Appliances of the Future: Collaborative, Beautiful and Balanced
During the design process, we must develop the sustainable, empathetic, and emotional product story that will help build more people-centric spaces and experiences.
Throughout history we have seen many shifts in appliance design and the process to achieve the most appropriate solutions. But one thing has remained constant: people using them. Yes, that’s obvious but I bring it up for a reason. With user interaction being the constant, there needs to be a focus on the inherent knowledge and abilities of the user. Society has shifted from being heavily analog to now heavily digital, from colorful and apparent products to neutral and nearly invisible—and many more. Do we continue down the path of home becoming the smartest and most technology-driven part of our lives? I think not. Home appliance products should be designed as an ecosystem, appliances and devices that talk to each other to create a seamless interaction but coinciding with the abilities and knowledge of the user to provide an emotional and intellectual experience between person and product.
Let’s expand on that. History has given us products designed as individuals, each fighting for the visual and physical attention of the user. This creates a visual anxiety in the home and overall we ended up with products being market driven with color trends and styling versus people driven. Now, we see the opposite end of the spectrum. Technology has given us an incredible leap in connectivity both in and away from the home. It has also started to pave a path of a heavily technology-dependent future where everything is controlled via a mobile device—and to be quite honest, the person becomes secondary. We’ve seen conceptual videos like the series from Corning entitled “A Day Made of Glass” where we see nearly an entire home of appliances that a person interacts with is glass. This example is what I mean by a heavily technology-driven future. For the future, rather than living in a ‘glass case’ we need to take steps towards using technology to facilitate research and how we design/manufacture products versus being the core element of the product itself, bringing back the emphasis on human interaction.
The first steps are to understand how people live in today’s society and how that will influence both the design process and the overall design of appliances. Now more than ever society has an urge to collaborate, to do things together. That has been a direct translation from the workplace where collaboration, breaking down barriers, and employee well-being have become some of the most important elements of having a happy and efficient workplace. Now that these themes are being implemented in our work lives, we see that start to translate back to the home as well. The home is now just as much of a collaborative place as the office. People are making, eating, viewing, playing, decorating and just doing much more as a joint effort rather than just as individuals. We see a continuously refined taste, leaning towards a minimalist approach to the home, where a living space is much more open and less divided than it has been in the past. Another aspect to consider during the design process is to acknowledge that living spaces are getting smaller therefore the appropriation of space is such a key factor. People are now choosing products that complement each other and the space versus a particular style they favor or even a low price point. In addition, there is a continued effort to live in a more sustainable environment, and this is something that will grow in importance as the years go on. Sustainability will be a major aspect of the story of each product from design to its life in the home, and beyond.
With all this in mind, let’s talk about the ‘appliances of the future’ and what needs to change in the process to create appropriate solutions that are people-centric. First, let’s consider the collaborative aspect of appliances. Something that has yet to come to the world of appliances are products that learn from your habits, movements, gestures, and schedule, in a true blend of analog and digital components. A person shouldn’t have to spend a lot of time entering data into an app or software for a product to understand how it’s used; we already do that enough in other aspects of our lives. Instead, how can our environment learn and respond to how we live? The next generation of products will be able to respond to our touch and in turn give a tactile response to create an interaction that is more than just digital, but also emotional. The appliances live with us rather than just existing for moments at a time. Think of it like this: as designers we go through a lot of ethnographic (empathetic) research to figure out the best possible solution for as many people as we can, but with the collaborative approach, now there is a constant collection of research that will in turn make those products the best possible solution for the individual or group of individuals that interact with that product throughout its life. With this concept, we then see the products collaborating with the person, using our knowledge to influence the lifestyle of the product. And, on the flip side, the product teaches the user to create a better lifestyle for themselves and those around them.
What will the appliances of the future look like if not a series of glass surfaces? To start let’s look at the Samsung Serif designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Here we see a television that breaks the mold of what we traditionally think a television looks and feels like. The Serif complements the space in which it exists, creates a visual experience from all angles, and in the same respect, invokes emotion because of its aesthetics and materiality. This is part of that shift from high-gloss, nearly all glass surfaces that I referenced earlier. Each product lives in the space and owns its space—rather than disappearing until needed—but not creating visual anxiety like products of the past. It has minimalist qualities while also being sculptural and emotional in execution. Another example is the Link Wedge Whiteboard designed by our studio. The Link Wedge is an elegantly simple design that both owns its space and remains unobtrusive. The ergonomics of the product influenced the overall form with the surface angling out to be the appropriate angle for a user to write on it, creating a dynamic design that celebrates the lifestyle of the product. It is so important to make sure that emotional, sculptural, and simple design become symbiotic in the quest to create better appliances so that the designs of the future are not static and stale.
Last, we’ll consider the balance of analog and digital. Every year, if not every month, it seems a new technology comes into the design world. Thinner, faster, more powerful, and in the end, almost immediately obsolescent. That is the danger of designing a heavily digital dependent future, a lack of character and existence. This sounds like I have something against technology and progress; on the contrary I believe that technology can greatly influence the design, but more importantly the design process. Using technology to learn from and teach people as they live with each other could harvest incredible results. Sensors that talk to the appliances to then provide a haptic response that is more emotional and impressive than just a loud beep or chime. Surfaces and forms that change based on the task at hand or lifestyle of the individual, but don’t compromise its spatial and visual impact. Products as an ecosystem rather than competing individuals where each element can have its own character and doesn’t take away from the composition and emotion of the space. We have seen companies develop apps for the home where you can control lights, locks, and other smart devices by the click of a button. This has its purpose, but in an effort to remove the dependence on technology, we can design the products to talk to each other and to us rather than just relaying information through an app.
The appliances of the future should be collaborative, beautiful, and balanced. During the design process, we must develop the sustainable, empathetic, and emotional product story that will be honest and help build more people-centric spaces and experiences. As designers, we need to use the knowledge of people and their thirst for collaboration to create better experiences with appliances and with each other throughout the life of the product, shifting and adapting as time goes on rather than becoming obsolete. Finally, we should strive to create appliances that help an individual curate their space and live symbiotically with products and technology.