To nobody's surprise, this year's World Design Congress, Connecting'07, paid special attention to materials and the environment.
In kicking off the Oct. 17-20 event in San Francisco, Bill Moggridge, congress chair and co-founder of California design firm IDEO in Palo Alto, told attendees their badge holders were made with cornstarch, instead of vinyl.
Co-sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America of Dulles, Va., and the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design in Montreal, the congress brought together the various links in the supply chain to discuss the process of product design and development.
With some designers, plastics does not always fare favorably.
Hewlett-Packard Co. design Vice President Sam Lucente told congress attendees that HP designers went with metal instead of plastics in the Blackbird 002 gaming personal computer because gamers wanted it that way.
In developing the new Blackbird - introduced to consumers Sept. 5 - HP listened to computer and video gamers about what material to use for the box.
``No plastics,'' Lucente said in his presentation to the congress, which drew about 1,930 people.
A small team of dedicated gamers created the device for Palo Alto-based HP.
Their bottom line: Gamers don't want plastic boxes, Lucente said.
The sourcing of raw materials becomes critical as global fossil fuels diminish, said biologist Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild. The Helena, Mont., group helps firms find design and engineering strategies rooted in nature.
If companies could use carbon dioxide as a source, ``we could make plastics ourselves,'' Benyus said. She referred to work being conducted at Novomer Inc. of Ithaca, N.Y., which makes biodegradable aliphatic polycarbonates from epoxides and carbon dioxide.
She said plastics recycling, hindered by the proliferation of polymers, is ``tough'' to achieve.
If there were still ``five polymers used to make everything,'' instead of hundreds, Benyus said, recycling would be more doable.
But Darlie Koshy, director of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, said lightweight polymer products are becoming more reusable, durable and convenient. He noted several innovative plastics-related applications in India, including a self-sufficient, solar-powered cooking device and a battery-operated car with thermoformed ABS parts.
Koshy said he tells his students at the institute that ``the service economy is the key to unlocking [design] potential.''
In designing quality-of-life improvements, young people should look closely at services to democratize their designs and empower individuals, he said. Companies help fund 95 percent of the student projects at the institute, he noted.
Companies are becoming more aware than ever of their roles as corporate citizens in a global community, and their responsibility extends to many areas of product design, not just environmental.
``Products are becoming too complicated to use,'' said Toyoyuki Uematsu, former president of Panasonic Design Co. Operating a digital device can be confusing for consumers, for example, if the design is complicated or unfriendly, he said.
Uematsu, now a senior adviser with Panasonic's Tokyo-based parent, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Inc., unified 11 separate Panasonic-brand design organizations. Now, the operation, a winner of numerous design awards, employs 291 in six offices worldwide.
As a design material, plastics is strong, thin, light, minimal and suitable for short time-to-market development cycles, Uematsu said. He said corporations have a responsibility to focus on environmental needs, including to reduce, reuse and recycle materials.
``Current cell phones are not recyclable,'' said design industry luminary Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design Inc. in Palo Alto.
Esslinger called for more design integration, balanced logistics and open source hardware. He suggested an ecological product-rating system and ``green co-design'' efforts.
For product designers and manufacturers, globalization imposes ``a greater necessity of understanding cultural differences,'' said Asian specialist Gordon Bruce, owner of Gordon Bruce LLC of New Milford, Conn.
Bruce provides consulting to PC manufacturing giant Lenovo Group Ltd. of Beijing, which acquired IBM's PC division in 2005, as well as to China's largest television manufacturer, Sichuan Changhong Electric Co. Ltd. of Mianyang, and Singapore-based Osim International Ltd., a supplier of healthy lifestyle products.
``We need to find the hot spot within each culture,'' Bruce said, noting India and countries in South America in particular. ``We really have to work at understanding what is meaningful to people's interactions.''
Craig Vetter of Carmel, Calif., talked about making motorcycles more fuel efficient. ``Streamlining is essential,'' said Vetter, for using less fuel and improving miles-per-gallon performance.
Vetter, who was inducted into the motorcycle hall of fame in 1999, organized motorcycle fuel economy contests from 1980-85.
A properly designed motorcycle should have a rounded front, a pointed rear and a smooth continuous shape, he said. He urged designers to seek solutions involving corn, beans and wind harvesting.
``Don't be seduced by popular culture,'' he said. ``The world looks to us for a better tomorrow.''