The winners of Inc.’s Iconic Design Awards come from a variety of categories this year, including toys, sportswear, environment-saving home goods, and more. But they all share one key quality: they nail what customers want now.
We asked our panel of judges what it takes to design a great product today. Below you’ll find the design trends they’re seeing–and the companies that are leading the charge.
1. Less is more.
Many of today’s most advanced devices don’t scream “technology!” –and with good reason. “People are gravitating towards wanting as much functionality in as sleek and minimal a structure as possible,” says Vivian Rosenthal, founder of custom emoji keyboard creator Snaps and co-founder of Google’s 30 Weeks design program.
Apple products lead the charge in minimalistic design–the iPhone is remarkably simple looking, for all it does. The Nest thermostat also packs a ton of capabilities into a simple design defined by basic shapes and few colors. The big takeaway? Keep the frills to a minimum. “A product needs to be intuitive,” says Teran Evans, design director at PepsiCo. “It shouldn’t be something that comes with a list of directions that’s like a scroll, where you have to figure things out.”
2. Curate the customer’s options.
In the fast-moving, choice-overloaded consumer world of 2016, shoppers really only want to see a few options–and to know what they should buy along with it. Evans points to clothing company Madewell, the J.Crew subsidiary that opened its first stores in 2006. “They aren’t saying, ‘Here’s a sweater in 100 different colors; here’s a blouse in 12 different styles.’ It’s ‘Here is a sweater in three or four different colors, and we’re gonna pair it with a pair of sandals that works, and show it all in the store with a bag.”
The formula has worked: While its parent company struggles, Madewell’s sales have soared in recent years–up 33 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year. “Consumers are looking more often to brands to have a point of view,” Evans says, “and to have a curated experience that they feel has been personalized for them.”
3. Serve your audience well.
Mona Patel, founder and CEO of Motivate Design, says that designing a great user experience is becoming the norm–even when there isn’t a clear return on investment. “We’re starting to hear more conversations around how a design serves audiences–just trusting that design is a smart thing to do, instead of ‘prove it, prove it, prove it.'”
Patel refers to Tesla, whose car design includes several over-the-top features: The cars can “read” street signs, and you can switch to a high-power “ludicrous mode.” “They stand for something,” Patel says of Elon Musk’s company. “They use design not just to make you buy, but to actually improve the overall experience that you have.”
4. What’s old is new again.
That old-timey feeling you get when you walk into a Brooklyn coffee shop that feels 100 years old but actually opened last year? Evans calls that faux-stalgia. “It’s about taking nostalgic cues from a past that never really existed,” he says. More and more, companies are using their packaging to present themselves as classic even if they’re not. Craft breweries like Lucky Bucket Beer use faded labels with script lettering to give off mid-20th century vibes. The packaging for chocolate maker Olive & Sinclair uses soft colors and graphics reminiscent of World War I propaganda posters–though the company was founded in 2007.
Jim Brett, president of home-decor company West Elm, points out that some furniture makers have reverted back to the bright, angular, unnatural “Memphis style” of yesteryear. “The 80s are so far behind us now,” he says, “that we can feel a nostalgia for that playfulness in design: fun over function.”
5. If you expect people to wear it, it better look good.
Wearables haven’t quite caught fire the way some predicted. Our judges say the reason why is simple: Instead of beautiful, useful technology, we’ve mostly gotten futuristic-looking gadgets like Google Glass and the Apple Watch. But that’s beginning to change. Some smart watches, like the Fossil Q line, disguise themselves as classic, leather-banded wristwatch. Jewelry like Ringly–which, via a Bluetooth connection, lights up to alert its wearer of calls or texts–are becoming indistinguishable from regular accessories.
“I’m seeing that companies are elevating aesthetics and making decisions that prioritize the look over the functionality,” Patel says. “I love that. I think it’s been a long time coming.”