In an era when the world seems to be falling apart, it is comforting to know that some little things are working better than ever.
That was the theme as the Industrial Designers Society of America, holding its annual conference this week in Atlanta, picked the winners of 90 gold, silver and bronze Industrial Design Excellence Awards. Eligible for entry were designs for products introduced to American consumers last year.
The winning products, chosen from 675 entries, touched on all phases of contemporary American life. A lightweight motorized stair-climber for home workouts was praised by jurors as elegant enough to be a permanent fixture in the living room. The modular components of a personal hygiene system for the bathroom allow a sink to be raised and lowered by pushing a button.
The computer age made its presence felt in a batch of winning designs including Hewlett-Packard's lightweight portable printer and the Macintosh Color Classic computer, which has a low-emission cathode ray tube. The Sony Corp. won a gold trophy for My First Sony, an electronic sketch pad and animation computer that would invite any child to hop into technology land.
But, despite the high-tech veneer, the winners this year were most often designs that solve garden-variety product problems.
"Industrial designers have always concentrated on trying to take the bugs out of consumer products," says the society's Kristina Goodrich, "but this year's entries focused more than ever before in finding practical solutions to real-life problems."
The nation's best products, the jury decided, include ones like Hunter Douglas' Silhouette Window Shadings, a fabric with the light control and opacity of a Venetian blind that doesn't require dusting.
American Tourister snagged a gold trophy for its new Genesis Softside Easyturn Luggage, re-engineered with wheels that prevent tipping and don't require half an airport terminal to negotiate a U-turn. "This luggage really is easy turn, rather than easy topple," says juror Vince Foote.
One explanation for the new interest in making old products work better is an increased effort by manufacturers to ask people what they want and need.
The Thermal Electric Grill, a gold-medal winner, was specifically developed to satisfy consumers' desires. "We did a lot of research all around the country, asking people about cooking and lifestyle," says Susan Haller, vice president of market strategies and research for Fitch Inc., the design firm commissioned to design a new electric grill for the Thermos Co.
Fitch's research, she says, turned up a boom in outdoor cooking. In the past decade, grill ownership grew from 59 million to 73 million households.
Fitch and the Thermos Co. designed a compact electric grill for the left-out crowd--those who live in apartments or condos with patios that don't accommodate charcoal or gas grills. The Thermal Electric grill appeared on the market last fall and was a hit. "We've sold tens of thousands, not only for patios but also for back yards of every size," says Mark Thompson of the Thermos Co.
Designed for people cramped for space, the grill also proved attractive to people cramped for time. "It tucks into a corner, its grease-management system simplifies cleaning, and you just plug it in for cooking," Haller says. "There is no mess with charcoal, no running out of gas, no waiting for the fire to get just right."
The fact that the Thermal grill can be assembled in minutes reinforces the trend toward practicality, says juror Ralph Osterhout, president of San Francisco's Team Machina, design firm. "People are sick of wrestling with instruction manuals. I feel they should be almost outlawed."
Osterhout foresees a new sensibility emerging in the products world dictated by young designers who aren't intimidated by technology and consumers who are fed up with excess.
"There is a growing hunger for environmentally sensitive, purposeful design that solves real problems, instead of just being a trendy look,' he says. "The IDSA competition underlines that.
"The average white-collar worker is working one month a year more in terms of actual time today than 10 years ago--that's phenomenal. The most precious commodities of the future are going to be space and time," Osterhout says.
"You can forget the Cuisinart that can chop, dice, slice and peel in seconds, then takes 20 minutes to clean."
While respecting European and Japanese design, Osterhout says, American products are coming into their own. "We are no longer lingering in the shadow of European design," he says. "Americans are blending technology with human need."