This year, you couldn't be blamed for getting caught up in design that's all surface with no substance. As the world makes it easier for anyone to cheaply prototype and market their seemingly brilliant idea, the link between what looks good and what works well seems to be weakening. In this way, the role of the designer—as craftsperson, as storyteller, as fabricator—becomes even more important. Today's products and experiences have to look attractive enough to entice consumers in a saturated market, but the best ones also manage to solve big systemic problems around materials, manufacturing, and efficiency. These 2011 innovations all feature the perfect marriage of design and technology, reminding us that the greatest design is not only beautiful, but functional as well.
How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb? Ask the folks over at Plumen, which literally transformed the lightbulb this year. The Plumen 001, available for the first time in the United States this year, is a game-changer in every way: It looks like someone made a balloon animal with a light saber and has an amazing eight-year lifespan. The highly efficient bulb represents not only a technological achievement, but an aesthetic breakthrough as well, changing the way people think about low-impact lighting.
Anyone can pull up a location on Google Maps, but not everyone can make stunning, full-color maps that look like a vintage batik textile. Prettymaps, a new experiment by San Francisco-based Stamen, uses community-sourced data to create gorgeous, highly detailed maps where designers can tweak elements like color and line weight according to their preferences. If you think these maps are pretty enough to hang on your wall, you’re in luck: You can order maps of major cities designed by Aaron Straup Cope from affordable art purveyor 20x200.
Little Printer, a concept by London-based BERG, was designed to consume all your online data and spew it back out like a social-media receipt. But it's more than just a pretty (little) face; it’s the first in a planned suite of products by BERG, which says it seeks to make home electronics a lot more user friendly. In the meantime: Do you really need a tiny printout of your Facebook wall? Who cares. Look how cute it is!
Forget Photoshop in 2012. Download the free app Mixel for your tablet and not only can you create stunning collages with a flick of your hand, you can then share, disassemble, remix, collaborate on, and publish them as well. Created by Khoi Vinh, former design director for The New York Times' website, Mixel blasts the claims that the iPad is only good for consuming content. The simple interface will hopefully inspire designers and developers everywhere to build more ways to create using a few fingers and an imagination. But you know what it really inspires? Fun.
Brazilian company Melissa makes jellies, but these are not the jellies of your childhood. Melissa produces dozens of styles of women’s shoes, all of them durable, vegan, and 100 percent recyclable. What's more, each shoe is molded from a single piece of nontoxic PVC plastic called MELFLEX, meaning there’s no wasted materials. Collaborations with designers like Vivienne Westwood, the Campaña brothers, and Zaha Hadid ensure the styles are fashion-forward, making them that much more likely to stick around. Oh, and no polishing with toxic chemicals: Melissa shoes can be washed in the sink like a piece of Tupperware.
Just when you thought Twitter and Facebook were the only ways to document your journey through the world, artist and technologist Jonathan Harris brings us Cowbird, a beautiful and groundbreaking new way of telling stories. Users create "sagas," multimedia narratives with multiple components that can be navigated, mapped, and shared. Want proof? Check out Harris’s first saga, which tells the story of the Occupy movement, in raw, high-definition emotion. Then make your own.
The fact that Jeanne Gang won a MacArthur "genius" grant this year was more than a victory for female architects everywhere. The first architect in 11 years to win a MacArthur is also one of its most tech-savvy, incorporating new materials and techniques into her work with a focus on creating lean, efficient buildings. Gang's Aqua Tower, completed in Chicago last year, showcases smart new ideas for reclaiming water and natural lighting, while sacrificing nothing for its rippling, dramatic form poised high above the city.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has always been a practitioner of the great art and design which hangs within its walls. But this year they managed to transform the mundane—a museum website—into a vibrant and thoughtful portal for the local creative community. Walkerart.org uses original content, intelligent aggregation and a streamlined editorial approach to tell important stories around its process. Museums everywhere should take note, yes, but publications should be paying attention as well.
In the Steve Jobs biography, the release of the iPad is tainted for Jobs by the fact that so many people bought his perfect devices and then tucked them into imperfect carrying cases. Upon the iPad 2's release this year, Apple not only made its own cover, it made a cover that protects a gadget better than anything had before. The Smart Cover uses tiny magnets to grab onto the screen, then flips off in segments, tucking under itself like an origami project, to create a stand. Siri may not have changed our lives as Apple promised, but this product, though simpler, is arguably even better.
It's been said by designers more than a few times this year that the world doesn’t need another chair. Rather, what we do need are more responsible manufacturing practices. Los Angeles designer Brendan Ravenhill wanted to build a better trash can, so he looked to his own neighborhood for inspiration. The Dustbin is manufactured exclusively in Los Angeles using a 60-year-old metal stamping company and a brush-maker that makes parts for the Mars Rovers. It's an inspired and elegant case for working locally. And a darn fine place to put your trash.
After vacuum and hand-drying empire Dyson turned their focus on fans, the next logical step was heaters, and this year, the Dyson Hot began populating design blogs. Only slightly bigger than a hair dryer, the heater has no blades or coils; it simply pulls air quickly through a tiny space and spins it up a ramp, much like the wing of an airplane. It heats a room more efficiently and without all the superfluous pieces that are likely to get lost or broken. Hot indeed.