What Beautiful Future Gadgets Will Be Made Of

Wood paneling and silver-painted plastic used to be cool; so I wonder when our current metal and glass gadgets will go out of style, and if so, what will future gadgets be made from?

I asked several designers what they thought, but Kara Johnson, the lead of the Materials Team at design company IDEO, had the final word based on her focused expertise related to the question at hand. Her answer is a bit heady, but I won't get in the way of what she's telling us about tomorrow's gadget materials.

"Plastic as we know it is kind of on the way out, especially when it's painted. No one likes the way your phone's paint chips at the corners after a few months of use. Unpainted plastic is the future. And we need to move beyond injection molding, look at sheet processes to build structure from a series of 2d layers, instead of molding a complete 3d structure.

Glass, as a part of the screen, won't go away very quickly. But maybe we'll find ways to use glass so that it's more difficult to create cracks with an accidental drop on the kitchen floor. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from automotive glass windshields or scratch resistant coatings on eyewear. And why not etch the glass?

Metal will continue to be a player in the world of gadgets. It's beautiful and appropriate to create thin, mobile, technology-based products. Extruded aluminum is a design opportunity that has not yet been fully explored in terms of form or function. With the introduction of laser etching or chemical etching or a detailed craft process like wire filigree, we should be exploring the use of pattern on metal or to create surfaces. This is more evident in large-scale products or architecture where metal is used to create elegant structures or to create a frame for other elements of pattern. By translating innovations in metal from a large scale to something small, we will find new design opportunities, too.

So what's next?

I think we need to experiment with how we design the buttons that connect hardware and software experiences. This is a design element whose materiality has been relatively unchanged, and there is more opportunity here to create ceramic or wood details (where the drop test requirements can be quietly avoided)...What if the power button was made of stone? What if the LEDs shine thru a thin layer of bamboo? We also need to experiment with the screen itself, this element has been limited to the display of information. What if the screen folds or unfolds? What if the glass is textured or etched with communication icons or pattern? Finally, in the future, I think that we should experiment with creating decoration or function by introducing incredibly surprising technologies (high-tech or low-tech) – like ferrofluid or starch-based plastics.

If the next generation of gadgets is about experimenting with materials or materiality, then it will only be not about what materials we use but how we use materials to tell stories.

What does vinyl mean to music and media players? Can phone be made of fabric so it is ready-to-wear, like the clothes you keep in your closet? What does traditional craft mean to high-tech products? What is the physical connection between these objects of fetish and the internet buzz that proceeds/follows each product launch? How do we create real and tangible advertising for the next CE products? And look for the introduction of "new" materials in the small details of each product…the platform of these devices is relatively standardized by its components, phones and laptops are a commodity. The design is in the details and the story you tell."

—Kara Johnson, lead of the Materials Team at IDEO, is the co-author of Materials and Design: The Art and Science of Material Selection in Product Design and the forthcoming book, I Miss My Pencil