and there are only three big carriers in the country. So that's like a huge gatekeeper. You gotta convince their senior leadership teams to support you.”

Pei continues, “It's not that we can't do that. But after you're in the store, the U.S. is also the most expensive country in the world to do marketing to build a brand to reach more people... Getting into the store is easy. Getting people to walk into the store and say, ‘I'm in the store to buy a Nothing product,’ that's a lot harder.”

So, how does one steal a slice of Tim Cook’s American smartphone pie? Being a little “naughty” for one.

How to pick a fight 101

Whether you like Nothing and its products or not, one thing Pei and friends know how to do is pick a fight.

Shortly after I concluded my trip to London, Nothing stirred the software pot by announcing Nothing Chats (Update: the app was removed from the Google Play Store after major security vulnerabilities were discovered), an app that turns your green Android bubble into a blue one on an iPhone. In a video chat, I asked Pei if he was going to piss Apple off. He seemed almost sure of it.

It’s in that contentious place between creativity and controversy that Nothing feels comfortable, and one area where they feel as though they can both stir the pot and make a sizable impact is software.

“I think we had a lot of ideas on the software side, and this is the first time that we're able to manifest some of those into reality,” he says.

Pei’s counterpart, Evangelidis, agrees.

“[Software] is where you kind of have the most room to play with,” he says. “It’s not just about dumping a shit ton of features. For us, it's a much more kind of coherent approach to the software.”

“It’s not just about dumping a shit ton of features.”

It’s hard not to agree when you pull out a Phone 1 or 2 and start swiping around. Nothing OS already offers some of the most interesting ideas of any smartphone software on the market. Those ideas, like some of the flashiest new gadgets out there right now (Humane’s Ai Pin, for example), are tapped deeply into what most people would refer to as “ambient computing.”

If you’re using Nothing OS (a customized skin on top of Android) you’ll notice a lot of bold choices. For one, your apps are defaulted to monochrome, reducing the hierarchy of distractions with each app icon and notification badge demanding your attention.

Then there are custom grouping icons that can plaster a Nothing-designed emoji over your app folder. The calculus here is that if you don’t see all the shiny, colorful, app icons you’re less likely to get sucked in. Plus, it provides a degree of privacy on which apps are behind the folder.

Nothing OS 2.5 drills down on the company’s style and substance.


All of these features are further enforced by the Phone 1 and 2’s standout hardware feature, the Glyph Interface, aka the set of LEDs underneath the back glass of the device. Theoretically, those lights can replace screen-surfaced notifications and alert you to texts, calls, and app notifications; also display timers and calendar information.

Nothing’s interest in software is partly a choice — there is clearly creative room for a different take on stock Android or a refinement of iOS — but it’s also partially out of necessity. As difficult as it is to create a fresh take on a mobile operating system, the struggle to craft unique hardware is doubly as difficult.

Dreaming of new ways to shake things up is actually the easy part. Getting them made is where the Herculean push comes in. Bates tells me that most of his time as lead designer at Nothing is spent in the trenches lobbying the manufacturers who actually make the product he and his team have dreamed up.

“We always fantasize about, like, 10 percent of our time on that stuff and the rest of our time on future stuff, but really, it's way closer to like 50 — maybe even more like 60 — percent of our time, sweating the details,” Bates says. “You might be working on a few new products. But you’re always sucked into these manufacturing issues because the production line is ramping up. The pressure’s on.”

Experience design lead, Tom Ridley, helps devise things like the Phone 1 and 2’s Glyph Interface and also the Glyph Composer.

Photograph by James Pero

One of the company’s more recent hires is Sébastien de Rivaz, an industrial engineer (ex-Apple, actually), whose job, at least partly, is to defend Nothing in the event that manufacturers push back against its vision. Sometimes, with his help, Nothing will even suggest ways of fabricating a design that maybe manufacturers hadn’t thought of.

If the whole thing sounds contentious, well, that’s just life for Nothing three years in.

In some ways, Nothing’s insistence on stirring the pot or doing things a little different is its biggest strength. Would the Ear 1 have sold if it had just cloned a pair of AirPods? Maybe. Would that have kept anyone coming back for two more generations of earbuds? I have my doubts.

“I don't want to just integrate other people's stuff, just by adding a component here and there and then package it together at a good, good price.”

In other ways, though, the quest of offering a gadget that’s truly unique in one way or another is also Nothing’s biggest obstacle.

And the journey hasn’t been all smooth. Nothing has already taken some of its risks on the chin. The Ear Stick, for example — Nothing’s non-ANC wireless earbuds that come in a unique lipstick-like charging case — have already been sent to the graveyard. A swing and a miss, if not creatively then commercially.

But despite any hardware or software stumbles Nothing, or the Sisyphean struggle of having to constantly reinvent itself, Carl Pei still seems measured in his commitment to pounding the ground until Nothing strikes creative gold and all of the money and reverence that comes with it.

“There's a lot more we want to do,” he says. “But I think over time, the tilt will slowly shift to more unique things for us. I don't want to just integrate other people's stuff, just by adding a component here and there and then package it together at a good, good price. I don't think that's exciting. I feel like this is the warmup.”

Related Tags