But is cosmetic embellishment all that design can provide us with? Can it only provide products with a new dress or can it eventually enrich them with a new soul? Let’s be honest. Would you rather have a traditional, inevitably grey PC in your study or an iMac? Would you prefer watching your favourite programme on a black box full of switches or on a stylish Design Line television set?

At the beginning of the 90s, attractively styled products were still the domains of the happy few. These were the times in which it still made sense to talk about ‘white goods’ and ‘black boxes’ when referring to large domestic appliances and consumer electronics. 

But those days are gone and highly styled washing machines, fridges, ovens and TVs are almost mainstream, with consumers happy to pay premium prices to add a personal touch to their homes through design.

A victory for designers? It would be tempting to say so, but this trend also offers us food for thought. It sometimes seems that the interest in design is nothing more than a marketing ploy, a trick to provide difficult-to-impress consumers with new ‘must-haves’.

Creative styling is now a condition to make a product successful and, nowadays, attractive, up-to-the-minute looks are the reason for consumers to purchase a new item. Some already talk about the equation design = fashion although it would be more appropriate to draw a parallel between design and marketing tactics. 

It all started when companies realised that adding technology no longer attracted consumers.

After all, you cannot keep adding functions onto a washing machine or a television till its interface is so full that it is impossible to operate. Who uses more than a couple of functions anyway? In order to fight price erosion of widespread consumer goods, new attractive qualities had to be identified that would inspire people to buy and even pay a premium price.

Design provided the answer – fresh styling of products, and the use of new, unexpected materials offered an opportunity to innovate without the need for great investments.

When Philips launched the Philips-Alessi line in 1994, colour, human shapes and gracefully ageing materials entered the realm of traditionally white small domestic appliances for the very first time.

The success of the range showed that the public was ready for the change. A similar revolution occurred in 1998 with the launch of the first iMac. Both the Philips-Alessi line and the iMac coupled good design with attractive, innovative styling. 

Yet, the lesson learnt by many was simply that design had taken the place of technological features in the heart of consumers. And that’s where the money was.

The good thing about all this is that the design profession is now highly credited within companies that previously viewed design as the last finishing touch to products. Design is now embedded in the product creation process of many companies and it is used in their communications as one of the main attractive qualities of their products. 

By contributing to the creation of the equation design = attractively styled products that are worth more money, designers have been able to gain respect in the industry and thus now have the possibility to take the discussion further. The question is: where to?

The answer is simple: design can help industries to develop solutions that are responses to people’s needs, desires, aspirations and dreams. The battle for carving a spot in the product creation process for designers has been won. Yet it is important to remember that having nice looking, easy-to-use products is only one element of what design can achieve. 

Now designers have the possibility to enlarge their horizons. They can contribute to creating better solutions for people by thinking one step ahead and by going beyond ‘form’ or ‘function’ to deal with the issue of ‘relationships’. 

Creating positive relationships between people and objects is the new challenge for designers in the ‘connected world’.

There is a lot of talk about homes, cars and offices of tomorrow and every player in the industry has something to say about how they see the future.

If we look behind the surface, what they all have in common is the idea that soon we will live in ‘smart’ environments that will be responsive to people’s behavioural patterns and activities, and in which technological functions will be pervasive and embedded, invisible, or highly miniaturised.

Such visions are, in general, technology driven and have been made possible by the spread of digital technologies and miniaturisation, as well as by the development of telecommunications, the internet and on-line services. 

In creating the connected future, there will be no point in thinking up alternative shapes, colours and finishes for a TV screen. We will simply no longer have a TV screen, we will use windows as displays. There will be no point in studying the best way to illustrate the product’s functions on a remote control, everything will be voice or gesture activated. 

Objects will be enriched with an intelligence that will allow them to learn, react, respond and anticipate on human stimuli. It will be appropriate to talk about ‘relationships’ between people and objects, since those objects will be almost like subjects.

It is the task of design – the linking element between technology and people – to shape those new relationships and to foster positive interaction. 

Understanding the opportunities offered by materials will be a key element. Such opportunities will not be limited to aesthetic improvements or to the creation of sensorial experiences. 

‘Smart’ or responsive materials respond to environmental stimuli with particular changes – either in their properties (mechanical, electrical, appearance), in their structure or composition or in their function. There are, for example, colour changing or light emitting materials, moving materials, self-assembling materials, thickness-changing fluids etc.

There are also conductive materials that can be woven into textiles, thus creating cloth that can transport electricity and data, and also display them.

Italy’s Grado Zero Espace, a research spin-off from Corpo Nove, a fashion label from Karada, has recently hit the headlines by enabling the McLaren mechanics at the British Grand Prix to work in extreme temperature conditions in total comfort, by providing them with smart suits with an internal (invisible and unobtrusive) cooling system.

Grado Zero Espace is not new to such experiments. In 2001 they received the Best Innovation award from TIME magazine for creating (in collaboration with the European Space Agency) what can be easily described as the traveller’s dream: a shirt that shortens its sleeves when the room temperature increases and grows them back when the temperature drops a few degrees.

The shirt can be screwed up into a ball, pleated and creased; then just by applying hot air (or a hairdryer) it will pop back to its former shape automatically: without ironing and without hassle.

The Belgian company Verhaert Design developed a sensorial pyjama in collaboration with the University of Brussels. The pyjama textiles are able to monitor the heart and the breathing of a baby sleeping in a cot, helping in the prevention of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. 

In 1999, Philips Design developed textiles that vibrate when electrically stimulated. The textiles were applied to a kimono, that gently massages the wearer in different ways and degrees of strength for utmost well-being.

But textiles are everywhere, not only in our clothes. What can happen when we think of applying smart textiles to our carpets? To our car seats? To our furniture?

The fact that designers were involved in all the projects mentioned gives a totally different focus to this otherwise purely technological achievement. 

Smart textiles and materials are not only the domain of chemical engineers. It is of utmost importance that designers are involved in such research so that they can think up human focused applications. 

This is, in fact, the new attractive quality that design can provide industry with. Design for smart environments goes beyond ‘form’, ‘function’ and even the ‘sensorial experience’.

Design for the smart environment will focus on the way in which people will interact with ‘active’ objects that will fit on their skin or that will surround them in their homes, cars, offices; and on the way in which those ‘active’ objects will interact with people.

Design will have to ensure that the new solutions fit people like a glove, are as easy to interact with as possible and are ‘smart’ enough to react according to the user’s needs throughout time.

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