In this section of the blog I am going to explore how to design a product to last a lifetime. I am going to look into every aspect of what makes products both ‘built to last’, but also fashionably relevant over years of different trends. Furthermore, I am going to explore what is truly meant by ‘timeless’ design and how this is experienced in our daily lives.
I will also look into many different materials and manufacturing techniques, both fully automated and more labour intensive, ‘hand-made’ processes. Additionally I will think about what is involved when designing products to be repaired and how modularity in design can increase the longevity of a product.
Finally, I will explore whether with creative thinking and good design, some of our daily, disposable products can be re-designed so they can also be made to last a lifetime…
I am going to aim to be updating this blog post weekly with research insights and key findings along the way. So check back at this post for updates and to follow my progress over the next 8 weeks!
To start, I want to quickly touch upon a personal favourite product of mine, my Dualit Classic toaster! Bought second hand from eBay around 2 years ago this 13 year old kitchen appliance really opened my eyes to the field of better designed, longer lasting consumer products. I love it so much I wrote an entire blog post about this small kitchen appliance that can be found here.
Having taken the toaster apart into every individual component to replace a sticky timer unit, I can really vouch for the build quality. It has been built from the ground up, to be taken apart and as a result the elements, timer and switches can all be individually replaced if needed. What is more impressive is that this toaster was first designed in the 1950’s, almost 70 years ago!
I know that if anything was to go wrong with my toaster it could almost certainly be repaired, and unless the standard size of toast dramatically changes in the next 50 years this product should in theory, last me a ‘lifetime’.
Now I want to briefly discuss how our relationship changes towards products that last a ‘lifetime’. Although I am not saying that everyone that has a Dualit Classic toaster will form an emotional attachment to said consumer electronic appliance. However, I would definitely be very upset to see my toaster go for some reason or another and I know for sure that I can definitely not say this about any other appliance currently residing on my kitchen worktop.
Because of this connection that I have with this product, if I was to accidentally scratch the toaster, I would live with the scratch or dent. If one of the controls were to snap off, I would try to repair it. All of this results in less consumerism and therefore less un-recyclable waste dumped into land-fill.
It’s a similar story with some wristwatches. Because of the build quality and longevity designed into high-end mechanical wristwatches, these products gain a similar respect and relationship from the user, particularly if the wristwatch in question was handed down to you from a relative, loved one or previous generation.
This leads nicely onto another brand that has an interesting standpoint on this topic; Patek Phillippe. The Swiss watch makers are so confident that their watches will last more than a lifetime, that they claim in their famous advertisement campaign that ‘you will never own a Patek Philippe, but merely look after it for the next generation.
Only a few weeks ago, Adidas announced a brand new trainer to their line up and made a radical announcement about the manufacturing and recyclability of their trainers and other consumer products in general. Particularly stressing the danger of plastic waste on our planet.
Adidas’s response to this is a 100% recyclable trainer. Although this may sound like something that we have heard all too many times before from such a brand, this is different. The futurcraft loop is made entirely out of the same TPU material. What this means is that at the end of the products life it can simply be cleaned and then put straight into a shredder and ground back down into pellets, and therefore re-made back into another shoe.
Is this approach to product design the answer to making what we would normally consider a disposable product, last a ‘lifetime’?
Patagonia are a company that have had a strong understanding of the impact that the fashion and textiles industry are having on the planet for a long time now. Their clothes are well made, using sustainable materials and they actively encourage re-using and repairing, before replacing.
They even went as far as publicly advertising not to buy their products on Black Friday in order to raise awareness of the damaging effects that the clothing industry is having on the planet!
The next topic that I want to talk about is the ‘lifetime guarantee’. What is meant by a lifetime? What does it cover? Is a lifetime guarantee significantly better than a 25 or a 10 year guarantee? How can anything possibly be covered for life?
These are some of the questions that go through my head when I see something that has a ‘lifetime guarantee’. Is it just a big lie to say that something is guaranteed for life? American clothing brand Flint and Tinder have put a number on their warranty instead of the usual hand-wavy claims of a ‘lifetime’ of support. By stating the actual number of years, they are clearly making a statement that it’s built very well, but it feels more honest than saying a ‘lifetime’. When Flint and Tinder were asked why they didn’t say a lifetime they replied; “A lifetime is so generic and does not seem like an agreement you make with your customer. It’s a throw away line.”
Their ’10 Year Hoodie’ is guaranteed for 10 years and they offer free repairs within that time-frame, and apparently people like the mended rips and tears. Flint and Tinder offers two kinds of repair; inconspicuous or conspicuous. Conspicuous repair uses contrasting threads and “interesting” stitching. F&T say; “About half go for the more interesting look,” In other words, they’re proud to be wearing something that lasts.
What is timeless design? The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘timeless’ as ‘not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion’. The phrase is generally used to mean elegant, graceful and stylish in appearance.
For me, we’re talking about things like the Anglepoise 1227, the Jaguar E-type, airport signage systems and the Eames DSW chair. They are ‘design classics’ and they are “outstanding examples of lasting worth and inherent value”. They have been given meaning through a thoughtful and rigorous design process. As designer Massimo Vignelli puts it, they are “intellectually elegant” as opposed to ‘fashionably elegant’.
So how are ‘timeless’ things created? I’ve always believed that simplicity is the key to good design. To endure, to ‘stand the test of time’ a design has to appear simple. And to achieve this simplicity the designer needs time at their disposal. Time to think, time to experiment, time to reduce and refine. Good design requires hours, days, months.
I have written a full blog post on Simplicity for my ‘great design’ blog that can be found here.
In researching about the circular economy I came across innovator and architect Thomas Rau and his small dutch start-up Turntoo.
Buying light hours instead of lamps, sit hours instead of chairs and washing cycles instead of washing machines. Renting the use of products instead of owning them is an essential part of the principles underlying the circular economy. Dutch startup Turntoo wants to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by transforming products into services. Instead of buying a lamp in the store, Turntoo’s vision is that consumers buy the right to use the lamp’s output, which is light. The underlying service contract is governed by Turntoo and includes provisions on how to deal with the product at contract expiration. In order to make this work, both consumer and manufacturer need to adapt and change their current behaviour.
I found Turntoo so interesting and relevant that I wrote a separate ‘great design’ blog all about it that can be found here.
So after 8 weeks of researching the question ‘how to design a product to last a lifetime?’, what have I learnt…
Firstly, that high quality, well designed products that are built to last a lifetime, although sparse, do exist. Additionally, the relationship that we have with these products is very different to that of an equivalent disposable alternative.
Secondly, the meaning of a ‘lifetime guarantee’ is perhaps not as great as it may sound. Certainly, what is more important is building in repairability into the design of a product and being honest with your customers.
Finally, do we need to take a whole systems approach to redefining the way that we consume? Do we need a car, or do we just want mobility. Do we need lamps or do we just want light? Do I need CD’s or do I just want to listen to music?If you read the news regularly you will see a lot of articles explaining how we need to consume less as it is damaging our planet. This is 100% correct, however I don’t believe that we need to consume less, I think that we just need to consume in a different way. We need a different relationship between the producer and the consumer. What if the producers retained the ownership of the raw materials? Then we could separate the value of the raw material and the value of the performance resulting in the consumer only paying for the performance. This would then result in the producer being entirely responsible for the raw materials.
However this can’t work for everything and will take time to implement. So what can we do right now, as designers but also consumers to make an impact?
To summarise I have listed out a few things:
- Buy better and buy less.
- Reduce, re-use and recycle.
- Repair and enjoy doing it.
- Consider what you need and how you use it.