Inclinations of a Changing Industry
The Consumer Electronics Show is a jarring assortment of thousands of competing gadgets and technology, covering the spectrum of very good and very bad design. Having visited CES every year since 1999, our strategy as a team has been to carefully comb through the chaos, seeking important tech advancements that would benefit from good design, as well as big ideas that portend an industry disruption. We also love to stumble upon cool products that inspire us as designers.
It’s hard to see big industry changes from one year to the next. Noticeable change occurs over the course of several years, as seemingly disparate technologies pool together. Ideas that once seemed niche go mainstream. Most importantly to us at Whipsaw, change can also be influenced by fresh design.
Almost every article written about CES chooses to highlight a few select products, from the latest giant TV to the most connected washing machine. Instead of following this trend, we are focusing on something bigger that emerged this year. When you zoom out from all the noise, a nexus appears between technology, service, societal change, and design. Here is what we found when we used a design lens to focus in on these more pivotal trends.
There’s an inversion happening. Past CES’s mostly addressed base physiological needs. For example, they’ve presented ideas that made one’s shelter more functional, improved one’s health and safety, or made work easier. This CES (and hopefully future ones too) seemed to be the opposite. It addressed psychological needs more. There were many products and services intended to help individuals become more creative, more empowered, or more connected. Quality of life and self-actualization are the new ambitions. “Interaction” in the digital age has become so important that it could be inserted into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When we are listened to, understood, and given a chance to reciprocate and act, we are satisfied as humans. That is why A.I. is the next big thing, and at CES it was everywhere, namely in autonomous cars, voice assistants, robots, drones and virtual reality.
“Smart” is no longer good enough. It was blase this year. It is automatically assumed now that products should be smart as in being fast, connected, and customized to what I want. I am thrilled to see us going beyond “smart,” where A.I. is eerily beginning to recognize us humans, much less understand or cognize us. Electronic devices now listen, watch, learn, adapt, and predict. They have become responsive.
“Smart” is no longer good enough.
Designers have a lot of crafting to do to make A.I. meaningful and future-proof, and this will require feats of hardware and software collaboration. Designing for responsivity, like sensitivity, will require adroit skill. Designing intelligence, complete with all the emotional hallmarks of what makes design great, will be the new frontier and hardest challenge ever for designers.
Movement is a movement
Consumer electronic products are typically passive artifacts. Speakers, set top boxes, routers, and computers usually just sit there and try to look pretty. At CES, the more interesting products move on their own, controlled by artificial intelligence and insanely fast processing, and made possible by tiny motors, advanced sensors, and strong lightweight materials. Therefore, robots, drones, and autonomous cars dominated interest.
When products move on their own they sort of take on another dimension. They innately become more anthropomorphic and more emotional as we associate movement with life. This feeling is amplified even more when the product adjusts its behavior because of your presence or something you said.
When designing a conventional static product, designers always optimize for a primary view, hiding unsightly details or keeping the back out of sight. When designing a moving product it is far more revealing, like a video compared to a photo. Every surface needs to be equally important and informative of its purpose. When done right, like LG or Segway robots, moving products can and should offer a more comprehensive and satisfying user experience. As one of our senior industrial designers Akifusa Nakazawa said, “Capturing what makes a moving thing innocent, approachable, or alive deeply is the homework for industrial designers in this post sci-fi robot age.”
Trends in industrial design, like fashion, come and go. The long-lasting minimalist trend that we are in now spearheaded by Apple more than a decade ago is beginning to show cracks. Design needs to offer more rather than less as consumers now want deeper relationships with the brands they like that layer service, product, lifestyle, and social connection (think Peloton, Lyft, Chobani). Furthermore, as technology keeps expanding, design (which gives tech its identity), must expand with it. That is why we are seeing such an eclectic mix of design expression going on now. From bulbous organic water drones to paper thin TVs, we saw it all at CES. This includes experiments in materials, which is perhaps the most principal medium for us designers. We saw lots of natural materials including wood, fabric, leather, carbon, and alloys used in creative ways.
Design needs to offer more rather than less as consumers now want deeper relationships with the brands they like that layer service, product, lifestyle, and social connection.
Tectonic Business Shifts
Visitors to CES often assume that the big rich companies like Samsung, Sony and LG are the ones that’ll show off the best innovation. Not the case anymore. Some of the most interesting and dynamic tech and design solutions are coming from startups in the low rent halls; the inspired American corporations like Amazon and Google; and several Chinese brands. After decades of being in the background as manufacturers, several Chinese companies like DJI, Xiaomi, Huawei and Ling are coming on strong. Each of these companies now employs some form of design thinking, and many have experienced extraordinary growth because of it. They’re being braver with design too, trying new things without over focus-grouping. Meanwhile, some of the old-school American companies like Polaroid, Motorola, HP, and Kodak look lost as they scramble to stay relevant. We are witnessing extraordinary tectonic business shifts, and designers should see this as opportunity knocking.