Pink-Haired Designers, Red Cell Phones--Ka-Ching!

Take a close look at the latest products from Samsung Electronics Co., and you might be surprised. There's the ruby-red A220 cell phone -- a $440 number that resembles a cosmetic compact and gives dieting tips, advises how to dress for the day's weather, and has a display that doubles as a mirror. You might like the $549 17-inch SyncMaster flat-panel computer display, which can be folded up and hung on a wall. Or check out the $1,200 Victoria LCD TV, which has a rounded back and half-inch-thick edges, making it look far thinner than rival models even though the total depth of 2.4 inches is about the same.

Could this be the same Samsung that a few years back was best known for selling me-too products whose main attraction was low price? Yep, and expect more cool stuff from the Korean dynamo. Samsung has come a long way in the past few years, and today it offers products that are the envy of tech companies -- and their trend-conscious customers -- from San Francisco to Stockholm. Last year, Samsung won five Industrial Design Excellence Awards for its digital appliances -- a total matched only by Apple Computer Inc.

Samsung today employs 350 designers, twice as many as five years ago. Unlike their corporate brethren at what is still a very conservative Korean company, the designers clutter their desks with toys, often work in blue jeans and sneakers, and dye their hair pink, green, or blue. Despite an average age of just 33, they are the vanguard of Samsung's quest to come up with new, must-have products aimed at hip young consumers worldwide. "We used to work for engineers and product planners, but now we are key players in creating value," says An Yong Il, 34, Samsung's chief of user research.

Key to their value is the extent of their collaboration with the rest of the company. The design teams work closely with blue-sky market researchers, manufacturing experts, and engineers from across Samsung to create compelling gadgets that tap the company's breadth of expertise, look great, and work the way consumers want them to. One team dubbed the CNB Group, which stands for Creating New Business, constantly runs focus groups and user research to gauge consumer taste as far as five years into the future. "We aim to be remembered as the designers of iconic products," says Koo Ki Seol, who heads Samsung's Design Institute.

The focus on design is paying off in a constant stream of new models that let Samsung distinguish itself from competitors while accommodating both fickle consumer tastes and fast-changing technological improvements. A case in point is 29-year-old designer Kim Eui Seok's hanging LCD monitor. Besides redesigning the rectangular stand so the display can lie flat, Kim put hinges on the back of the screen and the stand so users can adjust the monitor's height and angle with a gentle push. The design enables the monitor to fit in a much smaller box, cutting air-shipment costs in half. "At my design school, I did not come across a single Samsung-designed product as an example to follow," says Kim. "But now we are creating buzz at markets and electronic shows." Given the resources Samsung is devoting to looking good, expect plenty more buzz in the future.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul

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