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Best product designs: Asia rocks

July 27, 2006 17:24 IST

For companies worldwide, design has become strategic, the very core of their efforts to differentiate what they make and do. But is design itself becoming a commodity? Consider this. What was once thought of as great design is now seen merely as good, what was once exceptional is now standard.

Managers everywhere are turning to rapid ethnography, usability, special materials, and aesthetics -- the tools of design -- to innovate. The differentiation of products and services increasingly requires a much higher level of execution. In design, the bar is raised.

Nowhere is this so apparent as in the 2006 Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEAs). Winning the gold this year took more design excellence than in previous years. Jurors said that relevance and looks were just the basics for consideration. Products needed an element of delight to win the gold.

Sponsored by BusinessWeek and judged independently by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), the contest is one of the most important of its kind.

Global branding

What were the key surprises this year? The strong showing by Asia is clearly one of the most striking trends. Panasonic won six awards, twice as many as the next winner and far more than any U.S. or European corporation.

China's Lenovo Group computer maker took two golds, the most of any company. Samsung Group won a gold and two silvers and still leads all global corporations, including Apple Computer, for the most idea wins over the past five years.

In 2006, according to the IDSA, "the percentage of gold winners with design teams from Asia" came to 25.9%. This is a dramatic increase from 7.9% of the golds last year and 8.1% in 2004. The strong showing by Asia reflects a tremendous investment in design.

Of the 1,533 entry kits sold for the contest, Asian companies and institutions bought 318. This is up from a dozen, mostly bought by the Japanese, a decade ago.

Today, Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Hong Kong companies and their governments are committing huge resources to design in order to build global brands. They are competing less and less on price and more on differentiation, relevance, and value to the consumer.

'Technology tribes'

Take Lenovo. It won a gold for its Opti Desktop PC, designed for tech-centric gamers in China. Perhaps more important, it also won a gold for the design research it did for the Opti with ZIBA Design, based in Portland, Ore.

That research, dubbed "Search for the Soul" of the Chinese customer, helped Lenovo move beyond competing on price, where it was being hit hard by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM in China. Lenovo and ZIBA delved deeply into Chinese consumer culture to "find out which design elements have meaning and value for specific groups of Chinese consumers," according to the idea entry form.

ZIBA and Lenovo spent months immersed in Chinese music, history, and objects of desire, such as cell phones, observing families as they lived, worked, and played.

In the end, they identified "five technology tribes" in China: Social Butterflies, Relationship

Builders, Upward Maximizers, Deep Immersers, and Conspicuous Collectors, each with different needs. The Opti was designed with shapes and colors for Chinese Deep Immersers who seek escape through immersing themselves in games online.

Juror Don Norman (author of Emotional Design and The Design of Everyday Things) said: "At first the judges said 'yuck' to the design but then changed their minds when the research showed the Chinese didn't want our sleek U.S. design but their own from their own culture."

Beauty and ease

ZIBA had the most wins of any single design consultancy -- four medals, three of them golds. It won a gold research-strategy award for one of the jury's favorite products, the Sirius S50 satellite radio.

This product reinvented the prevailing idea of satellite radio by simplifying the experience while allowing people to save and manage the music they get from satellite. "They put it all together so well," said juror Alistair Hamilton, vice-president for corporate design and human interfaces at Symbol Technologies. "Now you can take your satellite music with you and manage it."

There were other products that filled the idea jury with delight. Eastman Kodak's EasyShare digital camera was a huge smash and won a gold. Chris Conley, jury chairman, called it "stellar" in the way it was designed to bury the technology and make it easy for people to operate.

Crown Equipment won again this year with a silver for its TSP 6000 Turret Stockpicker. The 2Seconds Quechua tent by the French company DECATHLON, which opens up like a butterfly when you throw it into the air, won big applause and a gold.

The British Intelligent Energy ENV Bike, designed to show off its hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion system, won a gold. "It was designed to sell the new technology," said juror Hamilton. "People will understand that it is viable and use it."

New names

For the first time, the IDSA presented awards in "Ecodesign." Two office chairs, a pair of water shoes from Timberland and Keen Design Group, and a digital carpet-sampling system that did away with the fabric won. Jurors weren't happy with the low number of entries.

"The design community is not knowledgeable in this," said jury Chair Conley. "Architecture is better."

U.S. design schools also did well in this year's competition. Both the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and Pratt Institute in New York won two awards apiece. U.S. corporations didn't fare as well.

Timberland, a maker of footwear and clothing, won the most of any U.S. company with three awards, and Eastman Kodak won a gold and a silver. But the rest of the top tier was filled by Canada's BRP (Bombardier/Learjet), with two; France's DECATHLON, with a gold and bronze; the Netherlands' Philips Design, with a gold and a bronze; and three Asian companies -- Korea's Samsung, with three awards, and Japan's Panasonic and China's Lenovo, each with two. Food for thought.

Another big surprise was the absence of familiar design and innovation consultancies in the winners box. IDEO didn't win anything this year. Nor did or Smart Design. Fresh names such as Atlanta-based Formation Design Group, New York-based blueMap Design, and Munich-based designafairs did well.

There were fewer winners in 2006, just 108, down from 148 last year. There were only 27 golds, vs. 2005's 38. Clearly, it's a tougher playing field. There were 995 entries from the U.S., and 499 from 28 other countries. The design game is increasingly global.

For additional award winners, check out full coverage of the 2006 Industrial Design Excellence Awards.

Bruce Nussbaum, BusinessWeek