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Design Is Changing How We Innovate

The creative minds behind some of this year’s most noteworthy designs relive the moments when things just clicked.

Yves Béhar

Photo: Noel Spirandelli

‘Secure was Our First Criterion’

Yves Béhar

Cofounder, August; founder and principal, Fuseproject

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August Smart Lock

The challenge:

When Yves Béhar and his team were working on the Smart Lock, an AA–battery-powered, smartphone-operated keyless-entry system, “we didn’t want something that would be just yet another tech device for you to manage,” Béhar says. “What we really wanted was ease of use–something intuitive and magical.”

The turning point:

The surf-loving designer’s working metaphor was his California beach house. “If I happen to leave the window open and a storm is coming, my neighbors come over and fix the problem.” He wanted to create a keyless-entry system that was easily programmable for exactly such purposes. But first, his team had to ad­dress numerous small but significant things–for instance, screws. The original plan: ship all eight or nine different types of screws that could potentially be used in customers’ existing dead bolts so that a Smart Lock could be added. But Béhar fretted over “the experiential cost–customers having to go through all these,” when all but one or two would be useless. It was “a major hurdle to adoption of the technology.”

The execution:

Béhar’s team devised two tiny wings on the Smart Lock’s sides that rotate to clamp onto an exist­ing lock–no screws needed. Me­chanical innovations like these, Béhar believes, empower behavioral ones. The device lets you offer Grandma unlimited entry while a housekeeper gets one-afternoon-a-week access. (It also still accommodates old-fashioned keys.)

The result:

“Secure was our first criterion,” Béhar says of the Bluetooth-enabled $199 Smart Lock, which is available through August’s website and began shipping in September. “Once we achieved that, we said, Let’s imagine all the things this enables. It’s social.” An e-guestbook, for example, allows you to leave messages for others–or yourself. “Say I’m walking [out] the door,” he says. “I can set a message to pop up on my phone: ‘Remember to water the plants.’ Or I can attach a certain message to a certain person, like leaving a Post-it.”

Farah Assir

Photo: Jeff Mermelstein

‘We Imagined the App as a Person at a Bar’

Farah Assir

Interaction designer, the New York Times Co.

NYT Now mobile app The challenge: Farah Assir, who began her graphic-design career in print media, wanted a mobile Times to be more than a pared-down website; she wanted to create a product for younger readers like her, who might perceive the paper as inaccessible.

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The turning point:

Assir and fellow designer Grant Gold “thought of a lot of silly things,” she says, “like gamifying the Times–how many stories did you read today?” That led to a key insight: the need for a distinctive voice. “One day we imagined the app as a person at a bar.

He’s asking you: ‘Did you hear about . . .?’ There actually was a real person in the New York Times Building that we were thinking of. He has charisma and wit–and he’s really hot.”

The execution:

“It’s a conversation. In the morning, it says, ‘Good morning.’ We want to be helpful, so here’s the weather, and if you’re in New York, subway info. No matter where you are in the world, you’ll get your morning briefing, put together by the NYT Now editorial team. At lunch, here’s your lunchtime read. As you scroll down, you get into the most important stories. At the bottom, there’s the ‘Don’t Miss’ section–things that are quirky or fun.” The app delivers 50 to 80 articles a day and in­cludes “Our Picks,” which, in a break for the Times, highlights other publications’ work.

The result:

In its first week, NYT Now ($2 a week or $7.99 a month) topped the download charts for news apps.

Ayah Bdeir

Photo: GL Wood

‘Embedding Fact with Story is How You Reel Someone In’

Ayah Bdeir

Founder and CEO, littleBits

littleBits Space Kit

The challenge:

The $189 Space Kit, like all of littleBits’ products, is a themed set of circuitry accompanied by lessons and suggested experiments (think Legos with a science-and-engineering agenda). Partnering with NASA, the goal was to honor science–“we didn’t want to do an Easy-Bake Oven version,” Ayah Bdeir says–while delighting non­scientists. “How do you take a field that’s so important–space exploration–yet so mysterious and make it approachable?”

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The turning point:

This was littleBits’ first public-sector collaboration, which meant the pace of design was “not startup speed,” Bdeir says wryly. She also looked for stories that made space feel less far away. “We kept going back to the scientists at NASA, saying: ‘Is this right? Is this true?’ As we develop each kit, we start with hundreds and hundreds of experiments and we have to narrow it down. Finally, one day, one of the scientists said, ‘When we want to wake astronauts up, we send music. We blast it to the space station.’ ”

The result:

The scientist’s anecdote prompted her team to select an experiment in which the user builds equipment to send music wirelessly using in-frared. “Embedding fact with story is how you reel someone in,” Bdeir says.

Peter Wouda

Photo: Marcus Gaab

‘We Designers Did Not Want a Potato-like Car’

Peter Wouda

Head of exterior design, Volkswagen Design Center Potsdam

XL1

The challenge:

To create a production-model passenger car that gets more than 260 miles per gallon.

The turning point:

Peter Wouda’s team slashed the car’s weight by employing new materials (carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer is nearly 30% lighter than aluminum) and ruthlessly editing. For instance, power steering was nixed. “It’s a big, heavy module,” Wouda says.
“If the car is light enough and the wheels thin enough, you don’t need it.” The design team borrowed aero­dynamic features from nature. During a clash ­over form–“a roundish shape is very good for airflow, but we designers did not want a potato-
like car; we wanted something with precision, which is a Volks­wagen value”–they drew inspiration from sharks, which are ­­­extreme­ly aerodynamic.

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The execution:

A tapered rear reduces drag. Up front, echoes of a shark can be found “in the very sharp horizontal edge above the eyes–the headlights. It almost looks like a shark’s nose, and it splits the wind quite nicely.”

Volkswagen XL1

The result:

The $150,000 XL1 (which is not yet available in the U.S.) weighs merely 1,753 pounds and gets just over 260 mpg, making it the world’s most fuel-efficient car in ­production.

Lisa Strausfeld

Photo: Jeff Brown

‘Having Opinion and Data is a Really Winning Combination’

Lisa Strausfeld

Creative director, Bloomberg View

Data visualizations such as Boom to Bust, Major League Baseball Franchise Valuations, and Industry Leaderboard

The challenge:

Lisa Strausfeld built Bloomberg Visual Data in 2012 with a mission to meld explanatory infographics (news-driven features “based on small snapshots of data,” she says) with exploratory interactive products derived from larger, frequently updated data sets. The trick is to balance letting users explore on their own “and offering guideposts when they might get lost.”

The turning point:

A good brief is usually key. “What do we want to learn from the stories we’re going to tell?” she says of her approach to each project. “Sometimes the data is engaging and tells its own story. But most of the time, there’s data that has to be choreographed.”

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The execution:

With the MLB infographic (exploring the net worth of pro sports teams), the solution “was to see everything in the single view–more like an app model than a page model,” Strausfeld says. With the Industry Leaderboard (which evaluates 600 major companies on metrics other than market cap), the issues that arose while developing the brief provided direct inspiration for a drop-down menu that addresses FAQs.

The result:

Bloomberg’s news-focused infographics team collaborates well with its interactive-data product team. For Strausfeld personally, she learned that “having opinion and data is a really winning combination.” She is now creative director of Bloomberg View, the company’s opinion operation.

Jake Barton

Photo: Daniel Shea

‘A Container for People’s Memories’

Jake Barton

Founder and principal, Local Projects

9/11 Memorial Museum exhibits

The challenge:

As one of the lead design firms for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Local Projects was tasked with creating exhibits that serve, in Jake Barton’s words, as a “container for people’s memories, fears, connections, and surprises. This is all about unresolved feelings and factional differences. How do we create a museum that’s a platform for people’s own narratives?”

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The turning point:

Beginning in 2006, as they prepared the proposal that won them the job, Barton’s team focused on storytelling’s catalytic power. Barton cites two inspirations: StoryCorps, which collects oral histories and archives them at the Library of Congress, and the work of the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. “She did a piece on the riots in Crown Heights, close to where I grew up. She took disparate points of view and brought humanity to a difficult event.”

The execution:

Local Projects stretched the definition of “exhibit,” creating a smart-phone app called Explore 9/11 that in­cludes witnesses’ photos, a guided tour of the World Trade Center site, and augmented-reality features. It also designed such installations as Beam Signing, which invites visitors to write messages on touch screens next to a remnant of steel from the fallen towers.

The result:

Within days of the museum’s May opening, Beam Signing had collected poignant contributions like these: “Uncle Henry, you are missed every day.” “God bless FDNY 343.” “Good will always triumph.” As of early August, it had recorded more than 60,000 remembrances, reflecting “the extraordinary leveling effect of an event like this,” Barton says. “You have this incredible cross section of humanity, all brought together by that moment in time.”

John Ikeda and Jon Harris

Photo: Matthew Furman, Illustration: Jorge Colombo

‘Natural and Intuitive’

John Ikeda and Jon Harris

Designers, FiftyThree

Pencil

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The challenge:

To create an iPad stylus (for use with Fifty­Three’s prizewinning Paper app, among others) that’s “natural and intuitive,” Jon Harris says, as well as multifunctional. “T­ypically, a stylus can make only one type of mark at a time. Most apps have some menu to switch brush sizes, but having to switch can interrupt your ­creative free flow.”

The turning point:

Crayons and pencils became the de­signers’ inspiration. “When you show a young child that you can peel the wrapper off a crayon and use it to shade–that’s so pow­erful!” John Ikeda says. “You see in their face that instantly a whole universe gets unlocked.” The team also studied the different marks that carpenter pencils can make. Adds Ikeda: “Tools are precious–and there’s a reason they are that way.”

Watch illustrator Jorge Colombo sketch Ikeda and Harris using the stylus they invented.

The execution:

The $75 Pen­cil’s sophisticated circuitry is sheathed in 1.2-millimeter-thick sustainably harvested walnut, echoing wood pencils. In an upcoming version, sensor technology will allow you to shade if you angle the tip, just as you would with its analog inspiration. Flip it over and you’ll use the top of Pencil to erase.

The result:

Rave reviews–and strong sales. The first production run of Pencil, launched last fall, sold out in five weeks.

Denis Dekovic

Photos: Federico Ciamei

‘It’s All One Skin, But It’s Seamless”

Denis Dekovic

Design director, Nike Football

Nike Magista football boots

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The challenge:

In recent years, soccer has become faster and more physical, yet the cleats that the players wear have largely stayed the same. Denis Dekovic’s team set out to design footwear that would provide added comfort and allow greater control to keep up with the pace of the modern game.

The turning point:

In studying existing shoes, the design team made an observation: “They start below the ankle,” Dekovic says. “What we really wanted to design was a product that was not just for the foot but for the body.”

The execution:

The $275 Magista Obra is the first ­major soccer shoe to rise above the ankle. “We were trying to mimic Mother Nature,” Dekovic says, explaining how the design echoes the network of ligaments that connect the lower leg to the foot. Nike’s proprietary Flyknit technology allowed his team to alter the material on a microscopic level: “We could embed cables to provide support. We have different yarns in different areas,” Dekovic says, with some providing more elasticity than others. “We have 3-D textures that enhance ball control and grip.” He compares Flyknit’s ­versatility to that of human skin: “The skin on the top of your hand, it’s different from what’s on the bottom of your hand, and the transition from the soft skin to the more protective–it’s all one skin, but it’s seamless.”

The result:

Several top players wore the boot at the World Cup in Brazil last summer, including the host nation’s Thiago Silva, Spain’s Andrés Iniesta, and Croatia’s Luka Modrić. But its crowning moment came when Germany’s Mario Götze, wearing the Magista, scored in the 113th minute of the final to defeat Argentina and win his country’s fourth World Cup title.

Scott Plagenhoef

Photo: Zen Sekizawa

‘We’re Trying to Build a Service Rather
Than a Server’

Scott Plagenhoef

VP, programming and editorial, Beats Music
Beats Music app

The challenge:

Beats Music–a $9.99-per-month subscription service–represents a bold move into software by Beats Electronics, the headphone company that Apple recently bought for $3 billion. “The design template for organizing your music has often looked like a spreadsheet,” says Scott Plagenhoef, former editor-in-chief of the music website Pitchfork. “We wanted to step away from that, put an emphasis on curation, and highlight personalization. We’re trying to build a service rather than a server.” The turning point: The design team drew inspiration from Instagram. “It’s mobile first. It’s simple, elegant, and userfriendly. It literally just frames the content.”

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The execution:

As with the best of design, what you can’t see matters most–Beats Music is constantly iterating on algorithms that personalize your music selection. Tabs and options were minimized for a “fairly clutter-free” interface. “The ‘Just for You’ menu pretty much frames one playlist and two albums at a time. The goal is to get you to hit ‘play’ as quickly as possible, not to leave you feeling like you have to make too many choices, and then you give up and listen to the Smiths like you did 100 times in the last 100 days.”

The result:

Three months after its January debut, Beats Music was the most downloaded music app on iTunes–and No. 5 among all apps.

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