The Best Product Designs Of 1999

The Best Product Designs of the Year

The advent of the Information Age and the advance of new technologies is making this a golden time to be a product designer. Not since the glory days of Raymond Loewy, whose streamlined products in the '40s made him an icon of design, have designers come to play such a protean role in the economy and society of the U.S.

A dazzling number of new products are transforming the marketplace, drawing from such new technologies as lower-cost flat-panel displays and the Internet. Some designers are reinventing the familiar--witness electronic books and digital writing tablets. Others are taking recent innovations to another level with wireless communicators, notebook computers, and personal organizers.

The 1999 Industrial Design Excellence Awards zero in on the best products from around the world. Entrees are judged by the Industrial Designers Society of America, and the awards are sponsored by BUSINESS WEEK. This year's winners are proof that much of the best design can be found in new-generation products: those that communicate, not just compute; those that can be used at home or on the road, not just the office; those that do one or two specific tasks, not everything; and those that have the colorful look of everyday consumer products rather than the heavy, gray feel of bureaucracy.

What are the breakthrough products of 1999? Perhaps the most impressive are the first-generation electronic books that try to provide portable information anywhere, anytime. Award winners SoftBook, designed by IDEO, and the Rocket eBook, designed by Palo Alto Products International, combine new flat-panel technology and great ergonomics with modern communications. IBM's winning design exploration shows what a digital newspaper might look like, with "electronic ink" that reconfigures itself into new words and graphics when plugged into the Web.

HARDWEAR. The information appliances among IDEA winners show the frontier of product innovation is now the integration of hardware and software design. "Designers need to know Net protocol as well as injection molding," says IDEA juror Sam Lucente. Lucente was program manager for strategic design at IBM, primarily responsible for the ThinkPad. He moved to Netscape and left to set up Lucente Design in Palo Alto, Calif., to work on ultraportable, wearable computer products.

A profound transformation of the look and functionality of products is under way. The Clio notebook computer, designed by frogdesign, uses a flat panel that swings out and doubles as both screen and writing tablet. IBM's elegant flat-panel screen transforms a bulky box into a slim, almost two-dimensional objet d'art. The CrossPad XP, an electronic writing tablet designed by Fitch Inc., allows people to download their scribbling into a computer. And the striking Benwin Executive Multimedia Speaker uses new flat-panel speaker technology for a totally new look.

The use of color made winning products much more expressive and emotional this year. Just think of Apple Computer Inc.'s wonderful iMac, with its playful palette of bright colors. Philips Electronics' humorous PC videocamera, used for videoconferencing, shows how designers can combine color and shape to bring energy and playfulness to what otherwise might be scary products. The master of humor, of course, is the postmodern architect Michael Graves, who not only designs buildings for Walt Disney Co. topped by 50-foot turquoise swans but whimsical toasters for Target.

The globalization of design was a clear trend in this year's IDEA contest. Europe, in particular, outdid itself. There were winning designs from Germany, Italy, France, England, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands as well as South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan. The trend toward consumer-oriented digital products is clearly enhancing the success of such Continental companies as Philips and Thomson. Germany's BMW won for an exquisite motorcycle. Canada had several winners. Korea and Japan won big, too.

The corporate design operations of large companies did exceptionally well in 1999. Hewlett-Packard led the corporate pack, followed by Apple, IBM, and Crown Equipment. Many used European designers to enhance their products. Sofia Gailbraith of Better.Design Solutions in Stuttgart, Germany, helped IBM design its Electronic Newspaper concept. Jean Louis Berthet of Berthet-Pochy in Paris designed Haworth's gold-winning Escale office-furniture system.

The 1999 IDEA contest also shows that creativity spans the entire global product design industry. The biggest design houses, such as IDEO (which won an amazing 11 awards), Fitch, frogdesign, and ZIBA continue to be at the forefront of integrating hardware and software in the Net-driven, digital era. Medium-size design shops, such as Palo Alto Product International, Smart Design, and Insight Product Development, did excellent work. Many new smaller design houses, such as Eleven, and Bridge Design, did well, too.

DIGITAL DIVAS. Who will emerge as the great designers of the Information Age? No one knows for sure, but the laurels already are piling up for a few. One is David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, which designed the digital SoftBook. Another is Harmut Esslinger of frogdesign, which did the Clio. There's Malcolm Smith of Palo Alto Products International, which designed the original PalmPilot and the Rocket eBook. And there is Jonathan Ive of Apple, which designed the amazing iMac.

Fifteen judges examined 1,131 IDEA entries for 1999, of which 164 won awards, compared with 126 last year. There were entrees from 22 countries. Judges handed out 36 golds, 60 silvers, and 68 bronzes. In the following pages, BUSINESS WEEK takes an in-depth look at some of the best in an exceptional year for design.

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