The global recovery is gaining traction, and at corporations around the world, high-octane design is fueling the strong rebound. Whether it is with breakthrough new products, hybrid combinations of older ones, or research into rethinking the entire consumer experience, companies are using design to generate sales and profits. The 2004 winners of the Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) demonstrate that design is playing a critical role for corporations as they turn away from cost-cutting survival tactics to return to strategies of growth.
The annual contest, sponsored by BusinessWeek and juried by the Industrial Designers Society of America, is usually full of surprises. This year is no exception. For the first time in the competition's 24-year history, an Asian company won more awards than any U.S. or European corporation: Samsung took five IDEAs (including two golds), with Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL ) the runner-up, winning four (two of them golds).
Another surprise was that European design firms did exceptionally well in 2004. Sweden's Ergonomidesign, Germany's Atelier Markgraph, and Ireland's Design Partners each won two IDEAs. But the record was set by IDEO of Palo Alto, Calif., which took 10 awards, the most for a design firm, including six golds, while New York's Smart Design and San Francisco's fuseproject tied for second with five IDEAs each.
Surprising too was the the large number of hybrid products that won awards. The Chevy Super Sport Roadster is a pickup truck that is also a convertible roadster. It won a gold. Nokia Corp. (NOK )'s 7600 reinvents the cell phone by integrating it with a Gameboy-like device. And Logitech takes two separate handheld accessories -- a protective cover and a keyboard -- and makes them one.
There were surprises in the redesign of existing products as well. The Apple iPod Mini, of course, is a wildly successful second iteration of the iPod. But look also at the beautiful new swim fins by Décathlon of France, the new Weight Forward Hammer by Farm Design, Bloomberg's new terminals and Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ ) gold-winning vertical scanner, the Scanjet.
Design's role in shaping consumer experiences is represented by ZIBA's gold-winning research for Umpqua Bank of Oregon. "We asked people: Why go to a bank when they can go online or to ATMs?" says Sohrab Vossoughi, founder of ZIBA. "We found that people want peace of mind from financial services." Umpqua's branches now look and act more like community centers than banks.
There are more design surprises in the pages ahead.
CHEVROLET SUPER SPORT ROADSTER
Designers: General Motors Corp. (GM ); ASC Creative Services
It fuses classic late-'40s Chevy pickup style with two-seat-roadster design -- for the first convertible truck. A retractable hardtop roof stacks vertically behind the seats. $41,995.
Designers: Design Partners (Ireland), ElekSen (Britain), IDEO, Logitech
A QWERTY keyboard that works with Palm (PLMO ) handhelds is made out of ElekTex, a new "smart fabric" from ElekSen. The keyboard folds around the Palm, providing a protective cover for it. Looks like a wallet. $99.
Designer: Farm Design
A continuous, curved shape -- from the hand grip to the "weight-forward" point of impact on the hammerhead -- shifts the center of gravity and delivers more impact with less applied force. And it looks fierce. $30.
UMPQUA BANK RESEARCH
In creating a new customer experience, ZIBA did behavioral and attitudinal consumer research. The result: Umpqua redesigned its banks to look more like community centers than austere financial institutions.
Designer: Apple Computer
A click wheel makes it even easier to use than the original iPod and saves space by integrating buttons. The mini, at 3.6 ounces, is half the weight of the original but still holds 1,000 songs. The size of a business card. $249.
Designer: Antenna Design
It has a dual-screen display plus a keyboard with a fingerprint scanner for access to proprietary analytic software, customized keys and speakers, and a microphone for "squawking." For lease.
Designer: Nokia UK
Welcome to the world of 3G broad-band mobile communications. Nokia shifts the emphasis from voice to video and imaging by putting the screen at the center and the keys on the periphery of this cell phone. A new, iconic shape. $480.
By Bruce Nussbaum in New York