South Korean conglomerate LG Electronics Inc. was not exactly a household name in the world of mobile phones 10 years ago, but today it is situated to become one of the world's five biggest.
The firm could not have accomplished that leap without a sustained commitment to industrial design, extending from its highest executives, said Kim Jin, one of LG's top product designers.
The firm's product designs are attracting attention: In 2006 it became just the second Asian firm (Sony was first) to pick up the design industry's coveted Radius Award for design team of the year, a platform it has shared with only 15 other firms, including Apple, Nokia and Adidas.
Kim, vice president and director of LG's corporate design lab, spoke about what LG is looking for in new materials and what could be the next hot consumer product, in a late-March interview at the firm's Seoul headquarters.
Materials that evoke strong emotional responses will become an increasingly important selling point for consumer products, Kim said, speaking through a translator. The body of Honda's Puyo concept car, for example, is made with a gel-like luminescent material that glows from the inside, changes colors and is soft to touch, she said. The Puyo first caught her eye at the Tokyo Auto Show, she said.
``It used to be that technology was the main part of consumer electronics products. But it has been changing to the more emotional aspect of what does the consumer really want and what are they really pleased about,'' she said. ``Design is becoming more and more important in contemporary culture and for contemporary consumers.''
While she urged material suppliers to push boundaries, she acknowledges that it can be difficult to make major advancements good enough to meet mass-production requirements, a point that still favors the bread-and-butter, relatively low-cost plastics.
``There are a lot of new technologies, like paint that changes colors when you touch it, and those are interesting developments,'' Kim said. ``The problem is they are not sophisticated enough that you would use them in your product. The color is not attractive enough.''
Lately the company has been seeing more consumer interest in materials perceived as natural, even if they are not, she said. That trend prompted LG to develop a faux-leather plastic phone, the Venus, and a stainless-steel version, called Shine.
``Everyone - the consumers - are becoming very fond of natural things,'' Kim said, ``so we wanted to give them what they wanted, which would be a premium feel and a natural feel.''
That doesn't mean LG is less interested in plastic, although the important question for designers is not ``What is the material?'' but ``How will consumers feel about it?'' she said.
The requirements of mass production still favor plastic, Kim said. ``The plastics industry can rest assured that the real materials, the premium materials, will be too expensive to mass produce.''
One of LG's bigger consumer successes in recent years - 24 million units sold - is the LG Chocolate phone in its Black Label Series. That phone, in fact, used dual injection molding of polycarbonate and ABS - which was fairly new in the manufacture of mobile phones at the time - in an attempt to evoke the look and feel of a chocolate bar. The phone won the Design for Asia Award in 2006 at Hong Kong's Business of Design Week.
Kim noted that LG was the first Korean firm to hire an industrial designer, in 1959, and design remains a fundamental element for the company.
``The top management, all the way down from the executive chairman and the [chief executive officer], they really care about design. They really think that design is a really important factor for LG's products,'' she said. ``The role of design has become huge at LG right now.''
Top management also has been looking actively at sustainability issues, she said, and its research labs have been examining sustainable materials, including some unidentified ``traditional'' Korean materials.
LG also is examining environmentally friendly paints, and designing packaging that could be reused for other purposes - reducing overall waste, she said.
Officials pointed to a recent Greenpeace scorecard that ranked LG in the middle of global consumer electronics firms for environmental performance, in the same position as Sony Ericsson and Apple, ahead of Motorola but behind Nokia and Korean rival Samsung.
The Greenpeace ranking praised LG for setting a time line to phase out PVC and brominated flame retardants, and for applying the precautionary principle in its chemicals decision-making. But, Greenpeace said LG needs to do more to support recycling of its products and scored worse than in previous rankings because it has not made sufficient progress.
Kim cautioned that she considers sustainability a complex topic. She questioned whether enough research has been done on possible negative effects on society as a whole of using agricultural feedstocks, like corn, as materials for bio-based plastics.
Some observers have said that recent food shortages and accompanying riots have been fueled, in part, by diversion of corn and soy to make biofuels.
LG competitor Nokia recently told the New York Times it is developing a telephone made from recycled plastic, tires and aluminum. But, Kim said, the success of such products in the marketplace still depends on whether people will buy them.
``Those recycled materials don't really look attractive to consumers,'' she said.