Design innovation assumes central role

7 January 2013

NEW YORK: Companies such as AOL, Microsoft and Beats Electronics are utilising increasingly distinctive and innovative designs to enhance the standing of their products.

AOL, the IT group, introduced a new email system in late 2011, not least because it was seeking to create a service that stood out from other competing platforms when seen at a distance.

"One of the key things from a design perspective that we wanted was to do something different. And we wanted it to pass what we call the 15-foot test," Bill Wetherell, a senior director, UX design, at AOL, told Fast Company. "It needs not only to function differently but also look noticeably different from afar."

"When you look at any other email product from a distance – if you're at a Starbucks or on the train, and you see someone reading Gmail or Yahoo – they all largely look the same."

Microsoft, the software specialist, similarly attempted to ensure that its Windows Phone operating system did much more than replicate alternatives such as those developed by Google and Apple.

"It looks nothing like what Android or the iPhone looks like," Jeff Fong, a lead designer for the Windows Phone said.

Beats Electronics, which makes audio products and equipment, also intended its Pill speaker, which is shaped like a capsule, to be clearly-recognisable by shoppers.

"Like a car that you immediately know – like, 'Oh that's an Audi or a Mercedes' – you know it right from across the parking lot," Luke Wood, its COO, said. "You can just tell this reads Beats, even before you see the 'B.' The form factor is that unique."

Design gained additional prominence as an issue due to the court case last year where Apple, the consumer electronics manufacturer, accused rival Samsung of abusing its patents.

Kathleen Sullivan, a Samsung attorney, was asked to look at Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy Tab from a distance of around ten feet and say if she could identify which was the latter device. "Not at this distance your honour," was her reply.

However, Scott Croyle, vice president of design at HTC, the telecoms group, said that while its new 8X mobile phone and the Nokia Lumia 920 look alike, other factors ultimately come into play.

"From 30,000 feet, I think I see it," he said. "But I think when you pick up the phones, it's an easy choice for consumers. When you pick up the 8X, and you pick up a competing phone, I think without a doubt that you'll walk out with our phone."

Data sourced from Fast Company; additional content by Warc staff