Going for the Gold in Hanover

It was all about functionality at this year's International Forum awards. Consumer electronics made a strong showing, but many cars crashed

While the world's biggest computer fair, CeBIT, saw a drop in annual visitors and exhibitors this week, one of its main events has gone from strength to strength. The annual International Forum, or iF, awards for product design took place on the opening day of CeBIT, in Hanover, Germany, on Mar. 15.

Though exhibitor numbers at CeBIT have fallen from 8,100 in 2001 to just 6,059 this year, iF participants and winners are at record-breaking levels. Some 2,300 products from 500 companies in 35 countries competed in 12 categories, including consumer electronics, leisure, and transportation (read: fast cars). From these, the international panel of judges picked 754 iF winners, and awarded 50 of these the coveted gold statue for design excellence.

Tired of wacky designs that favor form over function, the judges for the 54-year-old event cheered products with a clear purpose. "People have had enough of crazy ideas that make ordinary objects unrecognizable. They want to understand what something does straight away," explains Fritz Frenkler, co-founder of Frankfurt-based f/p design, who has been chairman of the panel since 1999.

Products that hit home in this criterion were objects like the innovative flashlight from Panasonic that can run on AA, C, and D batteries—particularly helpful during a power cut—or the extra-large Omron thermometer that's easy for children and the elderly to use.

Driven By Marketing?

This year, the judges commended the high standard of consumer-electronics entries, which bagged 162 iFs and 15 of the 50 golds. In particular, mobile telephones showed strong improvement, they said. "There are models out there that you can actually call people on now," Frenkler quips. He explains that the best recent products had bypassed gimmicky designs to focus more on functional devices that still retain a strong style.

Asian companies showed the strongest improvement, says Frenkler, and saw a record number of gold winners. In the last few years, companies like top iF winners Panasonic, Sony (SNE), and Samsung have built up strong in-house design teams. To reward successful work, they pay bonuses based on the number of awards a product wins. This year, Samsung designers should be partying into the night—the Korean company bagged 28 awards and two golds for two digital cameras: the Digimax i6 PMP camera with portable media player and the retro-looking VLUU NV series.

Not all categories impressed the judges. Many of the new automobiles exasperated the panel, which accused designers of pandering to their marketing departments. German carmakers like DaimlerChrysler (DCX) and BMW particularly disappointed Frenker. "What they call design, we call mere styling. It undermines this event," Frenkler complains. In contrast to the Germans were the Japanese entries—including the gold-winning Lexus GS450h by Toyota (TM), the world's first hybrid premium sedan, which the jury felt expertly combined environmental concern with visual elegance.

Skeptical of iPhone

No recent design event would be complete without the obligatory nod to Apple (AAPL). The company scooped seven golds, mostly for its family of iPod gadgets. The jury unanimously praised the designs that make complex technology seem within everyone's reach. "Apple's product appeal transcends sex and age because it keeps things simple," says Frenkler.

Apple's taste for clean white boxes showed up in other companies' winning products too. These included the Epson E-500 PictureMate 240, which uses flip-out covers to hide its unattractive machinery, making for a pleasingly simple shape when shut (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/19/06, "Industrial Facility's Holistic Approach").

Another was the Sony Ericsson M600i smart phone, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ubiquitous music player.

But Frenkler's faith in Apple is not without limit. He is skeptical of the upcoming iPhone's potential for exactly the same reason that he praises the company's past successes. Set to launch this summer, the iPhone combines a mobile phone, an MP3 player, and an Internet device into one gadget. "It's just too much. Only a minority of the market want a gadget that can do everything. The iPod outsells more powerful, cheaper MP3 [players] because it's so simple," argues Frenkler.

A Sign-Language Sensation

As well as celebrating the most successful companies in the design industry, the iF awards also praised the next generation of design talent. For the fourth year running, the event included the iF Concept Award for students. Sponsored by the British design and technology company Dyson, the competition seeks to encourage young innovators by giving them a cash prize and ongoing support from the Dyson design team.

This year, German student Maxie Lisa Pantel scooped the top prize, and $6,600, for her sign-language translator, Senjo. The wearable device, which is still in concept form, aims to help the deaf communicate with hearing people. It works by using cameras and sensors to record visual sign language, which is then converted into spoken language. To convert spoken language into sign language, Senjo uses speech recognition: Words are made into visual signs that are projected onto the deaf person's specially designed glasses.

"Senjo stretches current technological capabilities to take it to the fringes of the possible," says Peter Gammack, concept design director for Dyson and member of the iF Concept Award jury.

For next year's iF awards, Frenkler hopes to see stronger entries in the field of public design, which suffers from lack of funding, as well as more truly innovative products in the leisure and automobile categories, where the frivolous often supplants the useful. "We need fewer designers who are in love with the forms they create, and more who understand what humans actually need," he says.

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