Lego-like computers. Intuitive CD-ROMs virtual conferencing. Pioneering personal digital assistants. Cool tools for cars and the shop. Mundane, yet revolutionary sheds. Wireless stereos. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The winners of the 1994 Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA), juried by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BUSINESS WEEK, highlight the ongoing strength of American industrial design and point the way for the evolution of product development.

This year's entries were full of new trends: the growth of software design that offers graphical user interfaces (GUIs or "gooies") to make complex products easier to use; the rise of digital modularity that allows buyers to continually update their computers, rather than junking them every three or four years; a surge in design quality for everyday consumer products, from kids' furniture to tape measures; the design of entirely new product categories, from PDAs to heads-up displays for TVs; and the continued transfer of defense technology to consumer products. Gone are past fads such as magenta-colored desktop computers full of swirling curves.

OPEN SPLIT. Gone, too, is jury consensus. Trench warfare broke out in 1994, and a mile-wide split sundered the eight-person IDSA jury. The long-simmering feud between design pragmatists, who focus on functionality and marketability, and design aesthetes, who prefer the realm of form and intellect, spilled over into the actual judging process.

"Redneck design" and "bubba design" were epithets thrown at practical consumer products designed for the masses. "Aesthetically pleasing" and "classical looks" were terms reserved for products that looked like sculpture or that got into the Museum of Modern Art's design collection. The jury battled itself on virtually every gold, silver, and bronze awarded. "The artsy crowd waged a war against what they considered common products for people," says juror Noel Zeller, president of Zelco Industries. "It was very controversial," adds Zeller, whose own handy designs include the best-selling Itty Bitty Book Light. "Jurors shot down a lot of really good designs, especially of consumer products."

The result? Many products were demoted from golds to silvers and bronzes--or to no award at all--on the basis of being too "commercial" and not aesthetic enough. Products emblazoned with company logos and model names were especially bludgeoned. Appearance was often valued far more highly than such attributes as design for manufacturability, use of inex-pensive materials, and transparency of purpose--despite the efforts of Herb Tyrnauer, professor in the design department of California State University at Long Beach and leader of the pragmatist faction. "I have fought my whole life for the separation between artists and designers," he says. "For years, designers who counted themselves as artists demeaned the profession and made it vulnerable to being evaluated on superficial, personal aesthetic criteria."

The clash was most intense when it came to the shed. Rubbermaid Inc. came up with a fresh idea--take the traditional wood or metal outdoor product and recast it in a material that doesn't rust, dry-rot, or splinter. It used blow-molding, a sophisticated plastic manufacturing process, in an innovative manner and came up with a product that gave consumers real value. But it wasn't exactly beautiful. "The shed was as handsome as a toad," says Tyrnauer, "but it was an excellent design because it did what a shed was supposed to do."

BATTLE OF THE SHED. Lella Vignelli, president of Vignelli Designs, a New York graphics design firm, disagreed. "I felt the design was quite poor as aesthetics," she says. "The shed did not rust, did not rot, and cost little," she adds. "O.K. but so what? It looks horrible. It was a good example of the main contrast on the jury--between mere utility vs. illuminated design." Vignelli refused to put her name on a gold medal for the shed. "I fought valiantly for it to be a gold," says Tyrnauer. And lost. In the end, the shed received a bronze.

The debate spilled over into what may be today's hottest design discipline: user-interface software. This isn't just for computer programs but for a whole host of products that are infused with digital electronics--everything from telephones, camcorders, tools, and copiers to medical equipment. The software that presents the functions of these often complex products is becoming a key way for manufacturers to differentiate their machines. In fact, with so many products at technological parity, the presentation of how-to-use-it information is increasingly the game to win in sales. If a product doesn't "display itself" immediately and provide simple, intuitive clues to its operation, it won't sell.

MAKE-UP CLASS. The lesson also applies to computer software. Take the pair of bronze-winning CD-ROMs, one for Apple Computer Inc., the other for NASA. An Austin graphics-design firm, Human Code, designed the interactive interface of both products. The Virtual Conference Engine for Apple allows anyone who missed a two-day conference on new media to "attend" the proceedings later.

Despite the complexity of the data, everything on the conference disk is just one or two clicks away. "From a functional point of view, the product was really good because it had a one-layer interface, not the several layers you often have in software interfaces," says James Shook, industrial-design manager at Tandem Computers Inc. Shook recommended Apple's CD- ROM for a gold, but the "esthetics police" thought it too "busy" and busted it down.

There were other kinds of interfaces that won awards as well. The bronze award winner Windows Sound System Microphone by Microsoft Corp. is an audio interface that allows a person to orally command a computer to carry out tasks currently done with a keyboard or mouse. And the silver award winner Virtual Vision Inc. Sport 200 is a plastic heads-up display worn like goggles that lets sports fans see an instant TV replay while watching the game.

LEGAL APPROACH. Then there is the ultimate winner in designing complex information for people: the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Making the Holocaust understandable without sensationalizing or trivializing it was a hard job. The strategy of Ralph Appelbaum was to organize the information and present it to the viewer as if building a legal case. Data are offered providing irrefutable proof of what took place. The Holocaust Museum Memorial won a gold.

Motorola Inc.'s silver award-winning Series 900 may help to redefine computers. Several award-winning computer designs this year were modular, achieving a goal that computer makers have talked of for years. The 900 carries it off in ways that are both functionally and aesthetically pleasing. By doing away with miles of cords and cables and designing truly snap-in components, Motorola and Palo Alto Design Group Inc. created a system that can be assembled without even having to use a screwdriver. The pieces come together in an attractive package that provides flexibility, easy expansion, and savings.

One of the great surprises in this year's IDEA contest is the increasing strength of consumer-product design. For the past five years, computers and medical equipment have been the design leaders in America. Now, it seems, the cutting edge may be passing back to consumer products. Polaroid Corp.'s Vision Date, for example, won a gold by solving the one great problem of instant photography: what to do with the wet pictures. It stores them in the camera for you. And the SoundEffects Home Theater Audio System designed by Fitch Inc. for JBL Consumer Products Inc. is an audio system whose components can be placed in a room without connecting wires.

The Kin-der-link bent-plywood furniture for kids is an innovative way of providing chairs, tables, and benches by simply linking one basic stool to form multiple seating. It assembles and stacks easily. Its classic style and the fact that the product, by Skools Inc. of New York, was accepted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan no doubt helped the product win a gold.

In contrast, the Tape Mate by River Studio in Aspen, Colo., was a "bubba tool" that won a bronze. The simple calculator piggybacks onto the ubiquitous tape measure, boosting its usefulness. The Tape Mate calculates surfaces down to fractions of a square inch. Measure the length and width of a room, and it figures out the wood needed for a new floor.

The rev-X bicycle wheel is as high tech as you can get. It's made of carbon-fiber-Kevlon composite, a material designed for use in military aircraft that's not only lighter and stronger than metal but also looks terrific. Clifford Selbert Design in Cambridge, Mass., did it for Spinergy Inc. in Wilton, Conn. A silver.

Taking the gold in business and industrial products was the high-tech Macbeth Automatch(g)ic, designed by Group Four Design for Akzo Instruments. It's a handheld color-measuring instrument that electronically determines the exact shade of a car's color and automatically selects a matching paint. Get a dent and only the spot has to be painted, not the whole car.

For home auto mechanics and hobbyists, Rubbermaid's new Auto Work Center is a roll-around tool chest that won't rust because it's made from injection-molded polypropylene. The bronze winner looks like it enjoys getting dirty.

FRESH PATTERN. Perhaps because of the infighting among judges, this year's results showed a markedly different pattern from years past. For one thing, there was a far greater diffusion of design-award winners in 1994. Rubbermaid and Microsoft received three each, General Motors and Fiskars garnered two apiece, and then there was a wide assortment of companies taking one gold, silver, or bronze. Last year, Apple took four awards, Hewlett-Packard and NCR got three each, and seven companies took two awards apiece.

The same pattern held for the design shops. Ziba, Metaphase, and SG Hauser Associates won three each, followed by 11 shops with two apiece. In 1993, Ziba took seven awards, and five design firms won three each.

FAR LESS GOLD. Altogether, there were 714 entries in the IDEA awards in 1994, compared with 675 last year. Despite the larger number of submissions, there were a lot fewer winners--76, compared with 91. A number of jurors said that the split in the jury made it difficult to agree on winners, especially golds. Only 18 golds were awarded, compared with 31 in 1993, 24 silvers, compared with 26 last year, and 34 bronzes, the same as the previous year. To be eligible to enter the annual IDEA contest, American citizens and designers around the world who are IDSA members must have placed their designs into production between Jan. 1, 1992, and Feb. 22, 1994.

In the first part of the jurying, entrants are graded by a designer with specific expertise in the field. After the first cut, the jury as a whole convenes to discuss the remaining contestants. This year, debate and disagreement led to an unusual second all-jury meeting. In the process, many products were knocked down several rungs from gold to silver to bronze.

BUSINESS WEEK presents a detailed look at 10 gold, silver, and bronze medalists in the following pages. Each has its own tale to tell.

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