Feel-good factor plays key role in award for best product design

Stylish wheelchair wins top GDA accolade for overcoming negative stereotypes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 November, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 November, 2015, 6:00am

Octogenarian John O’Neill would rather stay at home than use the shiny new wheelchair his family has bought for him to go out. It ticks all the boxes in terms of functionality but is “supremely ugly”, he says. “Just because I’m old and have Parkinson’s disease doesn’t mean that I don’t care. Also, people look at you differently when you are in a wheelchair. They even speak to me more loudly as if I can’t hear. It’s degrading.”

There is good news for O’Neill and his family. Product designers are more aware than ever of the need to consider how the end-user feels, especially the elderly or disabled.

The world’s leading design awards are doing their part to encourage this trend. Recently, a contemporary wheelchair – which its designers prefer to call a “four-wheel-drive mobility device” – won the highest accolade at this year’s Good Design Award (GDA), presented in Tokyo.

The high-performance vehicle, sporting an electric motor and a battery, can reach speeds of nearly 9km an hour, and travel 19km before the battery needs recharging at a regular electrical outlet. WHILL Model A also tackles uneven terrain such as stones or wet sand that usually prove a challenge for regular wheelchairs. Moreover, thanks to a new design that pairs the main wheel with a series of smaller wheels to deliver an unusually tight turning radius, the device can “turn on a dime,” says Satoshi Sugie, co-founder and CEO of WHILL, the company behind the extraordinary design.

Perhaps more importantly, it looks good.

According to Sugie, creating a “minimalistic, functional and stylish” aesthetically pleasing form was key to overcoming negative stereotypes that identify a wheelchair as something used by the ill or weak.

The design team’s effort in transforming negative perceptions was a significant factor in its winning this year’s Grand Award, where social issues such as community building, disaster prevention, education and mobility were considered hot topics by jurors.

“In recent years we have seen more expectations from society about design so this year our award has looked to interrelate design with focused issues that affect society,” says this year’s GDA chairman, Kazufumi Nagai, a graphic designer. “Social issues go across all categories of design. It is not just the outer look of something.”

There were plenty of examples of thoughtful design among the 1,337 winning works (selected from 3,658 entries) on show at Tokyo’s luxury Midtown complex, including HACKberry’s bionic hand, which numbered among the Good Design Best 100.

The motorised hand, controlled intuitively using muscles in the residual part of the arm, is significant not just for its innovative design but because the designers were able to reduce the cost of production to a 10th of its usual price by utilising a 3D printer. They also took the bold move of making all design data and sources available online to help designers around the world learn from their work.

Other hi-tech products with a social conscience included Panasonic’s storage battery for solar energy designed for regions without electricity. The system features a solar panel, a portable battery with Panasonic’s eco-friendly rechargeable Eneloop batteries, a single light bulb that delivers a maximum of 24 hours lighting and a larger strip light (good for seven to 14 hours). The sleek battery unit includes a USB output port enabling the charging of cellphones.

The new focus on social issues is not just about creating high-profile designs but is also intended to encourage designers to improve existing products, says GDA vice-chair and designer Fumie Shibata.

“A more human touch is definitely found in this year’s entries. This trend towards considering the sense of comfort and how users feel while using a product is being emphasised more and more in Japanese design.”

The designer’s child-friendly thermometer created for Omron won an award last year.

The GDA is known to have a phenomenal impact on a designer’s work. Beyond exposing their work to 250,000 visitors on show during the annual event, for many Japanese a product exhibiting the red “G-mark” is considered a guarantee of excellence.

The range of products has evolved in the past few years from industrial items to a wider range of products, such as a face pack that looks like a kabuki theatre mask, furniture, and even a small village created to give stressed urbanites a taste of rural bliss.

This year, special awards presented to outstanding designs among the Best 100 included Samsung’s curved screen Galaxy 6S, Narita Airport Terminal 3’s practical and low-cost blue running track and Nike’s interactive LED basketball court.

The organiser, the Japan Institute of Design Promotion, is keen to encourage entries from abroad. “It is becoming more relevant for designers outside Japan,” says Air Button co-founder Oswis Wong, from Hong Kong, whose wireless and battery-free customisable “button” that is stuck onto a mobile phone was awarded a Best 100 design award this year.

The ultra-slim one-touch device uses NFR (near field communication) technology to allow users to personalise mobile phone actions; for example, to simultaneously and automatically silence your phone, forward your calls and activate voice recording during a meeting. A simple press of the button could, for example, automatically sound an alarm or dial for help in an emergency.

The standard of overseas entries was very high this year, says product designer Sosuke Nakabo, who led the 2015 Hong Kong judging panel and has been a judge for the past three years.

People are living longer so it is important that designers who are creating products for the elderly also consider factors such as their dignity
Lee Chi-wing, Milk Design

“I’ve noticed a dramatic transformation in the Chinese production industry since I first visited there 15 years ago. The biggest change has been in their attitude towards design and quality where the ‘invisible boundary’ between us has lessened,” he says, referring to the difference between Chinese manufacturers’ way of looking at design and quality compared with his expectations as a Japanese designer.

According to Nakabo, China’s ability to rapidly “kick start” projects and produce products at a low cost means they are able to respond immediately to fast-changing technologies.

Their newfound willingness to improve quality gives them an extra edge, he says.

“One factory I visited in China has headhunted a Japanese master knife maker and he now educates the workmen in China.”

This year, the GDA jurors were particularly taken with Hong Kong’s SIM Lighting’s spiral shaped filament LED light bulb that garnered a Good Design Best 100 award. The team of young designers, based at Cyberport, submitted their new Simbulb, a 3D spiral LED light source that consumes 90 per cent less energy than an incandescent bulb.

“It also overcomes the problems of the irradiation angle typical of LED [incandescent light is omnidirectional while that of a typical LED is directional] by connecting two spiral shaped LEDs in a very cost-effective but good looking way,” says the company’s CEO Andrew Yeung.

The product is innovative and considerate, says GDA juror and founder of Hong Kong-based Milk Design, Lee Chi-wing. “It taps into the memory of light bulbs so the new technological breakthrough is very well integrated.”

According to Lee, the GDA’s focus on social issues reflects the growing global awareness that designers need to go beyond thinking about commercial value to consider value to society.

“For example, people are living longer so it is important that designers who are creating products for the elderly also consider factors such as their dignity.”

Lee also observes that the awards stimulate creativity among designers. “Even as a judge you learn so much by going to the awards. Every year they have a new mission set by the chairman outlining what is very important for that year. Those who participate do not only have an objective to win but also want to understand the value of design and meet other designers working on creative projects.”

The inspiration that designers derive from being exposed to other ideas may even come from playful projects. One of the most popular products this year was an intriguing LED-embedded skipping rope created by Korean designers Tangram Factory. An app links users to a social network while the smart rope projects the jump count as a light in front of the user.

“It’s a lot of fun,” observed one Japanese designer who had lined up for a chance to try it out. “Why shouldn’t design be fun?”