That joyful noise is not an early holiday carol. It's the sound of designers celebrating. For the past decade, product designers have seduced shoppers with fashionable goods: colorful iMacs, retro New Beetles, handy Palm Pilots and sleek Nike sports watches. Shoppers have returned the favor by making these offerings best-selling icons of style.
"Design breathes magic into products, gives them the 'wow' factor," says Mark Dziersk, president of the Industrial Designers Society of America, based in Great Falls.
On the eve of the society's version of the Oscars, held last night in Washington, he was trying to explain how a staple gun or a black-handled potato peeler could become a Hot New Thing.
Designs shape the world around us. Successful ones are supposed to mirror our dreams--or at least capture the popular imagination. That hasn't happened in a large way since the '30s, when Norman Bel Geddes started streamlining, Raymond Loewy redesigned the Coke bottle and Henry Dreyfuss produced the iconic Bell phone. But if the old theme was form and function, the new one is about fun.
"This is an exuberant time, a time of great economic joy. These artifacts reflect that," says Dziersk. "There is a great party going on."
To celebrate, a contingent of the world's most influential industrial designers was invited to a gala at the National Press Club. They risked turning Washington into an enclave of high design for a night as they applauded "Designs of the Decade: Best in Business 1990-1999." The competition, which drew 189 entries, was sponsored by the society and Business Week. In all, 36 winners--12 each in gold, silver and bronze categories--were chosen by a jury of peers. They will be published in Business Week's Nov. 29 issue and online at www.idsa.org.
There may be a prize winner in your pocket, on your desktop, in your driveway--or on your holiday shopping list. Good design has become that pervasive and affordable.
Volkswagen's New Beetle, at $15,700, was hailed as the "design of the decade." No wonder the company wants to turn the factory into a theme park for visitors. BMW's 3-series cars won gold for their "classic and elegantly sporty" presence. Apple turned work into play with the $1,199 iMac--and won the top award for the decade's best computer design. Since its 1998 launch, sales of more than 2 million colorful iMacs raised Apple's stock price almost $20 a share.
The ergonomic Aeron desk chair, by Stumpf, Weber & Associates and Chadwick and Associates for Herman Miller, was declared the furniture design of the decade. Aeron became a museum collectible before it began to support bad backs in 1994. The chair retails for about $750.
Palm Pilots, designed by Palo Alto Products International and Palm Computing, have transformed the way people keep track of their busy-busy lives: 3 million have been sold since 1996, at about $299 each.
Top prize winners turned up in the kitchen drawer and shower shelf. Oxo's Good Grips Kitchen Tools, by Smart Design, picked up a gold award, and doubled the acceptable price of a potato peeler. Gillette's designers figured out that women would buy a razor that was shaped to fit them, and not because it might be pink; the company's Sensor for Women razor became its No. 1 product.
Motorola's TalkAbout SLK two-way radio, which sells for $154.99, made a sporty communicator out of a walkie-talkie. Sony's PlayStation made it cool to play games, even at $299. The PowerShot Forward Action Staple Gun became a $30 home-improvement essential.
The newest of the gold winners is Nike's 1998 Triax Sportwatch, designed by Astro Products to fit runners' wrists.
Graphic designers changed the personality of Hush Puppies from sad basset hound to "the Earth's most comfortable shoes." The parent company's stock has risen 250 percent, and the hound looks happier.
Silver winners included IBM's ThinkPad, Apple's PowerBook, Nokia's 6100 Series cellular phone and the BabyBjorn baby carrier from Sweden. The Iomega Zip Drive and Bubble golf club picked up bronzes.
In some cases, these "designs of the decade" effected turnarounds for their companies. In all cases, they proved that good design could be good business. Retailers have learned that lesson from the Michael Graves collection at Target and Martha Stewart's label for Kmart. Dziersk believes it's time more manufacturers came to see design as a competitive edge, one that may set them apart in a cluttered marketplace.
"The problem with business has been that everything has to be quantified," he says. "Design can't be. You're trying to put a number on love."