Need to design a product? Require a new product line? How about a bigger product development strategy? Not broad enough? How about help in creating an innovative corporate culture?
For answers, just check out the 1997 Industrial Design Excellence Awards of products from around the world, juried by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BUSINESS WEEK. The fast-evolving field of product design is pervading all the nooks and crannies of the business world in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. CEOs are turning to its special problem-solving abilities to fulfill business needs that go beyond the traditional functions of industrial design.
Product design is not abandoning what it has always done well. Take "Wal-Mart" design. In the '80s and early '90s, much of the best design came out of the computer and medical industries. The 1997 IDEAs shows that good design has moved into more pedestrian products, such as housewares. Rubbermaid, Coleman, Bissell, and Black & Decker are all purveyors of excellent Wal-Mart-type design.
Higher up the product food chain, aesthetics are making a comeback after years of lookalikes. There are beautifully crafted cars, speakers, cameras, and computers. Just take a glance at the new ELPH camera from Canon, the sculptured Chrysler Sebring convertible, Itoki's stark chair, Kenwood's sleek multimedia speakers, and Philips Electronics' Velo 1 handheld computer.
Companies not previously known for their design effort won a lot of awards this year. The same held true for countries, especially in Asia. Design is now key to breaking out of Asia's original-equipment-manufacturer ghetto and creating global name brands for Samsung, LG, and Acer in American and European markets.
At the leading edge of design is the transformation of the industry to one that focuses on process as well as product. For corporations that are demanding top-line revenue growth but don't have pricing power, design is proving it can deliver innovative new products that carry fat profit margins. It can also reconfigure assembly work to save costs. The country's largest consulting firms, such as McKinsey & Co. and Boston Consulting Group, increasingly offer design as a solution to corporate growth problems. In fact, Perot Systems Corp. recently bought the Doblin Group design shop to help companies innovate.
So it's hardly an accident that many designers themselves increasingly offer their own consulting advice. "Design has been shifting from form-giving to competitive strategy," says Lou Lenzi, jury chair and vice-president for multimedia products and services at Thomson Consumer Electronics. "This year's awards entries signal the beginning of yet another new era--applying design's problem-solving skills to address overall strategic business issues."
IDEO's strategic work with Steelcase Inc. is a case in point. Steelcase has taken an investment stake in the Palo Alto-based design firm to guarantee its help in innovating for the future (IDEO also runs a "Samsung University" to help that Korean company with its design strategy). IDEO won a silver award for organizing Steelcase's wealth of information and designing a software interface to provide access to the treasure trove for its researchers and designers. It also won a bronze award for researching new work patterns for Steelcase to suggest what kinds of work-support furniture would be needed in the future, and a gold for setting up its new showroom in New York.
Few of the award winners compare with the sheer exuberance of Haworth Inc.'s Office Explorations, which won a gold. This is true innovation strategy in its purest form. Haworth pushed the envelope in developing entirely new archetypes of furniture. The goal was to build prototypes based on recent research in chaos theory, neuroscience, and organizational theory that would provoke discussion with researchers, clients, and others. Check out the Wake and Drift, the Sit-Stand Chair, and the 8-Ball on page 106.
Xerox Corp. won a bronze award for jogging its corporate culture with the "Couture" Digital Kiosk concept--a futuristic digital document processor that highlights what could be the company's many paths to the 21st century. Lexmark International Inc.'s gold-winning curved Color Jetprinter 2030 was an effort at defining the new company's (it was spun off from IBM) entire competitive position vis-a-vis industrial giant Hewlett-Packard Co. Its curved surfaces lowered tooling costs, provided a distinctive, elegant brand identity, and even allowed for a smaller footprint for this home-office printer. This was not just a simple exercise in product design. It was much broader marketing strategy.
The 1997 IDEAs show that high-tech product design continues to be first-rate. In personal computers, the dominant trend is convergence--entertainment, education, and computing. The small office and home office increasingly determine the design direction. IBM's Aptiva, which won a gold, was a "risky visual solution for a mass-market product," according to juror Katherine McCoy. "It was an adventurous design for home and entry-level users." Toshiba's Infinia, a bronze winner, redefined controls to function like those of normal appliances, rather than PCs'. Pitney Bowes Inc. piled into the home office market with two winners, including a personal postage-meter machine.
Then there was the cool low-tech stuff. Spectrum Boston Consulting Inc. and Hunt Manufacturing Co. together reinvented the lowly stapler by shaping it like a joystick. This gold winner is so intuitive, a person simply grips and squeezes ($19.95). The Shrade multipurpose folding Tough Tool by Chase Design fits comfortably in the hand ($79.95) and has 21 kinds of knives, screwdrivers, wire cutters, pliers, and other devices tucked in the handles. The Impulse 2 Snorkel is both snazzy and easy to clear ($40). Zelco's amusing computer accessories by Bernstein Design Associates allow people to get their mouse, pens, and other items off the desk. There is even a bud vase ($12.95). "This product removes clutter and helps to humanize the computer environment," says Robert Blaich, juror and head of Blaich Associates. "It's great having whimsy in a product for a change."
The opposite of whimsy is frogdesign Inc.'s gold-winning graphical user interface for German consumer-electronics retailer Karstadt/Neckermann. Designers at frog dumped the labyrinth of buttons, sliders, and knobs of conventional stereo systems for a GUI based on clear, friendly, and familiar images. It is the heart of a handheld remote. Philips Electronics' BV300 Series of mobile X-ray systems is equally compact and easy to use.
Some 982 entrants from around the world received 142 awards in 1997, including 29 golds. Eight countries are among the winners: the U.S., South Korea, Germany, Japan, Canada, Singapore, Britain, and the Netherlands. Philips, Thomson, LG, and McBell PTE in Singapore are among the Asian and European winners.
Of the independent design houses winning awards, smaller firms such as E-Lab, HF/ID, Ralph Applebaum, Ion Design, Altitude, and Worktools joined the much bigger IDEO, Fitch, Pentagram Design, frogdesign, Lunar Design, and ZIBA. Among the corporations, South Korea's Samsung Group broke into the top ranks, joining Apple Computer, Compaq, Steelcase, Black & Decker, and others.
IDEA's 14 jurors were: jury chair Lenzi of Thomson; Robert Blaich; Christoph Boeninger, deputy director of product design at Siemens; Ken Brazell, senior industrial design manager at Ryobi Concepts International; Bruce Claxton, director of design and communications at Motorola; Betsy Goodrich of MANTA Product Development Inc.; Mark Kimbrough at Design Edge; Eun Sook Kwon, associate professor at KAIST-Industrial Design Dept. in Korea; Katherine McCoy at McCoy & McCoy Associates; Michael McCoy at McCoy & McCoy Associates; Kazuo Morohoshi, executive vice-president for Toyota's Calty Design Research; Clement Mok, chairman of Studio Archetype; Carl Price, digital imaging vice-president of industrial design at Texas Instruments; Esther Ratner, associate professor at Arizona State University.
In the following pages, BUSINESS WEEK takes a look at the highlights of the 1997 competition. From cars to concepts, there are products you've probably never seen before.