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issue: December 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Industrial Design
Good Ideas


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by by Leanna Skarnulis, Contributing EditorLeanna Skarnulis, Contributing Editor

Design, design, design. It’s to appliance producers today what location is to real estate.

Research is essential to good product development. Conventional wisdom has it that a smoke alarm should awaken anyone. Yet research shows that kids often sleep through a squealing alarm. What will wake them is a mother’s voice. The KidSmart® SignalONE Safety Vocal Smoke Detector from SignalONE Safety (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.) is an IDEA Gold Winner designed by Bresslergroup (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.). It alerts children with evacuation directions recorded by their mother.

It’s not just about how a product looks. How does it feel? Sound? Smell? How easy is it to use? What does it say about the consumer? How intuitive is it to operate?
In short, the industrial designer and design engineer consider the user’s total experience, beginning with how they see the product presented in the store to how they relate to it at home.
Elements of Change was the theme of the Industrial Design Society of America 2006 National Conference, with 600 design professionals, educators and students in attendance.
One element of change was the conference itself. In years past, the conference and symposium were two separate events held consecutively. But an IDSA focus group advised merging them as a way to bridge the domains of design education and design practice.
“Reaction from everyone has been so positive,” says Ron Kemnitzer, president of the IDSA Academy of Fellows and professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.) “Professionals tell me they’ve attended a great session only to realize later it was an educational session. Combining the meetings puts everyone on the same page.”

Products designed with aging consumers in mind often have wider appeal, especially if they’re not marketed as products for people with limitations. A case in point is the popular Sandbug palm-held sander from B&Q, a large DIY retailer in the United Kingdom. Buyers don’t need to know it was designed for people with arthritis.

Why It’s Hot

Word around the conference is that the MID (industrial design masters degree) is the new MBA. U.S. designers are challenging the design world dominance of Italy and Germany, and with prominent design centers backed by their governments, Asian countries are clearly in the running.
People are getting richer worldwide, and they want style, said keynote speaker Gary Hoover, founder of Austin-based Hoover’s Inc. and author of Hoover’s Vision: Original Thinking for Business Success.
It’s not enough to drive a stylish car and wear fashionable clothes. Consumers want style in the products they use every day. The morning bagel should be toasted in a retro-looking chrome toaster, and at dinner wine should come to the table from its own chilling compartment in the refrigerator.
Target, working with designer Michael Graves, is generally acknowledged as a driving force in design, bringing stylish household products to the masses. “Target is positioned for the next 20 years as shoppers move up from Wal-Mart,” says Hoover.
He notes that consumers also want convenience, and smart enterprises will see through to the end user. “Hormel knows the user isn’t Kroger’s supermarket, but the Spanish-speaking Mom who needs to get a meal on in 18 minutes.”
Recent Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.) graduate Arthur Wu tells APPLIANCE magazine, “Today’s design students are learning to consider the end user. We’re taught to look for the story behind the product, and that includes the user.” Wu took top honors over four other regional finalists for IDSA’s Student Merit Award. He’s now an industrial designer for Ignition (Plano, Texas, U.S.).

Consumers expect functional features to have style along with durability, ease of use and minimal care. These Ice and Water nameplates from IDSA exhibitor Northern Engraving (Sparta, Wisconsin, U.S.) are formed, decorative aluminum with a jewel-like urethane finish that adds depth while providing resistance to stains and mars.

Demands of an Aging Population

Fresh-faced designers just out of school may dream of working on products for a hip, young market only to find themselves designing for the hip-replacement generation. Aging Baby Boomers are as strong as ever in their influence on the marketplace. The bulge in the older demographic is widely acknowledged in the U.S., but is expanding to an even greater degree in Japan and the United Kingdom.
“Look at history and the impact of women entering the workforce. The aging of Baby Boomers is that next big trend,” says Hoover.
He believes enterprises (which he defines as “any group of people working together toward a goal”) that understand and cater to the needs of older people will be winners. Consider that Velcro will replace buttons, nostalgia products will be in demand, and accommodations must be made for failing vision. Evidently, many enterprises have yet to catch on. “People are getting older, yet signs at the Austin airport are made for 25-year-old eyes.”
“Universal design,” known as “inclusive design” in the UK and “design for all” in Europe, is a philosophy of designing products for people with limitations, but with general appeal as well. Presenter Jim Mueller, principal at J. L. Mueller, Inc. (Chantilly, Virginia, U.S.), tells APPLIANCE that when the movement began in the early 1980’s, Whirlpool Corporation was among the first to get on board. One of its earliest innovations—printing instructions in a large, high-contrast typeface on the inside of washer lids—was embraced by customers with and without visual limitations.
After a quarter of a century, universal design remains a movement trying to find its way to the marketplace. “Too often, innovations come about by accident,” says Mueller. “A top manager in a company is injured in a skiing accident or their mother can no longer live independently, and they realize all the limitations that could be overcome often with simple design changes no one had thought of before.”
Advocates say it’s not about marketing to people with disabilities. For example, if appliance controls have large, readable type on a contrasting background for people with aging eyes, no consumer of any age will complain, yet many controls feature barely readable pastel type on a white finish.
“Designers can and ought to drive inclusiveness,” says Mueller. “They seem to care about it, but they have to do their research and build a strong business case for it.”
One strong example is the Sandbug. Developed by British-based B&Q, Europe’s largest DIY retailer, the Sandbug is a palm-held sander that straps to the hand so that people with arthritis can use it. Like OXO Good Grips tools, an American universal design success story, the Sandbug offers comfort and ease of use that appeals to consumers of all ages and physical abilities, not just to seniors with arthritis.
Mueller says that in some companies, the internal design department has the power to make universal design a priority.  In others, it will happen when marketers tell them to. He adds that universal design often becomes apparent first as value-added features on high-end appliances.
But there’s no reason innovations can’t begin with suppliers offering alternatives to OEMs. “Suppliers of switches and controls have a great opportunity to promote universal design,” Mueller says. “For example, control knobs with rubber grips or texture bumps, and audible and tactile clicks that give feedback when the appliance is turned on or off, can communicate universal design every time the product is used.”

Material Matters

Dr. Andrew Dent is vice president of Material Connexion, and also serves as its director of libraries and materials. He gave a presentation on The Influence of Materials on Design Innovation. Material Connexion (New York City) is a global resource for new materials and provides consulting services for product development, custom research and virtual or on-site access to its materials libraries in New York, Milan, Bangkok, and Cologne.
Of the five major classes of materials, he says that metals, polymers and ceramics have reached a level at which further improvements will be incremental with few great leaps forward in properties. The fourth class, composites, has the potential for greater innovation. Examples are metals with plastics or ceramics, ceramics with plastics and natural materials with plastics, such as Bio-BMC. The fifth, materials from natural resources, is in its infancy as regards to industry’s understanding of how to control innovation.
Composites are coming on strong, but Dent points out that the more complex they become, the harder they are to recycle. “Biomaterials are where we need to go, but it will take a long time for these materials to reach the production efficiency of polymers. The people who have spent the last 50 years on improving polymers need to work on biomaterials.
“That’s our next materials revolution. Then will come nanotechnology, and eventually we’ll learn how to grow materials. If nature can create a tree with sunlight, dirt, and water, think of the potential if we could control this.”
He talked to APPLIANCE about trends in appliances. “In the U.S., consumers love stainless steel, but what will be the next stainless? I hope we’ll embrace color in big appliances as they do in Europe.”
Metals still rule the world of big appliances, but Dent expects much innovation to come from teaming resin producers. “The resin people say, ‘what do you want this material to do?’”

Think Global, Think China

Any discussion of global influences on design at the IDSA event had China as the center of focus. It was standing room only at the session, Designing in Greater China, which included a live conversation from Hong Kong with Lawrence Weng, Asian operation director for Ignition.
Responding to the issue of pirating, he said it’s impossible to overstate the positive impact that the coming 2008 Olympics is having. “All focus is on the 2008 Olympics timetable. China will get the world’s attention and is trying very hard to improve its poor image around the world. For instance, the government has torn down the landmark Xing Yang market in Shanghai and Xiushui market in Beijing that are very famous for fake branded products.”
Weng later talked to APPLIANCE about western appliances in China. “The cost-driven market is a tough one for the western brand. And the current aging population in China is not a wealthy group; it is a social issue for the government. Great opportunity for products does not exist in this age group. The western brand has to focus on the high-end market. Electrolux launched high-end products first in the China market, then in the western market.”

Designed for All
Weng says designers of appliances must consider aesthetics and local lifestyles. He cited examples of both in products from South Korea’s LG Electronics, Inc. Its Art Cool indoor air-conditioning units are not merely unobtrusive; one version looks like a painting of a Chinese landscape. LG also addresses the fact that steaming is a preferred method of cooking in its round cavity microwave, which features a built-in steamer.
Today’s industrial design professionals are clearly intent on making products that are much more than just pretty. Appliances need to be designed for the local user and the global market. For the special needs of some users, and for the universal needs of all users.

Great Ideas: 2006 Gold Winners

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Hoover Co., The
Northern Engraving Corp.
Electrolux International Co.
LG Electronics Inc.
 

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