"Smart" tools. Souped-up baseball gloves. Task-specific computers. High-tech tires. Ergonomic wrenches. Quality Cadillacs. Bathtubs with doors. "Floating" 52-inch TVs. If the gold winners of the 1992 Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) are harbingers, the '90s may be an era of made-in-the-USA brilliance.

The strength of the IDEA winners suggests that a new wave of world-class American products is building. U.S. companies are putting new technology into old products and lots of design "smarts" into new ones. They're shifting away from an engineering-driven preoccupation with product performance to focus on how real people use things. Perhaps most important, companies are overcoming their all-American penchant for trying to hit only home runs with splashy new products. From the computer mouse to industrial tools, this year's entries prove that the best design often comes from wringing incremental improvements from existing models.

The result? As measured by this year's IDEA contest, conducted by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BUSINESS WEEK, a product renaissance is afoot that may rival the Japanese and European surges of the '70s and '80s. "We saw an unprecedented series of excellent products, from computers to wrenches," says jury Chairman Arnold Wasserman, dean of art and design at Pratt Institute and former head of the industrial design/human-factors design center at Xerox Corp. "We are witnessing the appearance at long last of design maturity on the part of American industry."

This year's 111 IDEA medalists may be the tip of the iceberg. The jury concurred that the high quality of nearly all the entrants indicates that the power of industrial design is being harnessed by a big slice of Corporate America. Devoid of decorative gewgaws and stylistic cuteness, the winners come from companies where design is an integral part of product development from the beginning, not added on at the end for looks. From Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s amazing Aquatred tire to Apple Computer Inc.'s PowerBook, the winners have kept their focus on creating products that function well and solve specific work needs.

BIG NEWS. Nowhere is this more evident than in computers. After decades of obsession with performance--raw computing power, disk capacity, and so on--computer makers are paying much more attention to how their machines are actually used by people. They are recognizing that computers are simply tools. And just as a carpenter's hammer and saw are used for different jobs, computer makers have come to see that different kinds of computers are needed for different tasks. "It's now possible to build small, job-specific computers," says IDEA juror James Bleck, president of the Bleck Design Group in Chelmsford, Mass. "That's really new--an occurrence of the last three years as we've evolved away from big computers."

Take the gold-grabbing Texas Instruments Inc. Audit Trading Computer. Handheld and task-specific, it is designed to serve the toilers in the pits of the Chicago Board of Trade. TI designed it to work with a regular pen or pencil, since traders use pens and pencils to write their trades on slips of paper. The product had to be small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and rounded so that no one would get hurt in the shouting and shoving that goes on in the pits. "TI was careful that if somebody got whacked in the head with it, sharp edges wouldn't injure them," says Bleck. The Chicago Board of Trade is testing the Audit Trading Computer against two other handheld devices, and the traders will soon choose the one they prefer.

TI's trading tool is part of a new breed of tiny computers, including Hewlett-Packard Co.'s palmtop 95LX and Federal Express Corp.'s SuperTracker Scanner, that are optimized for particular jobs. Handheld foreign-language translators, spelling checkers, and the ubiquitous electronic organizers are other examples of convenient, job-specific computers.

Apple predicts that these machines will evolve into what it's calling PDAs, for personal digital assistants. The company began showing off its first PDA, dubbed Newton, in May, and it expects production to begin in Japan early next year. Newton is sort of a jazzed-up Sharp Wizard organizer that accepts hand-printed input on its screen and can send and receive faxes.

TINKER TOY. The growth of "smart" tools goes beyond specialized computers. Digital technology is being embedded in old tools to make them more precise and easier to use. The SmartLevel Series 200, an electronic carpenter's tool, won a bronze award. Designed by Andrew Butler at Wedge Innovations in San Jose, Calif., and Blake Wharton of GVO Inc. in Palo Alto, the SmartLevel allows weekend carpenters as well as professionals to determine "level" and "plumb" and measure angles through 360 degrees. Instead of a floating bubble, there's a liquid-crystal display. At about $50 retail, the SmartLevel is easy for most homeowners to use and can survive a two-story drop.

New technology doesn't have to be electronic. One of the most interesting examples of revitalizing a tried-and-true product is Spalding Sports Worldwide's gold medalist, the AirFlex baseball glove. By inserting an inflatable bladder into the mitt, Design Continuum Inc. has come up with a glove that fits any hand without months of break-in. The Boston-based design house pioneered the technology when it helped Reebok International Ltd. come up with The Pump sneaker, a half-billion-dollar product line to date.

Another way that old, reliable products have been given new twists is a process called universal design. This involves adapting products for the elderly or physically challenged and in the process, making them more useful to everybody. Gold medals in 1992 went to two such products: Kohler Co.'s Precedence Bath, which has a gate-like door for safer entry, and OXO International's Good Grips kitchen utensils by New York's Smart Design Inc.

A gold also went to Ingersoll-Rand Co.'s worker-friendly wrench for automobile assembly. Group Four Design Team in Avon, Conn., created the ergonomic tool with input from Detroit assembly-line workers (page 64 70 ). Its adjustable handle and soft grip help prevent the repetitive-motion injuries often associated with conventional industrial tools.

Many of this year's IDEA winners used a new management approach called product-mapping to refine their designs. In the 1980s, leading-edge companies focused on speed-to-market and benchmarking to improve their standing against Japanese and European competitors. The paradigm for Corporate America has been to create new technology, boost performance, and get the product out the door as soon as possible. In many cases, however, the resulting products have technically impressive features that are baffling to consumers. "What do we use these bells and whistles for?" is a common complaint. A VCR that can be programmed to record 16 TV shows over two weeks is a classic example.

BULL'S EYE. Product-mapping avoids that by switching the focus from product to user, with close analysis of how people interact with machines. How do their hands have to move to operate them? Where must they look? For example, in computers, product-mapping examines the ease of setup, the feel of the keyboard and mouse, the quality of the visual display, and the difficulty of learning the software. In product-mapping, usability and desirability are as important as performance. The process aims to uncover what is missing for users in the marketplace and build the discovery into a bull's-eye product that elicits an "I gotta have it" reaction.

The key is refinement, not invention. "Companies understand that it doesn't matter how fast you get it there if you don't have the right product," says IDEA juror Bleck. "Getting that right product into the market can generate tremendous profits. Look at the PowerBook."

Apple's PowerBook, one of this year's gold medalists, is a good example of product-mapping. Apple was already behind in portable computers when it began work on the PowerBook in 1990. Its first laptop, the Mac Portable, was technically whizzy but heavy and cumbersome. So Apple had a lot riding on its second entry, a smaller, notebook-size machine.

Apple first studied how dozens of people operated an early prototype of the PowerBook to refine the placement of the trackball and other features. Later, it hired GVO to use product-mapping to compare the proposed PowerBook line with the competition. The process really amounted to design editing: deciding what features were used most and, equally important, which could be left out. For its PowerBook assignment, GVO devised a new kind of value analysis that goes beyond standard market research.

SPECIAL NOD. By defining and measuring 159 user-computer interactions, from opening the box to computing on an airplane, GVO came up with a notebook-usability index. The index measures peoples' experience with notebook computers, including PowerBook, over a range of user-product interactions.

For example, the PowerBook 100 and 170 models rated higher on GVO's index than AT&T's Safari, Compaq Computer's LTE, Toshiba's T2000, and five other notebook computers in tests measuring set-up procedures, especially the quality of assembly instructions. The positioning of the floppy-disk drive on the 170 won points because it's not blocked by airplane-seat arm rests. Both PowerBook models--the low-end 100 and the 170--scored for overall portability and for the fact that a person can use them while standing at a pay telephone. The 170 rated highest in tests measuring the two most important devices for most computer users: the mouse, or trackball, and the screen. The 100 tied with American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s Safari.

The IDEA jurors were so impressed with GVO's product-mapping methodology, covering 450 tests of usability, that they departed from their usual focus on products to give this analytical tool a bronze award. They also gave NCR Corp., now a subsidiary of AT&T, a silver for its product-mapping technique. NCR won five other IDEA awards this year, including one for its pen PC.

The market has awarded Apple an even bigger prize. In just eight months, PowerBook has become the No. 2 notebook in U.S. computer stores.

Another lesson gleaned from the 1992 IDEA winners: Designers must increasingly speak the language of engineering, marketing, and manufacturing. Successful design requires that these experts team up to find out early on, for example, what shape can be created in what type of mold using what type of plastic. In the past, designers were often called in late in the process to supply a pretty package for a product that was essentially finished. The designer's contribution, though significant, was largely aesthetic.

Now, good industrial design is as much engineering and manufacturing as it is ergonomics and aesthetics. "Before they actually sit down and design products, designers must know how a product is made," says juror Stephen Hauser, president of S.G. Hauser Associates Inc. in Calabasas, Calif. "They must know how much materials and manufacturing cost before they can even begin."

Goodyear's runaway success, the gold-winning Aquatred tire, could never have been brought to market if the team sculpting the intricate tread design hadn't been familiar with the arcane science of rubber-molding. Creating the unique "aqua channel" that shoves water out of the way on wet roads required new kinds of molds that had to be created along with the tire.

The gold-winning Demon Dispenser is another example of the importance of engineering and manufacturing to successful industrial design. The disposable dispenser, which ICI Americas Inc. ships along with every bottle of its Demon roach insecticide, had to be made out of inexpensive polypropylene, a material that tends to lose its shape. Tiny adjustments of the mold were needed to prevent that, so a thorough understanding of the molding process was critical to the design process.

It's getting much harder for designers to get by on their products' looks. A big shakeout is under way in the design industry, and firms that offer engineering as well as ergonomic and aesthetic expertise have the best shot at survival. Offices that are primarily style-based are folding. By the end of the decade, designers say, just a half-dozen independent firms will dominate.

HAT TRICK. There were many surprises in this year's IDEA competition. General Motors Corp. picked up three gold medals--the most a corporation has ever won. Its winners ranged from the Cadillac Seville to a concept for an electric-vehicle charging station submitted by the company's GM/Hughes Electronics Corp. subsidiary. NCR was the biggest overall winner, with a total of six silvers and bronzes.

Altogether, 753 submissions vied for gold, silver, and bronze medals in eight categories and 41 subcategories, compared with 690 last year. To be eligible to enter the annual IDEA contest, American citizens and designers around the world who are members of the IDSA must have introduced their products into the market between Feb. 25, 1990, and Feb. 25, 1992. In this year's contest, 25 entries won gold medals, 44 got silvers, and 42 won bronzes.

In the first part of the judging, the entrants are graded by a designer with specific expertise in the area. Bleck evaluated business and industrial equipment, including computers. Hauser handled medical and scientific products. Fritz Mayhew, chief design executive at Ford Motor Co., did transportation. Liz Powell, director of Sony Corp. of America's Design Center, judged consumer products. Rita-Sue Siegel, an industry headhunter with a strong background in design, did packaging and visual-interface design, such as software. David Jenkins, manager of industrial design for Steelcase Inc., looked at furniture, and Aura Oslapas, a principal in A+O Studio, was responsible for graduate-student projects, trade shows, and exhibits.

HIGHER CURVE. After the first cut, the jurors convened to discuss the remaining contestants. Wasserman was chairperson of the entire jury. He says the level of quality was so high that many entries that won silvers this year probably would have been golds last year. Two silver standouts were NCR's 3125 pen computer and a similar PC from startup Momenta Corp.

The Cadillac Seville generated the most heated debate. The majority of jurors were initially unwilling to give its nonbreakthrough design first place. But Ford's Mayhew convinced them that Seville's incremental refinements warranted a gold.

To get behind the scenes, BUSINESS WEEK takes a closer look at nine gold medalists and one silver. Each is a special and different chapter of the story of Design '92.

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