We live in a world that is unsure of its economic future and uncertain of its technological choices, with companies needing all the help they can get. Over the past year, they turned to design not only to help define overall corporate strategy but also to act as product way-finders, matching what they sell to very specific consumer needs. In good economic times, industrial design highlights all the possibilities. In rough times, it focuses resources, drills down deep into consumer wants, and provides solutions--including a bit of fun.
The Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEAs) are given by the Industrial Designers Society of America and sponsored by BusinessWeek. The IDEAs for 2001 reflect a cautious restraint. This year, crazy shapes, feature-packed techno-boxes, and wild colors are conspicuously absent among the winners. Instead, a design humanism prevailed, with designers striving to place products within people's lives rather than cram cold technology down their throats, to improve on old favorite objects rather than replace them, and to refer to the past as well as the future. Winners emphasized simplicity over complexity and permanence over obsolescence. An ergonomic rope cleat for sailing, a stackable CD storage case, a hot new laptop, an improved kayak steering rudder, and an easier-to-use mouse were all existing products enhanced by redesign.
In terms of aesthetics, the retro look made a strong appearance with the gold-winning PT Cruiser and the Audrey information appliance. But retro doesn't dominate. It co-exists with the blobby, plastic, translucent shapes epitomized by the iMac computers as well as the very edgy look of IBM Thinkpad laptops. Even the gold-winning Apple G4 titanium laptop is angular.
Awards also went to a number of firms offering design research and strategy to large corporate clients. IDEO, which received an astonishing nine IDEA awards this year, won a gold for its research and work on the new Amtrak Acela Express train. IDEO realized that it wouldn't be enough for Amtrak just to build a better train. The customer experience aboard the high-speed Acela had to compete with flying, as it whizzes along the Boston-New York-Washington shuttle route. Other big design firms, such as ZIBA Design, Pentagram Design, Lunar Design, frog design, Herbst Lazar Bell, and Fitch, also won, as did dozens of smaller ones.
There were a record 1,260 entries from around the world, including South Korea, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Britain, Canada, Singapore, and the Netherlands. There were 44 gold winners, 63 silvers, and 82 bronzes.
In contrast with recent years when new, high-tech devices garnered nearly all of the top awards, 2001 saw an unusual number of winners among decidedly low-tech products. Check out the following pages to see incredible work tools, tractors, boats, cars, broadband devices, cameras, and PDAs. For a complete list of all the winners and their designers, turn to businessweek.com.