A great product shift is sweeping the marketplace. Office equipment is out, consumer appliances are in. Hard-edged, superpowerful technology is out. Comfortable, friendly technology is in. General-purpose computing is out. Single-task electronic gizmos are in. Fixed, stationary products are out. Mobility is everything. The new product paradigm? Picture Motorola Inc.'s TalkAbout Two-Way Radio. It has one purpose and is simple to use, communications-based, and interactive. Plus it's fun, great for skiing, mountain biking, or trekking in Disney's new animal theme park.
This shift also has a serious side. Take a look at the 1998 Industrial Design Excellence Awards for products from around the world, juried by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BUSINESS WEEK. For the past two decades, growth in the U.S. and elsewhere has been driven by the dramatic rise of computers. Many of the best design minds in the world gravitated to them, generating brilliant, fresh products. But as the winners of this year's IDEA contest show, computers have matured into commodities--nicely designed, but not leading edge innovation.
Today, the Net is fast becoming the driving force in innovation and design. Net appliances are the hottest new product category. The breakthrough product of 1998 is a kind of Net VCR called the Audible MobilePlayer, a portable appliance that downloads audiobooks, lectures, music, and conferences from the Web for listening in the car--or anywhere. Another IDEA winner, Eastman Kodak Co.'s Digital Science DC210 Zoom Camera, is yet another Net appliance. And with its new Minstrel wireless modem, the PalmPilot (not an IDEA winner this year) will be able to plug into the Internet anywhere and serve as a major Net appliance as well. Juror Peter Trussler, director of corporate design for Northern Telecom Ltd., says that "the shift from hardware to broadband media--communication and information"--is under way. He foresees a segmented market with a plethora of consumer devices.
The shift toward consumer products is perhaps most evident in the nostalgia boom, well highlighted by the IDEA winners. The Volkswagen Beetle, a gold winner, of course epitomizes this trend toward reinventing the familiar with new technology. So does Sunbeam's old-but-new hot pot, the Slow Cooker--the antimicrowave. The mantra seems to be: Design to restore nice memories, make the product easy to use, and keep the technology hidden. "People have low tolerance for products, because their lives are stressful and they just have so many new gizmos," says juror Daniel Formosa, consultant to Smart Design in New York. "They don't have the time or energy for complicated instructions."
If the innovation cycle is turning away from standard business computers, designers used to making business and office-style equipment face new challenges. They'll need to sense consumer wants and tastes. Which may explain why this year, of the companies winning two or more awards, 7 out of 15 were from Europe or Asia. There were winners from Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Norway, Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and Canada. Perennial IDEA winners Philips, Thomson, Samsung, and Sony certainly know how to design and sell consumer products. Will they ride the next wave of Net appliances, the way Nokia Corp. and L.M. Ericsson are taking the lead in cell phones that connect to the Web?
It's no accident that the largest growth category this year was consumer items. Many design firms, among them IDEO, Fitch, ZIBA, frogdesign, and Herbst Lazar Bell, are helping corporations invent strategies for the paradigm shift. Bill Moggridge at IDEO, which won six IDEAs for the Audible MobilePlayer and the great interactive interface of Kodak's digital camera, says that "networked information appliances are what matter now--the Net changes our world totally." The key becomes "designing the experience, not just the object," he says.
Sohrab Vossoughi, head of ZIBA Design, which took five awards, talks about "appropriate innovation." ZIBA's Visioneering Research methodology for Fujitsu Ltd. showed that people don't want all the features in computers. They want to Net-surf and create content by making Web pages or sending E-mail. People also like to be able to carry devices around the house, as they do with cell phones.
The shift from working in an office to working at home reinforces the trend toward consumer-type products. SOHO--small office/home office--is the only business category showing fast growth. Hewlett-Packard Co.'s gold award for its simple-to-use, all-in-one home computer appliance (fax, copier, scanner, and color printer), designed with help from Hauser Inc., shows that high-tech companies and West Coast design firms can make the transition. Ditto for Apple--its new iMac home computer is a visual delight.
One factor favoring the transition from office equipment to consumer appliances is the huge number of independent firms that create good design at low prices. They won many prizes this year. Mark Steiner of Steiner Design reinvented the Rivet Tool, Scott Hardy and Woody Nash of N.E.O.S. re-created the lowly galosh as a cool boot, and Roger Ball of Canadian-based Paradox Design came up with the first helmet just for snowboarders.
Thirteen judges examined 1,031 entries this year, of which 126 won awards. The judges handed out 33 golds, 34 silvers, and 59 bronzes. In the following pages, BUSINESS WEEK looks in depth at the very best in a remarkable year for design.