| | |

Setting The Bar Higher For Industrial Design

Electronic products with cool designs are everywhere these days. Once largely the domain of Apple Computer, industrial design has filtered into every part of our lives. A case in point is a new stainless steel dishwasher from Samsung Electronics. It has a garbage disposal built into it so you don't have to scrape food off plates before putting them in the machine. It also has a deeper food tray so that you can put champagne flutes into it. And an auto-sensor below the dishwasher detects moisture and notifies you of leaks. These smart design details are one reason Samsung can charge more for this dishwasher. Good design is a quick way to a competitive advantage these days.

That was one message I got at the World Design Congress in San Francisco last month, which was attended by thousands of designers from around the globe. Once upon a time, companies hired Ideo or Frog Design to come out with a luxury product. But now everything from cute Tupperware plastic to a complete brand makeover is getting the industrial designer treatment. Apple gets credit for setting trends with the iMac computer and the iPod music player, but it doesn't have a monopoly on hot products that consumers must have.

Designers have moved on from designing products to designing whole experiences for consumers, said Anthony Pannozzo, vice president of design strategy at the firm HLB in Chicago. The result is that, for just about every product now, there is a good reason it looks a certain way.
 "Making products slightly better through design has run its course," Pannozzo said. "There used to be all of this low-hanging fruit. You could see where all the design problems were. The bar is much higher now."

Martha Cotton, who heads research for HLB, says a great deal of thought goes into things like a canister of baby wipes - the kind where you pull one out and the tip of the next one is there so a parent who has only one hand free can grab it easily. And baby nail clippers: They come with a magnifying glass so you can see what you're cutting.

These days, the industrial design itself can be the source of value in a product. Robert Brunner, a former Apple designer now with San Francisco's new Ammunition Group design firm, believes small teams of designers can launch entire product lines using nothing but contract manufacturers and other outsourced services. In the past, companies would have to invest huge sums just to get factories up and running. Brunner is tapping contractors to do all that. For products such as the Fuego barbecue and an upcoming iPod accessory, Brunner gets a chunk of the royalties for every unit sold.

The lessons from everyday items aren't lost on computer designers. Yao Ying Jia, vice president of design at computer maker Lenovo Group in Beijing, said his company's 90 designers are constantly remaking their designs, and not just so they can charge higher prices for computers.

"The PC market is maturing," said Gary Elsasser, senior vice president of products at Gateway. "The next area, where people are looking for why am I buying my next PC, has to do with fashion and industrial design. How it fits with my life. You're picking them out like picking out clothing. We're very aware of that. We have been investing in industrial design."

Elsasser's team recently created the Gateway One, an all-in-one computer, meaning the computer itself is built into the display. The Gateway One has 802.11 wireless built into it so that you don't have to have as many wires plugged into it. And all of the remaining wires can be pulled in ponytail fashion into a single cord that comes out the back of the machine. The design is very iMac-like, though perhaps not as thin or elegant. But it's clear that Gateway's investment in this space means that good design isn't the sole province of Apple anymore.