Samsung's California designers shaping next year's products

Samsung Design America, based in San Francisco, says it taps into startup culture for insights

Most of the work under way at Samsung Design America is slated to appear in products in 2014 as the electronics giant's year-old design shop in San Francisco influences product development across the company.

Samsung Electronics founded the office last year as a forward post in the startup culture of the city and nearby Silicon Valley, said Dennis Miloseski, head of the operation's design studio, in a session Thursday at the GigaOm Mobilize conference. Since then, it has influenced the design of a lot of flagship products, Miloseski said.

The "maker culture" of the region, based on building things quickly and going through many iterations, helps to inform Samsung Design America's work, Miloseski said. He also sees the local startup community as a model for how to make hardware, software and services work together, and for working with partners. "It's actually great that we're Valley-built and Valley-minded," Miloseski said.

The shop has experts in user interface design, user experience, industrial design and engineering. To gain insights, they meet with nearby startups that are doing exceptional things and think through use scenarios, he said.

Miloseski didn't give any details of the products his shop is influencing but said it pays attention to a wide range of technology areas, including robotics and machine-to-machine communications. Part of its mission is to foster more of a unified vision across Samsung, which is transforming itself from a technology brand into a lifestyle brand, he said.

To date, the company has been known better for the variety of its products than for their design consistency, forming a counterpoint to rival Apple.

Samsung Design America tries to explore deeper questions than what the next look may be for phones or other devices, instead exploring the mobile experience as a whole, Miloseski said. As an example, he asked, "Should we be interfacing with icon grids for the next five to 10 years?" The grid of app icons on Apple's iPhone, similar to the home screen of the much earlier Palm OS, also shows up in Android phones from Samsung and other vendors, though some other arrangements are possible on Android.

Design has gone from a mostly aesthetic exercise to a fundamental part of business, Miloseski said.

For example, one decision Samsung made had wide repercussions: The company started designing phones with much larger displays, sometimes called phablets, to serve Asian markets where many users preferred writing characters by hand to using a keyboard. In time, the larger screens appealed to users in other parts of the world for other reasons, he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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