FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, October 22, 2004

The Rebirth of Design

Have you noticed the increased attention paid to design of consumer items these days? In retail, Target broke out from the pack by infusing everything it sells with smart, hip style. Apple's iMacs and iPods are known as much for their appearance as their functionality. And what's up with all those home makeover shows like Trading Spaces?

It seems like we've all gone design-happy these days, and an article in this month's American Demographics has some theories as to why. For one, thanks to increased attention to quality of consumer goods, many items have become commodities. If everything performs dependably, why choose Brand X over Brand Y, especially if it costs more? While consumers are oversaturated with advertising, they will gravitate toward products that look cool and appear to have some thought behind their styling (with the rationale that a well-designed product must work better than an ugly one). Products, therefore, must differentiate themselves through attractive and original design.

The article even credits our renewed interest in design to post-9/11 trauma, which forced many of us to look inward for fulfillment. Instead of traveling to exotic places, we brought the exotic into our homes. Thanks to makeover shows like Trading Spaces, we know how to add pizzaz to any living space within any budget.

One other factor I'd mention in the rebirth of design is simply the fact that whenever something that's attractive and different hits the market, it causes a sensation -- something that no marketer can ignore. For instance, in the mid-1980s, after years of boring "econo-box" cars, the Ford Taurus appeared with its rounded "jellybean" design and turned the auto industry on its ear. The Taurus' design principles have become so widely adopted that more angular cars like the Scion and the Honda Element are now considered radical. And who can forget the arrival of the colorful iMacs in the sea of white, black and beige PC boxes? The design factor alone virtually saved Apple.

The article advocates a new discipline of designographics, combining styling with demographic research. Designers must learn how people perceive design and why they will be motivated to purchase and use products with certain styling. As researchers delve into this field, they are likely to be surprised time and again by what they learn.