CES 2018: A Design Insider's View

Jan 30 2018 - 2:42pm

Image Courtesy: CES 2018


The team from Whipsaw, Inc has visited CES every year since 1999. Each year, thousands of new products are introduced. "The show is a jarring assortment of competing gadgets and technology—epitomizing both very good and very bad design You go numb after a day," says President and Principal Designer Dan Harden, IDSA. "We comb for important tech advancements that might benefit from good design and we seek big ideas that portend a future category. We also just look for cool artifacts that inspire us." The following is his take on CES 2018:

From one year to the next it’s hard to see big changes in the industry, but in three years you see noticeable evolution. Change occurs in lumps as technology pools, goes open source or wacky new combinations go mainstream.  Change also is influenced by fresh design, or past product proposals that stick.

Almost every article about CES highlights a few favorite products like the latest giant TV, the best wearable, the most connected washing machine, etc. This year’s CES seems more pivotal than most because there were so many products that collectively pointed toward something bigger. There appears to be a nexus occurring among technology, service, societal change and design—and if you stepped back from all the noise you could see it. We want to highlight these bigger trends, with a bias toward design—of course! Here’s what we found:


There’s an inversion happening. Past CES’s mostly addressed base physiological needs. For example, presenting ideas that made one’s shelter more functional, improved one’s health and safety, or made work easier.  This CES (and hopefully future ones, too) seems to be the opposite. It addressed psychological needs more. There were many products and services intended to help individuals become more creative, more empowered or more connected. Quality of life and self-actualization are the new ambitions. “Interaction” in the digital age has become so important that it could be inserted into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When we are listened to, understood and given a chance to reciprocate and act, we are satisfied as humans. That is why AI is the next big thing, and at CES it was everywhere, namely in autonomous cars, voice assistants, robots, drones and virtual reality.

“Smart” is no longer good enough. It was blasé this year. It is automatically assumed now that products should be smart—as in being fast, connected, and customized to what I want. I am thrilled to see us going beyond “smart,” where AI eerily is beginning to recognize us humans, much less understand or cognize us. Electronic devices now listen, watch, learn, adapt and predict. They have become responsive.

Designers have a lot of crafting to do to make AI meaningful and future-proof, and this will require feats of hardware and software collaboration. Designing for responsivity, like sensitivity, will require adroit skill. Designing intelligence, complete with all the emotional hallmarks of what makes design great, will be the new frontier and hardest challenge ever for designers.

Movement is a Movement

Consumer electronic products typically are passive artifacts. Speakers, set top boxes, routers and computers usually just sit there and try to look pretty. At CES, the more interesting products move on their own, controlled by artificial intelligence and insanely fast processing, and made possible by tiny motors, advanced sensors, and strong lightweight materials. Therefore robots, drones and autonomous cars dominated interest.  

When products move on their own they sort of take on another dimension. They innately become more anthropomorphic and more emotional as we associate movement with life. This feeling is amplified even more when the product adjusts its behavior because of your presence or something you said.

When designing a conventional static product, designers always optimize for a primary view, hiding unsightly details or keeping the back out of sight. When designing a moving product, it is far more revealing, like a video compared to a photo. Every surface needs to be equally important and informative of its purpose. When done right, like LG or Segway robots, moving products can and should offer a more comprehensive and satisfying user experience.  As one of our designers Akifusa said, “Thinking what makes a moving thing innocent, approachable or alive, deeply is the homework for industrial designers in this post robot age”. 

Eclectic Design

Trends in industrial design, like fashion, come and go. The long-lasting minimalist trend that we are in now spearheaded by Apple more than a decade ago is beginning to show cracks. Design needs to offer more rather than less—as consumers now want deeper relationships with the brands they like that often layer service, product, lifestyle and social connection (think Peloton, Lyft, Chobani). Furthermore, as technology keeps expanding, design—which gives tech its identity—must expand with it. That is why we are seeing such an eclectic mix of design expression going on now. From bulbous organic water drones to paper thin TVs, we saw it all at CES. This includes experiments in materials, which is perhaps the most principal medium for us designers. We saw lots of natural materials including wood, fabric, leather, carbon and alloys used in creative ways.

Tectonic Business Shifts

Visitors to CES often assume that big rich companies like Samsung, Sony and LG are the ones that’ll show off the best innovation. Not the case anymore. Some of the most interesting and dynamic tech and design solutions are coming from startups in the low rent halls; the inspired American corporations like Amazon and Google; and several Chinese brands. After decades of being in the background as manufacturers, several Chinese companies such as DJI, Xiaomi, Huawei, Mobike and Ling are coming on strong.

Each of these companies now employs some form of design thinking and many have experienced extraordinary growth because of it. They’re being braver with design too, trying new things without over focus-grouping.  Meanwhile some of the old-school American companies like Polaroid, Motorola, HP and Kodak look lost as they scramble to stay relevant.

"We are witnessing extraordinary tectonic business shifts, and designers should see this as opportunity knocking."

Story Images Courtesy: @idsadesign Instagram Takeover by @graysonbyrd