Five Top Design Firms Make the Gadgets We Love

American industrial designers are the secret heroes of the marketplace, finessing products to make them easier to use and help them sell better. Here’s how five top firms have been busy shaping our world.

Five Top Design Firms Make the Gadgets We Love
photograp by Tom Shierlitz

Smart Design


“Designing everyday things has always been our strength,” says cofounder Tom Dair. With 100 employees and offices in New York, San Francisco, and Barcelona, Spain, Smart Design focuses on making life simpler and more fun.

1. Oxo Hardware

Good Grips thinking moves from the kitchen to the home workshop with features such as a level with a magnetic bottom and a hammer with a bumper to protect surfaces when prying nails.
From $8


2. Oxo Pour & Store Watering Cans

These cans curl up for storage thanks to a novel translucent rotating spout that doubles as a water-level gauge.
From $10

3. Vicks Life Stages Thermometers


Vicks wanted a line of temperature takers that wouldn’t freak kids out. They got it, and also became the leading thermometer manufacturer worldwide.

4. Nike Imara Strive

Smart Design’s Femme Den–a group focused on design for women–gave Nike a boost with a running watch that’s equal parts fashion and performance.


5. Flip Video Ultra

This wildly popular video camera does away with the countless buttons that can make other models seem intimidating.

6. NeatReceipts for Mac


It scans receipts and keeps digital copies for your records–and matches the look of your MacBook.


Beyond offering solutions to design problems, San Jose, California-based Whipsaw aims to expose the essence of a product and strike an emotional chord with consumers. “It’s like design psychology,” says president Dan Harden.


1. Etón FR Radios

Designed for emergencies, these radios have rugged shells, flashlights, and phone chargers. Powered by hand crank or solar.
From $30

2. Vudu Box


For the streaming video service, a curvy case and a minimalist remote.

3. Linksys Wireless Routers

These wireless routers even look fast. Antennae hide behind the sculpted rim.
From $100


4. LeapFrog LeapPad

Designed to look like a laptop for kids, the colorful LeapPad transforms printed books into multimedia experiences with interactive sound.

5. Topcon GR-3


Communicating with 36 satellites, this GPS receiver for surveyors is accurate to within 1 millimeter. Competing receivers are boxy devices set on posts, which tend to fall over in the field; this one is stable thanks to its heavy batteries being centered in the handle.
From $20,000

6. Adiri Natural Nurser Bottle

On the theory that Mother Nature knows best, here’s a bottle that mimics the shape of a breast. The top half is cushy elastomer, the bottom has a petal-shaped vent to reduce colic–and the entire thing is BPA-free.


7. Pano Logic zero-client computer

Running apps off a central server, this tiny energy-efficient box replaces your desktop CPU by serving as a conduit between keyboard, monitor, and mother ship.

8. Intel Motion C5


Say good-bye to the nurse’s clipboard: This touch-sensitive tablet communicates with a hospital’s server and boasts a bracelet scanner and a digital camera.

9. Roku SoundBridge

Think of it as a middleman between your computer and audio systems, streaming digital music throughout the house. Its tubular shape makes adjusting the angle of display simple.



Since opening in 2000, San Francisco’s NewDealDesign has been taking the nerd factor out of electronic gadgets. “Typically, design has been bifurcated between the artistic and the functional,” says president Gadi Amit. “We work really hard to get both.”

1. Slingbox

Plug in your cable connection and stream TV live to your laptop anywhere. The distinctive shapes and colors make even a humble set-top box look cool.
From $130

2. Fujitsu Mobile Phones

These design concepts for Fujitsu aim to raise the brand’s profile as a design leader in Japan.
Not available in the U.S.

3. Lumus Video Eyeglasses

Walk and watch movies at the same time with aluminum glasses that display video and Web content without blocking your view of the real world.
Not yet for sale

4. Digidesign 003 Factory

To help Digidesign, a leader in audio recording programs, expand into hardware, NewDeal created this intuitive, finger-friendly mixing console.

5. Logitech AudioHub

Shaped to fit snugly behind a tilted monitor, here’s a booming laptop speaker with additional USB ports and a subwoofer.

6. Netgear Wireless-N Router and Storage Central Turbo

The purist wireless router and storage cube do away with external doodads like antennae.
From $110

7. IXI Mobile OGO2.0

Popular in Europe (and not available stateside), this inexpensive BlackBerry alternative is normally paired with affordable service plans and aimed at younger buyers.

Astro Studios

“We’re pop-culture driven and wired for technology,” Brett Lovelady says of Astro Studios, the San Francisco firm he founded in 1994. “We give things a little more expression and personality.”

1. Pursuit TC-420

This golf club’s five weight ports help control ball flight.
From $109

2. Alienware Area-51 desktop

A hard-core gaming PC should look mean; this one practically snarls.

3. Cranium WonderWorks Super Story Recorder

Helping a board-game brand expand into electronics, Astro channeled Cranium’s much-loved illustrated characters.

4. Astro Gaming A40 Audio System

This headset and mix amp allow gamers to talk to teammates while listening to game audio. $250

5. Barbie Bloombox

Beyond the boom box–for Barbie fans only.

6. Ooma Hub

To manage VOIP calls, a minimalist box with exterior buttons offers the convenience of a traditional answering machine.

7. Xbox 360

Astro’s best-known design is the Xbox 360. The firm continues to design accessories, including the controller for a trivia game.
From $350 for console; $60 for trivia controller

8. V.I.O. POV.1

Extreme exhibitionists and action junkies, behold: a waterproof, dustproof, and shock-resistant helmet cam.

9. Disney D100 Handset

This cell phone for kids ships with a four-button keypad that limits calling to four people. A full keypad swaps in without changing the look. Available only in Europe

Stuart Karten Design

“It’s about getting into people’s minds and finding hot points that get them excited,” says Stuart Karten, who founded this L.A. firm in 1984. Karten aims to “connect creativity with commerce.”

1. Ikan

This friendly kitchen helper builds a shopping list as you scan the bar codes of used-up groceries. Click to your grocer for delivery.

2. Zyliss Cook-N-Serve Tongs

In addition to flexible teeth for good gripping, these tongs have wide silicone tips that scrape like a spatula or work as a serving spoon.

3. Exaktime JobClock

Workers check in with magnetic tabs. Supervisors can keep tabs remotely.
From $1,000

4. VG Pocket Caplet

Designed to resemble a pill, here’s a cure for stress: 50 built-in video games, including classics such as Space Invaders.

5. SimpleTech Hard Drives

With bamboo panels, there’s no mistaking the [re]drive’s green ambitions. The Simple Drive sits flat or stands upright.
From $100

6. Jabra SP500

A microphone rotates up from the base of this Bluetooth speakerphone to fine-tune voice pickup.

7. Spyder MR2

Nothing playful about this commando paintball gun. It fires 25 shots a second.