In an era of rapid technological change, no one knows what will work. This is as true for new products in the marketplace as it is for new business models on the Internet. Product design is fast emerging as a pathfinder for the New Economy, pointing to possible future directions for mobile Net devices, Web sites, office workplaces, home medical equipment, kitchen utensils, sports gear, kids stuff, and even gas stations.
The Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) for 2000 highlight the trend of corporations' turning to designers to create concept products that show what can work in the marketplace. Product design's focus on users and its ability to match consumer needs with appropriate technologies makes it a critical discipline for the New Economy. One important technique is rapid prototyping, which offers a sequence of possibilities for either the market or managers to consider. This is a virtue in the fast-changing New Economy.
In both their form and function, this year's IDEA winners reflect a buoyant optimism. The entries were judged by the Industrial Designers Society of America and the awards sponsored by Business Week. These winners express the promise of tomorrow more than any other group of winners in many decades.
Even old-fashioned machines, such as a mechanical kitchen juicer, look 21st century. There may be whimsy in the Water Bug garden-hose reeler, beauty in the Philips translucent toaster; and sheer ruggedness in the body armor for dirt bikers. But the core group of winners this year are Net-connected, digital, problem-solving devices that are transparent, slim, and light. "They pushed the fulcrum of technology but paid attention to how people used products," said juror Henry Kim of Hill-Rom in Hatboro, Pa.
Nothing epitomizes this better than the Apple products that won awards. Apple Computer's iSub woofer speaker and big Cinema Display monitor are as elegant as they are functional. Samsung's digital camera for kids and its computer monitor completely capture the techno zeitgeist with their lightweight, thin frames.
Yet it is within the realm of possibility that winning products really shone. Concept products that projected technology and consumer needs 5 or 10 years down the road often broke the mold. For example, with ever-smaller cell phones and personal digital assistants, keyboards are becoming almost impossible to use. Smart Design came up with a replacement--the Thumbscript keypad, nine buttons that can be punched in the right sequence to write all 26 letters of the alphabet, as well as numbers and symbols. And with people multitasking all the time, Herbst LaZar Bell created a new idea for a gas pump: Check your e-mail, order food online, and, of course, pay at the pump as you fill 'er up.
Design firms also won awards for approaches that went way beyond one product. IDEO blue-skied completely for a Japanese client by looking at how people communicate intuitively and subjectively. The results? A concept for a CD player that resembles a fan with pull strings for on/off switches. A screen on an umbrella stand that constantly updates the weather. One of ZIBA Design's Asian clients wanted help in going beyond its status as an original equipment manufacturer to build a brand name. ZIBA won a gold award for identifying appropriate innovations and suggesting possible new opportunities for a range of personal information-management products that avoid the fate of Apple's Newton, AT&T's Eo, and Sony's MagicLink.
The IDEA awards for 2000 also reflect the growing strength of product designers in creating Web sites. Web sites are evolving into serious business arenas. Product design's focus on functionality, not just glitz, is having a big impact. Usability has become a major problem, and some companies, such as boo.com, have gone under because their fancy graphics took forever to download. Awards went to frogdesign, titanium electric, and Design Continuum, which designed a new look in Web sites--helpful, engaging, customizable, friendly, and quiet. Brash, screaming sites are definitely out.
So are cubicles. Olive 1:1 in New York won a gold for revamping the very concept of "work." The Resolve workstations create minimalist offices, with canopies, not panels, posts to carry wiring, and a geometry favoring openness and communication.
The need for physical mobility was reflected in awards for medical products as well. Building a toolbox for independent living for the elderly and those with disabilities is now "the design agenda of our time," says juror Patricia Moore of Bresslergroup in Phoenix. "Design gives us independence from institutions and improves the quality of life."
A concept for a new type of wheelchair won a gold award. Beginning clinical trials, this four-wheel transporter uses an advanced gyro-balancing system to allow people to move about at a standing adult's eye level, reach the topmost shelves, and climb street curbs. The Independence 3000 by Johnson & Johnson may be available in two years.
Large corporations around the world won many awards, with Apple taking five, Herman Miller four, Target four, Samsung three, and others picking up two apiece. Big design consultancies did well, too: IDEO led with six, followed by Hauser with five, frogdesign with four, Herbst LaZar Bell with four, and ZIBA with four. Design Continuum and Smart Design each won three.
Smaller design firms won big, too--such as Design Guys in Minneapolis, Carter Design in Denver, Design Science in Philadelphia, Mauk Design in San Francisco, and Altitude in Boston. Others were Product Insight in Acton, Mass.; Design Central in Columbus, Ohio; Manta in Cambridge, Mass.; and Strategics in Bozeman, Mont.
There were 1,078 entries this year, with 110 coming from 15 foreign countries. They include Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, and Singapore. The 16 jurors handed out 40 gold awards, 71 silvers, and 51 bronzes.
For a closer look at the design revolution behind the New Economy, check out the following pages.