had an interesting conversation with a client last week, who apologized for some very mediocre industrial design by explaining "the form factor is set by the manunfacturers." He went on to explain that only a few companies can make this particular device and every part of the design represents a tradeoff between features and components. Hence the product can be either pretty or powerful.
In this case, that may be true and there may be no options. But in most cases I've seen, ugly or boring design is not inevitable, it's just most safe and convenient for the marketer. Form factor is a limitation, but it's also a platform for innovation. For a dramatic counter-example, look at clothing design. The form factor (humans) hasn't changed in thousands of years, yet the design of our "covering", clothing, has gone thru countless morphs. By varying structural form, texture, color, size, depth, transparency, accessories, material and brand, clothing manufacturers continue to delight audiences with new looks season after season (well, this past season was pretty "undelighting", but most of the time they succeed).
This type of design takes great talent and close attention to market tastes and trends, but it pays off handsomely. To those of you who fret over consumers who won't pay more than $100 for a device, consider that men and women routinuely pay that for clothes that they may toss after a year. They pay up to twice that for shoes and bags–reacting solely to their design. And this is from the mass market–focus in on fashion's "early adopters" or upscale purchasers and you'll see them drop a grand on the perfect shirt.
Add all this to the fact that Virginia Postrel's new book, The Substance of Style, just came out, and I think we have an interesting business meme building. If the idea spreads, we may see more options (color, shape, etc) for even simple routine products.
There was also an article in Businessweek a few weeks ago called China's Design Dream Team. I didn't blog about it because you have to be a subscriber to read it. (You may be able to register for free and read archives, though).