Sofa Spuds Never Had It So Good

Thomson Consumer Electronics Inc. has become a familiar name among the winners of the Industrial Design Excellence Awards competition, and this year is no exception. Under the guidance of Louis E. Lenzi, general manager of design for Thomson, it garnered four medals this year, tying AT&T for top honors.

Nothing illustrates Thomson's commitment to good design better than its ProScan big-TV line. This year, Lenzi's team focused on making these increasingly sophisticated television sets easy to use. They began by improving the item consumers pick up first after they uncrate their TV--the manual, normally written in either Japanese-English or techno-English. Thomson assembled a team of cognitive psychologists, creative writers, and engineers to write a new guidebook, one that would encourage users to noodle around with ProScan's features.

The centerpiece of Thomson's customer-friendly effort is a graphical user interface with icons similar to those normally found on a PC. Selecting the graphic guides with the remote control, viewers can perform dozens of tasks. They can change picture quality, program personal viewing menus, and get answers to vexing questions. For guidance, there's Nipper, the venerable canine mascot of RCA, which Thomson bought several years ago. Nipper pops up to offer "little asides that help with a task," says Lenzi, who heads the 65-member team that created the second generation of the ProScan product line.

Lenzi and his team also outlawed complicated remote controls. ProScan's remote sports only eight buttons, compared to the 40-plus found on an average remote. It controls power, channel-changing, and volume, plus the on-screen graphic menu. It's shaped to rest easily in the palm, an innovation based on suggestions from the 100 prospective customers Thomson interviewed. Better yet, it operates using point-and-select from on-screen icons, making life easier for the dedicated couch potato.

Thomson designed the ProScan TVs, which retail for $449 for a 20-inch set to $8,500 for the monsters, around the latest electronics, too. A nearly flat screen--built using a special steel alloy to prevent the ugly brown blistering that wrecks flat-panel pictures--delivers movie-screen quality on all models. Nine-inch tubes, rather than standard seven-inch, allow the 80-inch projection TV to produce excellent visuals.

However, the jury was most impressed by the team's efforts to consider the human factor. "They worked really hard at making it easy for the customer to use," says Elizabeth Powell, a vice-president of design for Sony Signatures, the licensing and merchandising arm of Sony Corp. In fact, Powell acknowledges that Thomson has consistently improved the styling and quality of RCA products since buying the operation from General Electric Co. in 1988. Coming from a Sony designer, that's a serious compliment.

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