The Best Product Design Of 2007

This year's awards run the gamut from split-head hammers to ultralight jets to savings plans for shoppers

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The evolution of design from a narrow focus on aesthetics into a richer discipline that embraces branding, services, sustainability, medicine--even the comfort and safety of pilots and passengers--is on clear display in the 2007 International Design Excellence Awards. What had once been the preserve of engineers, business consultants, ecologists, and brand managers now falls within the growing purview of designers. Reflecting this expansion of the role and definition of design, the 2007 contest has been renamed from "Industrial Design" to "International Design." Winners from 20 countries took gold, silver, and bronze prizes for service innovation in banking, mapping the interface between pilots and cockpit instruments, creating broad corporate and brand strategies, bolstering sustainability via electric cars, and remaking hammers and wrenches in new, better forms.

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So dynamic is the field that it is attracting a new crop of talented people. The student work, in particular, was startlingly good in 2007, with students taking a record 10 of 81 prizes. (The contest is run independently by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BusinessWeek.) The University of Cincinnati's J. Ryan Eder garnered the Best of Show award for his concept for an exercise machine that accommodates both wheelchair-bound and fully mobile people.

The new name for IDEA also reflects the growing internationalization of the design scene. There were 595 foreign entries from 29 countries this year, as well as 1,096 U.S. entries. Design teams from Asia and Europe took a significant percentage of the awards. What were the key trends? The largest category of winners by far, some 13 of the 81, had an eco-design focus. The Tesla Roadster electric car took the gold with an exciting shape by the Lotus Design Studio in Britain and an all-electric plug-in engine. The Tesla is the un-Prius: a hot, fast sports car that's also green. Herman Miller (MLHR ) and fuseproject won a silver in design strategy for the LEAF lamp, which uses LED lighting to save energy. A hydrogen-fueled toy car, by Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies in Shanghai, took a silver.

A second big trend was reinvention, often using beautiful new forms to express older functionality. The gold-winning Fuego outdoor grill, by Robert Brunner, is designed to let everyone on your deck or patio gather around the sleek, island-like grill while you cook. The Home Hero Fire Extinguisher that captured a gold for the Arnell Group is so good-looking that people will want to display it--possibly making it more available in case of fire. ATOMdesign transformed the traditional framing hammer with a split head that reduces stress on the user. And Extremis introduced InUmbra, a redesigned patio umbrella that hides the pulleys and ropes above the umbrella.

In years past, most IDEA awards went to computers and other high-tech products. Not so in 2007. But Samsung Electronics did get a gold for its LCD Monitor Mobius, designed with IDEO. A new hinging system allows the base and monitor to move to a user's individual comfort level. New this year were awards for service innovation. Citicorp (C ) Credit Services and Ziba Design Inc. won a bronze for the SmartMoney RFID card, which can fit on a keychain. You make a payment simply by waving it near a receiver. The Bank of America (BA )/IDEO team won a bronze for the Keep the Change program, which encourages people to save as if they're putting change in a jar. The bank's program also won a rare Catalyst award. These are given to well-designed products that are especially successful in the marketplace. Catalyst jury leader Keith Yamashita, chairman of Stone Yamashita Partners, said, "BofA used design to study, map, and ultimately inspire how people save."

The one product that won the most awards--two gold IDEAs and one silver plus one Catalyst honorable mention--was the Eclipse 500 Very Light Jet by IDEO and Eclipse Aviation. The Eclipse jet won in IDEA's research, interaction design, and transportation categories. Yamashita had this to say: "The impressive point in this case is how much economic value this program has created by using design in strategic ways."

IDEO took seven IDEA awards, four gold, one silver, two bronze, plus four Catalyst prizes. They won none in 2006. Other big winners were Formation Design Group with three IDEAs, and Smart Design, which also picked up three. Continuum won a Catalyst Honorable Mention for its work with Master Lock Co. and a bronze IDEA. Four U.S. companies, Eclipse Aviation, Belkin, Stanley Works, and Timberland, took top honors. The jury was tough this year. Only 20 golds were given, compared with 27 in 2006 and 38 in 2005. For additional award winners, read on.

By Bruce Nussbaum in New York

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