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Does technology have to look good?

Computex showgirls advertise the products on offer at the fair
Computex showgirls advertise the products on offer at the fair
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Only around 1-2% of computer company budgets are spent on design according to Swiss designer, Peter Wirz
  • Jen Chuang, design specialist for Asus, sees the future of consumer product design as adaptable devices
  • In future, design success may be decided on how easy and enjoyable a product is to use

Taipei, Taiwan (CNN) -- How do computer companies make their products stand out from the crowd? At Computex, Asia's largest computer technology fair, many manufacturers seem to consider attractive showgirls the best way to get even the most prosaic processor noticed.

But past the distractions of big smiles and skimpy outfits, there's often not much to distinguish one piece of tech from another, no matter how sleek or shiny.

"I see hundreds of products," says Swiss designer Peter Wirz, "but they all look the same."

Wirz's Swiss brand consultancy, Process, has a studio in Taipei. Two of the world's biggest PC makers, Acer and Asus, also herald from Taiwan, as do countless companies that produce components and peripheries that are exported across the world.

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While Apple has demonstarted how powerful good design can be for a company's fortunes, appreciation of product design and its ability to shape a brand is generally lacking among most of Asia's technology companies, Wirz believes. Among Taiwan's ICT companies only around 1-2% of budgets are spent on design.

"Many focus on trying to maximize the diversity of products to make a brand, but (they) don't think about the small things that are important at the front end," he says.

Wirz highlights the redesign of Acer's company logo this year after a management change to illustrate the lack of foresight typical of Asian computer companies' top brass.

"Now it looks like a candy bar (logo), not a technology company that is trying to position itself as a premium product," he says.

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While manufacturing of high-tech products has been a mainstay of Taiwan's economic growth for decades, the move to create strong consumer brands and design has lagged.

I see hundreds of products, but they all look the same.
--Peter Wirz, Swiss designer
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But that's not for good reason, suggests Kris Verstockt, Executive Director of CRE8, a Taiwan-based design firm that counts Dell and Nokia among its clients.

"Most of Taiwan's technology companies come from the 'original equipment manufacture' (OEM) background where they didn't have to worry about design," he says.

"Building for other brands, they only had to worry about if the product was produced on time and on budget," Verstockt explains. "Often the best design was thought of (as) the cheapest, and being a designer was not thought of (as) a real job."

Attitudes do seem to be changing, however. Jen Chuang, Design Specialist for Asus, has seen her department's work take on increasing importance in the last three years.

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"Design is valued (at Asus). There's nothing in Asia to match the recent design salon in Milan, but it is seen as increasingly important," she says.

There remains a difference between Asian and European designs and attitudes, says Chuang.

"We are an Asian company -- so we have our line of bamboo computers and do things to give our products a unique identity," she explains. "But (we) also have a global marketplace and look at global trends and data."

Ultimately, however, design for tablets, laptops and other in-home and mobile hardware may matter less than how they are used.

"Shape doesn't matter," says Wirz. "If you want to build a brand new laptop for Acer, for example, you really have to do something extraordinary or you won't make any money."

Given the plethora of products that technology companies are producing each year, gadgets that are easier and more enjoyable to use stand a better chance of beating their rivals.

"Usability and user-experience: Put that into (design) ideas and then they can start to become a really successful story," says Wirz.

Chuang sees the future of consumer product design as creating devices that are adaptable to changing environments.

Their "Iris" range of concept designs are part of an ongoing strategy that she suggests reflect the future of the ICT design world, namely design and usability combining to free people from having lots of hardware.

However, we may never be free from the tyranny of similar-looking slabs of technology, admits Chuang: "In many ways we are bound by the basics of the products. And in many ways there needs to be a lot (of products), otherwise many companies would go out of business."

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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