The (Re) Birth of Cool
The Industrial Designers Society of America’s (IDSA) annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) 2018 is open for entries through March 19 as the competition marks 38 years of recognizing excellence. The awards cover a broad range of industries and disciplines, from commercial and industrial products to leisure, entertainment and children’s products to home including appliances, medical and health, environments and automotive/transportation.
The awards are tier-based with winners awarded at the gold, silver and bronze levels. The winning designs are housed in a permanent collection at the iconic Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, MI, providing a public spotlight for the design firms and corporate design offices behind the award winners and highlighting their role as design thought leaders.
Here we’ll focus our assessment of design trends to the consumer technology category. Consumer tech is a bellwether for how design shapes the artifacts and user-experiences in the midst of one of the most technologically disruptive periods in modern history.
As a collection, IDEA 2017 winners in consumer technology reflect a seriousness of design. Marked by a pervasive use of noble metals, notably polished and brushed aluminum and expanses of high performance glass—these designs are crisp, sharply-tailored and exude a serious, no-nonsense feeling. This purity of materials and finishes—applied to straightforward geometric forms—says “cool” in the same vein as the late jazz legend Miles Davis. Call today’s consumer technology design solutions a (re)birth of cool.
No better example is the gold winning Xiaomi Mi MIX smartphone. Its ceramic case, edgeless glass screen and precise, nearly invisible case gaps are the essence of cool detachment. The earpiece speaker, front-facing camera and distance sensor are incorporated into the case in a way that they seem to disappear from sight. The single physical button is located on the back of the phone and is attached to the ceramic shell by a clever tenon joint, eliminating the use of adhesives or plastic structures. The overall form might be interpreted as a simple geometric shape, but the incredible level of precision in which the details are executed make it highly sophisticated. The Mi MIX, designed by renowned designer Philippe Starck, recalls a comment he made while serving as a design consultant with one of my former employers. Starck said “the best design is no design.” Quite possibly an apt summary of this design direction.
This cool, minimal aesthetic is not limited to handheld products. The gold winning Microsoft Surface Studio and the bronze winning HP Envy 34 all-in-one desktop computers are both benchmarks for a scaled-up iteration of “cool.” Each PC maintains a serious presence on the desktop with crisp-edged, no nonsense geometry—dominated by a massive sheet of glass supported by a minimalist, nearly invisible frame.
These floating plates of glass—and in the case of the HP Envy, a curved piece of glass—connect to diminutive bases housing the PC components through polished and brushed metal support stalks. Much like their smaller handheld computer brethren—the smartphone—the computing components of these desktop PCs are housed in a slender, rectangular mass. Void of surface details, these units benefit from the elimination of media drives, memory card slots and other visually disruptive protrusions. As with most consumer tech products today, physical controls have been minimized, if not eliminated entirely. Like all of these cool-aesthetic products, all cover gaps reflect a level of precision rarely found beyond high-end wrist watches.
Consumer technology accessories, those supportive technologies and products that enable much of the core functionality of the tech products we primarily interact with, have embraced the look of cool as well. Ranging from the familiar—portable power products like the Belkin Valet Charger, a silver IDEA winner—to newly emerging technologies such as the bronze winning Plume—the minimalist geometric look rendered in metal and metal finishes has become the preferred category aesthetic.
Plume, an adaptive Wi-Fi system consisting of multiple pods designed to plug into wall outlets around the home, creates a wireless mesh network. Given their function as a network of transmitters operating quietly in the background of a wireless broadband network, it’s not obvious how to communicate their function visually. Plume rendered pods as jewel-like, 3D hexagonal shaped inert metallic objects, mysterious in appearance when viewed on a standard wall outlet.
Take a deeper look at this cool aesthetic, as well as the entire IDEA field of winners, in the IDEA Gallery online.