A shorter version of this post ran in Fast Company Design.
What do 4,928 products from 56 countries have in common? They are all thought to be examples of good design by the companies that make them, and were shipped to Essen, Germany to compete in the Red Dot Product Design award competition “Red Dot Award: Product Design”. They were organized into categories and evaluated by 38 judges who were brought in to review each product entry and decide which ones are the best design; I had the honor of being one of those judges.
When you put nearly 5,000 products and 38 design experts into warehouses together for a week, and ask for opinions about the best designs, it’s not hard to imagine the high levels of excitement, discussion and diverse professional insights. The jury was asked to rate each product according to design quality, functionality, degree of innovation, formal quality, ecological compatibility and other criteria. To make the process manageable the products were divided into 31 product groups and the judges were divided into three person teams, based on their areas of expertise.
This year marked the 60th anniversary offer the Red Dot Award, which has become an international seal of design quality. In the end, just 81 entries were bestowed the honor of the top award, the “Red Dot: Best of the Best”, and 1,240 products received Red Dot awards. About 3,500 of the entries went away completely empty handed.
One can argue that examining nearly 5,000 products from 56 countries in one place at one time will give a pretty good snapshot view of global product design. But beyond individual products, I also looked for bigger patterns, looked for sense making of it all. I framed insights, linked concepts and consulted with a number of other judges from different regions to synthesize trends; from this I’ve identified five trends in global product design.
1. Higher levels of design quality globally
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 ten companies earning the most include first place to 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 weren’t winning Red Dots too, like Porsche Design, Ferrari, Apple, BMW, 3M, Yamaha, Bose, Fiskars and the like, they did, just not as many. It appears the companies traditionally with good design still have it, but the companies that were not a few years ago have caught up and now have good design too. 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, Managing director at Designidea in Copenhagen, one reason may be that good design is required to compete in business, “Before the credit crunch western companies sheltered in domestic markets and limped on with outdated products. Eradicated by 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.” For example, the LG cordless “CordZero C5” vacuum cleaner; a canister cleaner that has applied auto-moving technology and wireless cleaning technology for the first time.
According to judge Martin Darbyshire, Managing Director of Tangerine in London, this also suggests emerging brands are becoming more competitive by design, stating “One fascinating aspect of evaluating the products (cars) from 1st tier brands with those from the 2nd tier, is that build quality and driver experience are becoming increasingly similar and standard. Design execution and innovation have now become the main points of differentiation. Rather than imitating the 1st tier leaders, many 2nd tier brands now have the confidence, drive and clarity of thinking to carve out their own identity and shape their destiny.” Gaining a competitive edge by good design is becoming more and more difficult.
2. More even distribution of good design globally
No single country or region is dominating anymore, whereas just a few years ago certain countries pan Europe seemed to dominate. This year the ten countries with the most Red Dot awards were first place Germany (again), but followed the US, China, South Korea and Taiwan tied, Japan, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. The top five countries with the most “Red Dot: Best of the Best” awards were Germany, Japan, the US, South Korea, and a fourth place tie with Netherlands and Denmark,. while the traditional dominance from the EU is diminishing in total the most awarded region was still the EU, followed by Asia and then the US and Canada. However, if you take out the awards to German companies, Asia would have surpassed the rest of the EU in awards.
Judge Carlos Hinrichsen, Dean of the school of Engineering and Business, University Gabriela Mistral in Chile, mentioned “The Red Dot Design Award acts as a mirror reflection of day-to-day life in society, culture and economy. It reflects each individual’s day-to-day life and lifestyle. In the product categories, design quality is playing a key role in turning technological innovations into business success. There were notable improvements and innovations in a wide range and variety of scopes of use, as well as in the quality of products and their performance.”
According to judge Njils Toft “2015 tells a story about change; Design is considered equally important across different regions and equally important for B2C as well as B2B. 2015 also suggested that while established design countries have moved up higher on the design ladder, from single product to design as total experience and a strategic tool, the emerging countries although more focused on the product as the star, are all represented somewhere on the design ladder.” And according to judge Vivian Cheng of Hong Kong, “I would say this year demonstrated a higher level of design quality as well as production quality globally. For instance, in the making of the baby stroller, like the Joolz GoeGeo no matter where it was designed or manufactured, they care so much about the usability as well as durability – high quality of engineering and manufacturing, together with well considered materials, ergonomic, and emotional design.”
3. Increased design language at 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. One of the camera’s features is its compact and solid body, manufactured with innovative precision techniques from a single block of aluminum – is Leica borrowing a page from the MacBook Pro?
Design judge Gordon Bruce of Gordon Bruce Design in Connecticut noted that “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 is from the company Blackm Magic Design in Australia. Over the last 3 years they have won multiple Red Dot: Best of the Best Red Dot Design Aawards, which is not an easy thing to do. Bruce said “Blackm Magic 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 US, their Studio Camera, or even the smaller and convenient Pocket Cinema Camera that sells for $1,000 US. Blackm Magic creates a new water mark for the extension of product design excellent across multiple product lines.”
Note the Husqvarna Group Helmet (picture), with integrated face and ear protection; even though one of the lightest helmets on the market the unique Husqvarna brand design language communicates safety and sturdiness. The Mercedes-AMGF GT (picture) echoes the two-seater of the past, with a dome-shaped arched roof line yet coupled with frameless doors some new elements borrowed from their sedans. And even the Ferrari FXX K hybrid, with total power output of 1050 cv (860 cv V12 engine and 190 cv by its electric motor). All body panels have been modified to various extents, a lower suspension set up, wider front and rear track and increased camber, but still an overall style that’s pure Ferrari.
Judge Martin Darbyshire, Managing Director of Tangerine in London, notes that “Cars and motorcycles are challenging to judge for a number of reasons. Manufacturers usually have tremendous design resources, and therefore, in theory, everything should be well designed. However, numerous parties are often involved in the process, which can erode a designs purpose and coherence. Also often very little major change occurs between one model type and its next generation, as manufacturers look for lower cost ways to breath new life into old models. The challenge for the judges is therefore to define how well a company has improved the design, relative to the previous model, and identify if an important breakthrough has taken place”.
Similarly, judge Jure Miklavc of Studio Miklavc in Sloveania notes that “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 years 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.”
4. Trend towards simplicity in design
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 a VELLO bike, a high performance folding bicycle that rides as strong and sporty as large non-folding models. Or the 8 Built-in Range Black EOX8 / Black Range by Bosch; Design judge Vivian Cheng noted “Although some lifestyle products are still very much working on styles, considerations on useful functions were abundant; like the baby stroller by Milk Design, they care so much about the usability as well as durability together with well considered materials, ergonomic, and emotional design.”
Judge Gordon Bruce said “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. This year many products tend towards this principle. Two products that come immediately to mind, Dell’s new UltraSsharp 34 Curved Monitor as well as Blackm Magic’s Studio Camera; both demonstrate a trend towards simple, albeit rich and thoughtful designed experience.” Even the Apple Watch, although featuring a slew of features and technologies, as a design attempts to honor the rich tradition of fine watchmaking.
5. Trend towards functionality and efficiency
Last, 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, an dual chamber integrated inner tube and tire which 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 can be visible on wide variety product groups. Judge Jury Miklavc was in the sports and bicycle categories with me, and noted that “I can detect that in the category of Sports goods and Bicycles growth with the number of applicants which clearly indicates reflection of changing awareness in our societies towards healthier and more sustainable life. As you study products by themselves in those categories, there is an emphasis on designing the lightest solutions as possible on any levels, with the result of improved performance, 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, convenience, etc., all within a very small package. And judge Martin Darbyshire noted “Serious energy is expended to achieve a harmonious balance between aesthetics, features, function and the engineering of a design.”
Professor Dr Peter Zec, Founder and CEO of the Red Dot Award stated ““What strikes me is that the functionality of future-oriented products was increased in an often surprising way: Those devices we’d have called “futuristic” some time ago are on the market by now, with functions beyond 20th century imagination, but the looks are mainly simplified and pure. These devices, for instance health surveillance mechanisms in smart watches or smart glasses projecting information into the visual field of the user show many designs contain additional functions, although they often appear very basic at first sight.”
The Red Dot Design Museum Essen, Germany will exhibit the award-winning products for at least one year, and the Red Dot Design Yearbook presents the year’s best designs. All of the products and their makers are also featured in the online presentation and in the Red Dot global design directory as well as in the Red Dot App. Finally, the award ceremony for the Red Dot Award: Product Design 2015 will take place on Monday, 29 June 2015 in Essen’s Aalto-Theater. Afterwards, the guests and the prize-winners will celebrate together in the Red Dot Design Museum.
It is a changing environment for design today. The past was about competition between good design against not so good design, today it is good design against even better design.