Cover Story: Annual Design Awards
`WHAT A JOY TO HOLD'
It's the ultimate toy for couch potatoes--a remote control that rests comfortably in the palm of the hand, with a depression on top for your thumb. Once there, the thumb knows instinctively what to do: Rock the button forward and back, left or right, to control volume and channel. If you're using a VCR, the button directs play, stop, fast-forward, and reverse.
Go-Video Inc. knew it needed a second control for its VCRs. The Scottsdale (Ariz.) company already includes a full-function remote control with each VCR. But since it sells only dual-deck VCRs, that remote must handle all of the functions for each deck, plus additional features such as copy and edit. But 90% of the time, customers simply watch rental tapes. For those occasions, Go-Video figured folks wanted something simple.
It was hardly prepared for what Doug Patton came up with. Patton, who runs his own design firm in Irvine, Calif., has done remotes before, and in 1990, he won an IDEA gold medal for a three-button, pen-size control for Mitsubishi Electronics. This time, he says, he wanted an even more minimal design: You shouldn't have to move your finger from button to button.
But it's the shape that stunned Go-Video and the IDEA judges. "I wasn't even thinking that a remote control could feel good in your hand," says John R. Berkheimer, chief engineer at Go-Video. "What a joy to hold," says Lou Lenzi, manager of industrial design at Thomson Consumer Electronics, who judged consumer-electronics products. "This touchy- feely approach to technology is a welcome departure from the intimidating, hard-edged, technolook of most electronic products." The rest of the jury agreed and elevated Lenzi's silver recommendation to a gold award.
Patton can't point to a single inspiration for the shape. "There are lots of sensuous forms that relate to this kind of design: rounded stones at the beach, aquatic creatures, and shells," he says. "Even a surfboard's shape is very similar." The initial models that Patton, a surfer, delivered to Go-Video, were, in fact, carved from surfboard foam.
To put the remote control, called Palm-Mate, into production, Go-Video had to make a number of changes to Patton's design. The first was to sell it as a stand-alone product--a universal remote control that could handle any brand of TV and VCR. That required three small buttons around the perimeter to switch between the different gear. In order to accommodate common AA-size batteries, Go-Video had to enlarge the elliptical shape by about 8%.
Patton had proposed a textured, rubberized surface to give Palm-Mate a stonelike look and a soft feel. But in tests, Go-Video noticed people would pick it up and play with it like a worry-stone--rubbing it for hours. "So durability became an issue, and the surface just didn't hold up," says Berkheimer. The finished product has a flat, matte surface.
Consumers love it. Even with the $30 Palm-Mate in limited distribution, Go-Video says it can't keep up with demand. The company sold close to 10,000 in its first 45 days on the market, and in May it ran 300% over projected sales. Now in the works are more colors and special versions for kids and teenagers.Larry Armstrong in Irvine, Calif.