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Predicting the Future Of Product Design

DO you have a telephone shaped like a banana, running shoe, or hamburger?Does your tea kettle look like it was made by Picasso (yet is nearly impossible to clean)? Do you suffer from VCR programming distress or user-manual fatigue (frustration over controls)? Product designers are beginning to hear your cries. Or rather, recession-buffeted corporations are hiring designers to lure customers into buying the same old stuff in glitzy, new shapes. It's already old news that the design revolution is upon us. Because of super-miniaturized microchips, form no longer has to follow function (an object doesn't have to look like what it does). Shorter product cycles and smaller production runs in manufacturing have meant an explosion of new and unusual products aimed at ever-smaller niches - say, rollerskating frog-lovers under five, or left-handed fisherman over 60. Business gurus say that what marketing and finance was to corporations in the '70s and ' 80s, product design will be to the '90s. "Product design is in a quantum climb," says Chuck Pelly, president of the Industrial Design Society of America. "It's like the Paris Impressionist days ... society, business, and consumers are looking to design for the answers." What may be good news is that designers are moving beyond styles as mere marketing weapons. "What good is a tea kettle that looks great on the stove, but you can't get water in and out?" asks Richard Holbrook, an L. A. designer. "Designers are finally concentrating on that relationship between user and the product." Global in scope, the new aesthetic is an amalgamation of two schools of thought: the L. A.-centered California movement, emphasizing the cool, unusual, and above all, individual; and the post-Bauhaus remnants of Eurostyle, which emphasizes no-nonsense sophistication and quality. "What we've been seeing in zillions of choices of watches and running shoes is just superficial dressing up of the old stuff," says W. Daniel Wefler, president of a Chicago design consulting firm. "But the coming wave is considering products ergonomically ... a growing concern with what the consumer really needs." A spring BusinessWeek cover story entitled, "I Can't Work This ?#!!@** Thing!" chronicled a consumer rebellion against design-flawed clocks, microwaves, and message machines. The article prompted more mail than any article in the magazine's history. Nationwide chain stores known for design-driven products - Conran's, IKEA, Stor - report increasing consumer wariness with extraneous features on items. "Designers are creative ombudsmen between customer and producer," says David Brown, president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. The school has been credited with inspiring a new generation of designers from Europe to Japan (See story to right). Mr. Brown says if his profession misses the current opportunity to bring "quality instead of clutter" to products, the current upswing in the American design industry may implode prematurely. "We're saying ... that there are avenues of self-expression that go beyond acquisition or merely cycling stuff through our lives," he says. "The next logical step is restoring control to the user."

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