The Best Product Designs of the Year

It has been a long time, over half a century, since U.S. design was this good. American industrial design rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s, when legendary pioneers such as Raymond Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague helped define the discipline. By the 1960s, however, Europeans were dominant, and U.S. design firms spent the '70s and '80s playing catch-up. To judge by the 1996 Industrial Design Excellence Awards, given by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BUSINESS WEEK, the cutting edge of design may be moving back to the U.S.

Americans are pioneering a major shift from designing a single product to designing the whole process of product innovation and development for corporate clients. Some are even using quantitative ethnographic research to create the "Wow!" that people sometimes experience when using a terrific product. One example: Motorola Inc.'s award-winning new StarTac cellular phone is so small, it is worn as a beeper. Wearable technology, not something carried. Completely cool.

The 1996 IDEA awards illustrate that interactive design is a major edge for U.S. firms. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum, the Dinosaur Halls of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Quicken Version 5 for Windows, and Kenwood USA's KC-Zsuperscript1 audio controllers all won awards largely because of the way they present information--whether it's to help you manage your finances or lead you through millions of years of evolution. Indeed, a whole new market is developing in museums and all types of Halls of Fame, thanks in large part to new interactive-design techniques that make the experience exciting and fresh.

So strong are American design firms in the global marketplace that Asian and European manufacturers are turning to them for work. U.S. firms are designing whole product lines for Taiwanese and Korean companies that are trying to move into global competition. These companies are no longer satisfied with building machines for Western customers to slap their names on and sell. They want to establish their own brand names, and coming up with striking designs is one way to do it.

In some cases, established foreign manufacturers are turning to U.S. designers for fresh ideas to help break out of old, rigid design concepts. One IDEA winner, A&R Industrial Design, a small firm based in Macomb Township, Mich., actually saved a German manufacturer from bankruptcy with a radical new tractor design.

For the first time, the IDEA awards program was open to products designed overseas and sold in the U.S. as well as products designed by U.S. firms. German, French, Japanese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Canadian companies made strong showings. Taiwan-based Acer Inc. brought home the gold for its design of the Aspire computer, specifically created for the U.S. home-PC market by frogdesign in Sunnyvale, Calif. It helped make Acer a major brand in the U.S. And Sony Corp., one of the world's great design firms, saw its reputation buttressed by winning a silver award for its wildly successful PlayStation, giving Sega of America Inc. and Nintendo Co. tough competition. Siemens received the silver for its beautifully crafted and ergonomically sound ultrasonic Sonoline medical-imaging equipment. Wilkhahn won both gold and silver awards for furniture design. Samsung Group's multimillion-dollar investment in design began to pay off with a gold for a multimedia concept.

Two Canadian firms won big: Bombardier with a high-octane Jet Boat and Design Workshop for adapting bike-helmet technology for a horseback-riding helmet.

Japan's Fujitsu Ltd. came away with a gold medal--for a restaurant computer--by enlisting Ziba Design in Portland, Ore. Ziba is one of the firms offering strong research capabilities to its corporate clients, as do IDEO in Palo Alto, Design Continuum in Boston, and Fitch in Chicago.

Ziba's work for Fujitsu highlights the importance of research as well as its attraction for overseas companies. Fujitsu's goal was to enter America's drive-in, multistore fast-food markets with a countertop terminal. Fujitsu, which has been selling point-of-sale (POS) computers to retailers for years, needed help crafting a machine for those who work behind fast-food counters.

The company started with the assumption that the workers had zero computer skills. Ziba videotaped employees and saw that they were poorly trained and not very well educated. In addition, turnover was high. The design solution: a touch-screen computer with interactive and audio software that provides a simple road map for employees and shows them where to enter information. The POS computer uses both icons and text for menu items. In essence, the computer does the training.

Design research is also key to the largest design house in the U.S. today, IDEO. IDEO has deep relationships with a number of corporate clients, the latest addition to the list being Steelcase. Top IDEO designers have basically joined the management team guiding Steelcase and its effort to create products for the office of the future. With Samsung, IDEO is teaching the electronics maker its design and innovation process. "Clients want us to help them be more creative and innovative, not just help them design one product," says David Kelley, President and CEO of IDEO. "We do design visualizations of the future, deciding on where to go next."

For research-driven firms, design is becoming more a consulting business. Corporate clients, after years of cutting costs, are looking for assistance in coming up with new products to generate growth. "We're making the transition from industrial design to product development," says Curtis Bailey, president of Sundberg-Ferar in Chicago and a juror at this year's IDEA program. "Ten years ago, designers were designing products for themselves, to be artistic statements. Today, we are combining designing with engineering and research to focus on market viability."

European companies are expanding research efforts as well, but they're mostly doing it in-house. Philips Electronics won a gold award in the Concepts category for an amazing Vision of the Future video that showed how people might use new technology in years ahead. How about Magic Pens that transmit what you write or say into a computer? Or Intelligent Garbage Cans that sort your recyclables?

Of course, research doesn't have to involve high-tech equipment. One gold award went to a baby bathtub, the Century Cuddle Tub & Huggy Bath by Anderson Design Associates. As any new parent knows, it isn't easy to bathe a newborn with one hand holding the baby's head and one hand holding the washcloth. Research showed that a simple hammock in the tub with a headrest holds the baby securely, leaving the parent's hands free to do the washing. The cost? A low $19.99.

Indeed, as this year's winners prove, leading-edge design isn't just for cars, computers, and expensive consumer products. Quality design is moving down to more inexpensive products. "Good design is now across all product lines, from computers to appliances," says William Stumpf, the IDEA jury chairman.

Leading the design movement for inexpensive products are the small firms that are finding a lucrative niche as larger competitors grow ever bigger. In addition to Anderson Design in Plainville, Conn. coming up with the baby bathtub, there was a silver award for the Bagel Slicer from the EKCO Group. Ancona 2, a small shop in New York, did the research, which was significant. Slicing bagels, it turns out, is No.1 in kitchen activities that result in trips to the emergency room. Once it was only a New York phenomenon, but since bagels have gone national, it's a coast-to-coast problem. The design solution? A V-shaped slicer with plastic sides that flex inward to hold the bagel and prevent rotation when slicing. All this for $5.99.

Awards also went for pencil sharpeners ($9.95) by Staubitz Design Associates for Olivetti Office USA, medicine-bottle openers ($1.05) by PharmaDesign, a file folder system ($14) by Smart Design, and an oil-filter gripper ($1.99) by Davison & Associates.

Of course, there were some expensive products as well. The apple-size Bose Jewel Cube speakers went with a Lifestyle 20 music system for a price of $2,500. Bombardier's Jet Boat goes for $12,499, and Wilkahn's beautifully engineered Modus office chair costs $1,770 to $2,480 for the high-backed version.

The jurors of the Industrial Design Society of America gave awards to 113 products or concepts out of 932 entrants considered, compared with 150 awards chosen from 766 last year. The jury raised the hurdle this year. Some 32 golds, 37 silvers, and 44 bronzes went to corporations and independent design firms. In 1995, 33 golds, 56 silvers, and 61 bronzes were awarded.

Among the independent design houses, Ziba and IDEO tied for first-place with seven each. Fitch, Smart Design, and Altitude had three apiece. Within the corporate ranks, NCR and Symbol Technologies won three prizes to tie for first place, with Apple, Ford, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola garnering two each. Two foreign-owned firms, the U.S. unit of France's Thomson consumer-electronics company and Germany's Wilkhahn furniture company, won two prizes apiece.

The IDEA panel's 12 jurors were William Stumpf of William Stumpf + Associates, which works closely with Steelcase; Dan Ashcraft of Ashcraft Design; Curtis Bailey; Carole Bilson, program manager of Digital Products at Eastman Kodak; William C. Bullock, director of industrial design at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Eric Chan of Ecco Design; Michael Gallagher, design manager of Crown Equipment; Gary Grossman, president of Innovations & Development; Tom Hardy, professor of universal design at the Georgia Institute of Technology; John Herlitz, vice-president of product design at Chrysler; Lorraine M. Justice, associate professor of industrial design at Ohio State University's main campus; and Tom Mason, senior vice-president of research and development at Fisher-Price.

In the following pages, BUSINESS WEEK offers highlights of the 1996 competition. Let's begin with a show-stopper. A tractor that was every juror's favorite...

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