Put almost 5,000 products and 38 opinionated design experts in close quarters for one week and then stand back. That’s what the organizers of the Red Dot Awards did this year in Essen, Germany, where I was a juror in the 2015 Product Design competition. This year marked the 60th anniversary of the Red Dot Award, which has become an international seal of design quality. Through hundreds of high-level discussions, diverse professional insights, and even some heated debates, a select group of products rose to the top of the pile. The results offer a peek at the future of product design. Here are five global trends I identified.
Trend #1: Design quality is up across the board.
Without a doubt, there is more parity of design quality globally. Just a few years ago I could spot poor quality submissions easily—not so anymore. Today, the global competition in product design is stiff and diverse. The top 10 companies earning the most awards include Royal Philips (Netherlands), followed by LG Electronics (South Korea), NEFF/Bosch (Germany), Hewlett Packard (USA), Sony (Japan), Hansgrohe (Germany), Harman International (USA), Gibson (Hong Kong), Asustek Computer (Taiwan), Fujifilm (Japan) and Acer (Taiwan) tied, and Dell (USA). That’s not to suggest that some well known design leaders like Porsche Design, Ferrari, Apple, BMW, 3M, Yamaha, Bose, and Fiskars weren’t winning Red Dots, too; they did win awards, just not as many. It appears the companies with a tradition of good design still have it, but the companies that were not design leaders a few years ago have caught up. This year, good design was not dominated by single competitors per category, or by single countries per category either. It is much more distributed across the field.
According to judge Nils Toft of Designidea in Copenhagen, one reason may be that good design is now a basic requirement to compete in business. “Before the credit crunch, western companies sheltered in domestic markets and limped on with outdated products. Since the financial crises, a new world order has emerged and set a new standard for the global markets in demand for design quality, no matter where the products are from,” he says, citing Australian winner LG cordless CordZero C5 vacuum cleaner, a canister cleaner with applied auto-moving technology that introduces wireless cleaning technology for the first time.
According to judge Martin Darbyshire of Tangerine in London, this also suggests emerging brands are becoming more competitive through design. “One fascinating aspect of evaluating the products [cars] from first-tier brands with those from the second-tier, is that build quality and driver experience are becoming increasingly similar and standard. Design execution and innovativeness have now become the main points of differentiation,” he says. “Rather than imitating the first-tier leaders, many second-tier brands now have the confidence, drive, and clarity of thinking to carve out their own identity and shape their destiny.” In other words, gaining a competitive edge by good design is becoming more and more difficult.
Trend #2: There is a more even distribution of good design globally.
Whereas just a few years ago certain European countries seemed to dominate, today no single country or region rules design. This year the 10 countries with the most Red Dot awards were Germany (first place again), the U.S., China, South Korea and Taiwan (tied), Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. The top five countries with the most Red Dot: Best of the Best awards were Germany, Japan, the U.S., South Korea, and a fourth place tie between Netherlands and Denmark. The traditional dominance from the E.U. is diminishing in total, but the most awarded region was still the E.U., followed by Asia and then the U.S. and Canada. However, if you take out the awards to German companies, Asia would have surpassed the rest of the E.U. in award wins.
Judge Vivian Cheng of Hong Kong agreed that the group demonstrated a higher level of design quality as well as production quality globally, citing the Dutch Joolz Geo as a stand-out for her. “In the making of the baby stroller, like the Joolz Geo, no matter where it was designed or manufactured, it’s obvious they care so much about the usability as well as durability,” she says.
Trend #3: Design is happening at the brand level.
More companies are also defining and refining their proprietary design language across multiple products and product categories. There were less one-offs, and more of a system and platform approach to design. For example, the all-new Volvo XC90 is a seven-seat SUV based on a new Scalable Product Architecture. Or the Leica T, which picks up the timeless attributes of Leica product design styling with clean lines, smooth surfaces, and formal minimalism. The camera’s compact and solid body, manufactured with innovative precision techniques from a single block of aluminum almost make one wonder: is Leica borrowing a page from the MacBook Pro?
U.S. Judge Gordon Bruce noted, “It is only natural that as companies are finding ways of extending their product lines due to technological capabilities; they are becoming smarter at finding ways to express the interconnectedness of their products through their ‘designed performance,’ both physical and digital.” A good example of this approach is from the company Blackmagic Design in Australia. Over the last three years they have won multiple Red Dot: Best of the Best awards— no easy feat. Bruce commented, “Blackmagic continues to surprise as it evolves a wonderful design character that seamlessly extends to a broad range of high end photographic and video equipment, creating compatibility between a large piece of equipment such as the Cintel Film Scanner (approximately $30,000 U.S.), their Studio Camera, or even the smaller, convenient Pocket Cinema Camera ($1,000 U.S.). Blackmagic creates a new water mark for the extension of product design excellence across multiple product lines.”
Judge Jure Miklavc of Studio Miklavc in Slovenia says, “Increased design language at brand level is especially clearly visible in some solutions for ‘mature’ product categories or markets. Because of the search for good responsibility, product design and brand identity are synonymously joined in one with high level of sophistication. This was clearly reflected in this year’s winner Audi Matrix Light with the Red Dot: Best of the Best in the category Vehicle accessories. Last year their products were known by usage of new technology, and their designers mastered design on brand level. This year they managed to join the next generation of technology with new recognizable and evolutionary brand design language.”
Trend #4: More than ever, design is defined by simplicity.
It was apparent across all categories that products entered tended to demonstrate simple aesthetics and more formal design, simply better design overall than years past. Thankfully, less bells and whistles. For example, a Red Dot for Bamboo Eyewear made of 2.3mm super thin bamboo material, or VELLO bike, a high-performance folding bicycle that rides as strong and sporty as large non-folding models.
Judge Bruce says, “It is easy to be complex, but it is extremely complex to be simple. As companies are enabled with better talent, design methodologies, and tools, they are able to take on difficult design challenges more easily. Not design for the sake of form, but form because of design performance.” Bruce cited Dell’s new UltraSharp 34 Curved Monitor as well as Blackmagic’s Studio Camera. “Both demonstrate a trend towards simple, albeit rich and thoughtful, designed experience.”
Trend #5: Smarter design means better functionality and efficiency.
Lastly, there is a trend towards more integrated functions, more intuitive usability, more ecological compatibility—basically, smarter design. This is apparent in every category. For example, the Schwalbe Procore bicycle tire, a dual-chamber integrated inner tube and tire that is puncture resistant. And the REV’IT! SEEFLEX motorcycle limb protection, a simple design and simple use of materials to achieve synergy without compromising comfort and safety. The trends of functionality and efficiency are visible in wide variety product groups. Judge Miklavc, with me in the sports and bicycle categories, noted that he could detect the impact of a growing market on the categories, which to him clearly indicated a changing awareness in our societies about a healthier and more sustainable life. “As you study products by themselves in those categories, there is an emphasis on designing the lightest solutions possible on any level, with the result of improved performance,” he says. “And there is also substantially reduced carbon footprint of the products.”
Another example of increased functionality is the NOW Smart Radiators System by IRSAP, which can modulate the temperature of every radiator of the house with an algorithm allows energy saving of over 40%. According to judge Toft, “The rising focus on usability falls in line with another trend: the increasing mixture of technologies, merging digital technologies with mechanical technologies to create intelligent machinery.” And judge Bruce noted, “As technologies become more powerful and smaller, and materials become more sophisticated and compatible with the nature, there is a greater capability for designers to evolve ideas that conform more naturally to the human, eliminating the need for people to contort to the shortcomings of the design.” For example, Lenovo’s new ThinkPad Stack with stackable accessories is a design performance based on inherit simplicity, portability, efficiency, usability, and convenience, all within a very small package.
The final verdict? The past was about competition between good design against not-so-good design. Today it’s good design against even better design.