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Designing the Future

August 4, 2010


When a new product hits the market and strikes the fancy of the consuming public, much of the credit for catching the eye of consumers must go to designers. In past posts, I have highlighted some of the designs that have competed for awards sponsored by James Dyson, the British inventor and designer known mostly for his high-end vacuum cleaners. Dyson believes that products should be elegant as well as functional. Allison Arieff notes that it is designers who get the public to accept new materials, not the scientists that created them [“The Way We Design Now,” New York Times, 2 June 2010]. She discusses plastic as one example of a material that has been embraced by designers and is now so ubiquitous that it has created an environmental challenge. Arieff believes that designers now recognize their larger environmental role and are becoming more socially-responsible. She writes:

“Design now exists less to shape objects than to produce solutions. Instead of creating a desire and designing an object to fulfill it, a designer spotlights a problem or need and solves it. The latter has not completely displaced the former, but it has become the prevailing discourse.”

I suspect that Dyson would agree with Arieff. I know that many of the innovations that I have highlighted in this blog have been products designed to help people in developing countries. Some of those products have been elegant and some have been homely but practical. All of them, however, have been designed to solve a pressing challenge. The focus of Arieff’s article was a design show that highlighted new, more environmentally-friendly, materials available to designers. She concludes:

“Inventiveness around unremarkable stuff from sunflowers to banana stems has resulted in numerous greener alternatives to plastic on display here, including Bananaplac, an alternative to hardwood and Formica, produced from banana fibers extracted when the fruit is harvested; AgriPlast, made from field grass and polystyrene; Kraftplex, a 100 percent biodegradable fiberboard made from sustainably harvested soft wood fibers, water, pressure and heat; and Flax, a natural fiber typically used to make linen but transformed by designer Francois Azambourg into high-performing recyclable furniture like the Lin94 Chair. But new materials are always being introduced, and their inclusion here is just a small part of a much larger story. … Low-cost innovations in health, shelter, energy and transport for the 5.8 billion people globally with little or no access not only to most products and services but also to food, shelter or clean water have become the sort of things young designers want to engage with today.”

One such example is a bicycle constructed using bamboo [“Calfee Design building bamboo bikes for the first and third worlds,” by Ben Coxworth, Gizmag, 2 March 2010]. Coxworth reports:

“Bamboo is used for all the main tubes, although you can choose carbon chainstays for extra stiffness. The bamboo is smoked and heat treated before construction, to prevent splitting. The tubes are joined together using hemp fiber lugs, then everything gets coated with polyurethane. The finished frames weigh four to six pounds, and are said to offer excellent vibration damping, while also providing good stiffness. Calfee claims that the bamboo is very crash-resistant. … Bamboo also, of course, has a much lower carbon footprint than traditional frame materials – only water and sun are required to produce it. While [Craig Calfee’s] bikes are definitely aimed at the affluent buyer, he’s also trying to get inexpensive bamboo bikes into the hands of villagers in Ghana. In 1984, he came up with the idea of a bamboo bike program while visiting Africa. He noticed that there was a lot of bamboo, but not enough cargo bikes, and not enough jobs. Since that time, he has been working on teaching local entrepreneurs how to build their own bamboo bikes, and looking for sponsors to provide funding and supplies. He plans to extend the project to other developing nations.”

Although I’m sure that designers still seek recognition as artists, they are also finding increased satisfaction from being recognized as problem solvers. A conference held earlier this year in New York City called the Greener Gadgets Showcase featured a number of designs that combined innovation, technology, and environmental-friendliness [“Greener Gadgets 2010 showcases green design, innovation and technology,” by Sandra Arcaro, Gizmag, 11 March 2010]. Arcaro reports that at the conference designers were encouraged to “put the sexy back into green.” She continues:

“The conference’s key themes centered on sustainable product design, green technology in the home and environmental issues affecting the industry. … Amid the discussion topics were a multitude of green-inspired gadgets that did not disappoint. Tom Hadfield, COO of LaboGroup, demonstrated the award-winning Andrea air filter purifier, a device highlighting the important role of plants in the environment as its functionality depends on plants to rid household and office air of toxic substances. Leo Bonnani spoke about Sourcemap, a collective online tool to help consumers understand where the elements within their devices come from and what they are made of, allowing users to build life-cycle maps of different products. Product demonstrations in sustainable designs included the ‘modlet’ by ThinkEco Inc., a smart outlet that transforms a typical home outlet and helps users manage their energy consumption and eliminate wasted power; the PICOwatt, by Tenrehte Technologies, a smart plug that gives users remote access to home appliances and electronics from any browser anywhere in the world; and the unveiling of Ecovative Design’s 100 percent compostable and biodegradable packaging solution, called ‘EcoCradle.’ … Green solutions from smaller companies best captured the audience’s attention in the third annual Greener Gadgets Design Competition, with first prize awarded to the Living Goods Program, a mobile application that provides consumers with pertinent food information from local growers. The design for Empower, a rocking chair for public places that allows people to charge their devices through motion won second prize, while third prize went to the Illumi-Charger, a USB device charger powered by interior light. The fourth finalist was the Corky, a mouse made from recycled cork that generates its own power due to usage and does not require batteries.”

Another design contest that has come to my attention is sponsored by Electrolux. This year’s competition attracted more than 1,300 entries from 17 countries. The theme this year is the “2nd Space Age” and the competition is looking for ideas that save space. That sounds practical; but, as you will see, not all of the finalists’ ideas are practical. Participants are mostly young designers hoping to win a little cash and the chance to work at one of Electrolux’s design centers. The eight finalists for this year’s competition have recently been announced [“The Final Countdown: Electrolux Design Lab finalists announced,” by Jude Garvey, Gizmag, 10 July 2010]. They are:



Kitchen Hideaway (#1)

The Kitchen Hideaway by Daniel Dobrogorsky from Australia is a virtual-reality concept that sees you turning your thoughts about your next meal into real food. You simply think of what you might like to eat, your thoughts are transmitted to a team of robotic chefs contained within your communal building and voila – they prepare the meal you just dreamt of – in a real kitchen with real food. Just try not to think of a hamburger and fries too often during the day!

What is shown in the image above is the headgear transmitting device sitting in its cradle. It could just be me, but this device doesn’t appear very practical. The one place that it might be practical would be a college dorm; but, I’m assuming the headgear and associated robotic kitchen needed to make this work would shoot up the cost of a college education. In addition, you’d also have to put a lot of controls in place to limit what could be ordered or risk putting the college out of business. I don’t see the elderly in rest homes managing to use this kind of technology and there aren’t too many other kinds of communal living situations in which it could be used. There is a lot of the Jetsons in this idea; but, like the Jetsons’ flying car, I don’t see it becoming part of our everyday life.


Eco Cleaner (#2)

The Eco Cleaner concept by Ahi Andy Mohsen from Iran is a portable, compact dishwasher and composter. Using ultrasonic waves it ionizes food and turns it into reusable waste. This concept relies on two predictions – firstly, that the food of the future will come in capsule form so there will be smaller vessels used for preparing and eating food, and secondly, time for household chores will be limited.

Those are two pretty big assumptions. People have been eating food in non-capsulated form from the very beginning and I suspect that the vast majority of people will continue to do so in the future. The design is compact and the idea is clever; but, I believe its value is primarily its ability to get us to think about how we eat in a new way. I honestly don’t expect to be eating encapsulated food anytime in the near future.


Clean Closet (#3)

Michael Edenius from Sweden designed an all-in-one laundry concept called the Clean Closet – a cupboard that cleans your clothes. After scanning the clothes for impurities the Clean Closet uses molecular technology to remove dirt and odors. Kiss your washing machine and dryer goodbye, in fact, kiss your laundry goodbye – this concept uses no water and saves valuable space.

Admit it — this is a really neat idea. I also expect that it is a very expensive idea — at least initially. When you think about the amount of money you spend on laundry detergent, dry cleaning, etc., the Clean Closet has the potential of paying for itself. Like many new ideas, however, I suspect there will be some people who will never be comfortable hanging sweaty workout clothes in the Clean Closet. They’re likely to want to throw them in a washing machine with detergent and hot water before they put them on again. Nevertheless, I think there is a chance that this idea will actually make it into the marketplace.


Dismount Washer (#4)

Equally interesting … is the space-saving wash-and-go laundry concept from Lichen Guo of China. The Dismount Washer combines a cleaning container with a laundry basket. The laundry capsule – which is filled with dirty clothing – is placed on a wall-mounted motor or ‘energy-stick’ that somehow cleans the clothes and dispenses steam to aid the cleaning process.

In the image above, the Dismount Washer looks like a diamond hanging on the wall. Once it is taken off the wall, it can be set flat and lid opened so that clothes can be loaded into the machine. Although it is clearly a space-saving device, people may wonder what steam-cleaning will do their clothes. It’s unclear what other cleaning methods, if any, the Dismount Washer uses.


Elements Modular Kitchen (#5)

Matthew Gilbride from USA, designed the Elements Modular Kitchen – an all-in-one kitchen shelving concept. It’s a multi-unit and surface design that allows flexible modes of cooking, refrigeration, air conditioning and lighting in a space-friendly and environmental design. Units and surfaces are connected through wireless smart networking with solar power supplementing the wireless power when required.

As a shelving concept, the Elements Modular Kitchen is a clever design. I’m not so sure that it works for me as a refrigeration unit. Since the modules are all open to the air, it appears that a lot of energy would be lost trying to keep foods cool. To see a better picture of the modules, go the Gizmag article online. A better refrigeration design for me is the next entry that made the finals.


External Refrigerator (#6)

The External Refrigerator and was designed by Nicolas Hubert from France. It is designed to be fixed on the outside wall of buildings. During cold seasons and at night it utilizes the low outdoor temperatures to keep food at the optimum temperature. When it’s warm, the solar panels help to keep the food cool. The design is simple and in keeping with the external urban environment.

The problem with External Refrigerator is its aesthetics. Although the design looks sleek when you are inside a building, you have to ask yourself how you would like the unit sticking out of the side of your house or apartment. The food compartment slides out from the unit, which means that it would only work in places where the kitchen is next to an outside wall.


The Snail (#7)

The Snail by Peter Alwin from India is a micro induction heating concept for portable heating and cooking. It is powered by a high-density sugar crystal battery and is designed to be attached to small cooking items such as a pot or mug. It contains integrated sensors to determine the cooking time and temperature for certain food types and features a touch-sensitive display.

I like this idea — especially for people living by themselves. Some elderly people not only cook in small amounts, but using appliances like a gas stove raises safety issues. The Snail eliminates those hazards and permits people to cook in small quantities with confidence.


Bio Robot Refrigerator (#8)

The Bio Robot Refrigerator [was designed] by Yuriy Dmitriev from Russia. It is four times smaller than a conventional refrigerator and uses biopolymer gel that cools through luminescence. There are no shelves, no doors, no drawers or a motor – the food is suspended in a non-sticky, odor-free gel that creates a separate pod for easy access. It can be hung vertically, horizontally or even on the ceiling and the items are kept at their optimum temperature by bio robots. Pardon the pun…but that’s a ‘cool’ concept.

Okay, it looks cool (without food attached) and sounds cool. My question is how do you clean the darn thing? I’m also wondering how the long the gel is supposed to last before it loses it properties. The Bio Robot Refrigerator certainly is a space saver, but I suspect that it faces some cultural challenges when it comes to people putting it in their homes.


Good designers are a unique blend of artist, problem-solver, and engineer. I don’t believe we give designers the full credit due them. Being practical is generally a good idea; but, if you can be practical and create something of beauty at the same time, you contribute to society on several levels. The more I see the designs created by the up and coming generation, the more comfortable I am about the future.

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