I've always been fascinated by design. No Platonist I, I wonder why certain eras have a "look." Why things look and work the way they do, rather than some other way. Great design is a combination of great engineering, great human factors, and art.
One of my favorite companies is IDEO, a design company. These are the guys who decide what things are going to look like. For starters. They decide how large things will be, how the pieces fit together. They're really good. Not only do they redesign existing tools to work better, they design entirely new products, too. Sometimes, they even come up with the prototype ideas themselves. Innovation. The HGH of capitalism.
Take the shopping cart. A few years ago, Nightline did a story about these guys, and gave them 24 hours to redesign the shopping cart. ABC wanted to see how they work.
Here's how they work. They went to the supermarket to see how people actually shop, and then they built a cart to help them do that. Simple, no? No. You think you wheel the cart up and down the aisle until you find what you want. You probably don't. You probably park the cart someplace in the aisle, and then walk up and down the aisle, using the cart like the Apollo astronauts used the lunar lander. So IDEO got rid of the cart's basket, and replaced it with a frame to hold a few of those hand-baskets people use instead of carts. Admit it. It's brilliant.
I read about this piece 4 years ago in The Art of Innovation. IDEO didn't have a customer for this product; they had just worked on it for the Nightline piece. The cart was so brilliant, though, that I kept waiting to see it someplace. I finally did. Last Sunday, I finally found The Cart. Interestingly, they're pitching it as an improved handbasket, rather than an improved shopping cart.
I realize that there's a pretty big installed base of existing carts, but we're Early Adopter Nation. I was ready for this cart before I saw it.