10/02/2012 01:48 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

European Design -- What Are They Doing Right?

When the Industrial Revolution transformed society 250 years ago, its influence spread from Northern Europe to the rest of the world and in the process, design dislodged craft in most cultural artifacts. Although first seen as a threat to all that was natural, design is now viewed as a powerful tool by industry and consumers alike with which to tackle both social and environmental challenges. Design's early contributions were mostly styling, but it is now being included in strategic change from the organizational level to business models and processes.

Over the past six months, we invited the creative community to share their thoughts and insights on Scandinavian, U.S., Asian, Latin American as well as African design and uncovered some encouraging emerging trends. Now we turn our focus to Europe to understand how far that continent has come since the world's first design show, The Great Exhibit, at the Crystal Palace in 1851.

Europe, with its 50 distinct countries and three-quarter of a billion people, is the biggest economy in the world (GDP). Its turbulent history, which includes revolutions and wars, has fueled enormous ingenuity in all areas of creativity and design is no exception. Observe the continent's automotive industry, with its nearly one hundred and twenty manufacturers, from the Russian Lada to the French Bugatti. In all this variety, is there really such a thing as "European Design?"

Consulting the online creative community for input, adjectives were received that centered on words such as: Unpretentious, elegant, inviting, seasoned, pure, sophisticated, sleek and stylish. The thought was conveyed that somehow Europeans are open to styles that would not be understood elsewhere and there simply is "no fear" in them.

A common observation seemed to be that the European people also have a very specific understanding of beauty and are constantly searching for novelty, as no one wishes to "just imitate." This may be what causes the continent's design to be perceived as eclectic, fun and egocentric.

Regarding specific physical characteristics, features such as: Quality, user and usability-centered, structured, functional, minimalistic, and monochromatic with one bright color for attention and subtle use of graphics were mentioned. European design is seen as trading on true innovation and design for manufacturability.

When a bond is created between the product attributes (such as form, function, cost and durability) and the consumer, the fulfillment can last much longer (years, if not decades). Perhaps for this reason, Europe is perceived as a designer of luxury goods par excellence.

Some may still see Europe as being "Old World," however, when it comes to design, their approach has been nothing short of trailblazing. The continent was the first to think and embrace sustainability, while design methods such as open innovation and crowdsourcing are gaining ground. Comprehensive planning has provided reuse, recycling and responsible disposal programs together with product service systems, such as the sharing of cars and other products with low usage rates, while public infrastructures, from high-speed trains to shared city bikes, are available in most major cities.

Europe, with its strong traditions and based on it's long-established and meaningful values, may very well be the continent offering a glimpse into what sustainable life can look like in the future.