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Commentary Smart Home

How one little thermostat started a design revolution

Commentary: Thermostats used to be ugly. The Nest Learning Thermostat changed all that.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

A Nest Learning Thermostat was on the wall of my home a year after its debut. Not because it was cheaper than the competition (it cost $249), nor was it the only Wi-Fi-connected, app-enabled thermostat to hit shelves. My main reason for my purchase was purely superficial: I wanted a Nest because it was the best looking thermostat.

Its round shape was a significant shift from all of the identical-looking rectangular thermostats on the market. I loved its large digital display that stretches across most of the thermostat's face yet retains a minimal vibe. I enjoy the way the entire thermostat acted as a dial for adjusting the temperature and making changes to other HVAC settings. It also came with durable stainless steel accents and a black screen, a welcome alternative to all of the white plastic models in stores. 

I never thought I'd get excited about a thermostat, but I completely fell for the Nest. I'm not the only one: In February, Nest CEO Marwan Fawaz said the company, now owned by Google, had sold more than 11 million devices since its inception in 2011. (Nest's current lineup includes four security cameras, a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, a lock, a doorbell, an alarm system and two thermostats.)

The Nest isn't the best all-around thermostat, but plenty of people (myself included) have overlooked its shortcomings and added the product to their home because of its thoughtful design. The thermostat's creators took a mundane product, made it beautiful and established a design precedent for the Wi-Fi-connected thermostats and other smart home gadgets available today.

The Apple treatment

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Does the iPod Classic's minimal design look familiar? 

Apple

Nest's attention to the design of its flagship thermostat makes you consider who was at the helm of the company when it was founded. Nest co-founders Matt Rogers and Tony Fadell are both former Apple employees who helped develop the iPod Classic (Rogers was a lead engineer for the iPod and iPhone; Fadell was an iPod executive who's known as "The Father of the iPod," both have left Nest). The iPod Classic isn't sold anymore, but its streamlined display, circular click wheel and modern silver or black color finish share a lot of similarities with Nest's rounded thermostat. You can still buy its successor, the iPod Touch, but it looks more like an iPhone than an iPod Classic. 

Given Apple's emphasis on product design, it isn't surprising these alums factored aesthetics heavily into the development of the Nest.

"The gap between the consumer experience in mobile products and the ones in our homes is enormous" Rogers said in a Nest blog post. "I've been a programmer my entire life and could not program a thermostat for the life of me. I looked at it and thought, this beige plastic box cannot be the best our generation can come up with. Surely, there must be a better way."

It isn't that every thermostat before the Nest was hideous, but design clearly wasn't a priority. They typically had small display screens that are difficult to read from a distance, cheap-looking plastic housing and an outdated white finish. Many still do (see image below). 

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Here are some non-smart thermostats I reviewed in 2016 -- all white plastic squares/rectangles. 

Chris Monroe/CNET
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The original 1953 Honeywell T87. 

Walker Art Center/Honeywell

One major exception, Rogers explained in an article, is industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss' design-forward 1953 Honeywell T87 thermostat. Unlike some other thermostats, the T87 smartly blended form and function. Its rounded shape worked naturally with turning the dial to change the temperature (see the picture below). Honeywell still sells updated versions of the first-gen T87 in stores today.

"It was time to make the thermostat beautiful again (60 years after the T87), but also make its interface simple, clear, friendly," Rogers said.

Beyond Nest

So what makes us feel such strong, positive reactions to products like the Nest?

Donald A. Norman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University, begins and ends his book "Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things" with a quote from author William Morris: "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

In "Emotional Design," Norman discusses the positive and negative responses objects can elicit, and he makes some especially interesting observations about the things we think look nice: "The surprise is that we now have evidence that aesthetically pleasing objects enable you to work better [...] products and systems that make you feel good are easier to deal with and produce more harmonious results."

That doesn't necessarily mean everyone agrees on design, but certain products reach iconic status. I immediately thought of KitchenAid stand mixers; Norman references the Mini Cooper and a specific New York Times article that said: "Whatever one may think of the Mini Cooper's dynamic attributes, which range from very good to marginal, it is fair to say that almost no new vehicle in recent memory has provoked more smiles."

I feel the same way about the Nest Learning Thermostat and the newer Nest Thermostat E as I do about KitchenAid mixers or a Mini. All three companies took an everyday item -- a small kitchen appliance, a car, a thermostat -- and gave it tons of personality. How can you not smile when you come across one?

Design matters

Industrial designer Yves Behar co-founded the August smart lock.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

When Nest first introduced its thermostat in 2011, most of the smart home devices I saw looked uninspired and boring. Post-Nest, companies started enlisting famous designers to collaborate on smart home products. For example, industrial designer Yves Behar, who has worked with Apple, General Electric, Herman Miller, Movado, Prada and Samsung, is a co-founder of smart-lock maker August. Now we have more manufacturers than ever factoring aesthetics heavily into product development (just take a look at the design gallery above). 

It's no longer enough to have a merely functional gadget. If a product is part of the smart home, it needs to look nice too -- and Nest led that trend. Clearly, it paid off.

Nest Learning Thermostat Third Generation