Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest implies that organisms must constantly evolve to fit in with their environment. Conversely a creature that is well adapted will change slowly unless its environment alters drastically. A case example is the Coelacanth, which has lived in the deep sea for 300 million years with very little change and is now termed a “living fossil”.
The same is true in the industrial world where well designed products tend to survive for decades even in industries where trends can change every year. In this post, I’d like to explore some of my favorite examples of good design.
In my experience, most products are poorly designed. Time, money, and sometimes just laziness leads to poor decisions which are regretted for years to come. There is also the other extreme, over-engineering to the point there the product is needlessly complicated and takes a long time to work right. Simplicity is a design principle.
After the carnage of World War 1, the old culture of Europe fell into disrepute. Art embraced the new design philosophy of Modernism. New materials like concrete, steel and glass were considered beautiful in themselves and did not need ornamentation. In Germany, a new school came up with the objective of unifying art, craft and technology. It was called Bauhaus (meaning construction house).
Perhaps, the most famous work of Bauhaus is the cantilever chair. Originally conceived in the 1920s, it is still in use today. Doing away with 4 legs, the whole frame is made with just 1 bent steel pipe.
This illustrates another key principle of the Bauhaus philosophy, attention to the manufacturing process. In the 1920s, mass production took off. Bauhaus strove to create a new design aesthetic which lent itself easily to the new mode of production. The designer had to understand the entire production process. He had to simplify the form to make it easy to manufacture. Functionality, economy and rationality took precedence and unnecessary ostentation was shunned. Its founder, architect Walter Gropius proclaimed its philosophical goal, “to create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist”.
The Nazis put pressure and shut down the Bauhaus school, but its influence lives on. It can even be seen in the clean lines and minimalist look of Apple products.
Bauhaus understood, simple is beautiful and design should always keep in mind manufacturing.
In 1936, US pilots risked blindness if they looked into the harsh glare of the sun. This launched one of the most famous early experiments in ergonomics. Men were made to stand with their face to a wall and told to mark with a pencil all the points they could see. Bausch & Lomb then tried to design sunglasses that could cover the whole range span of the human eye. The resulting shape remains popular till today, the aviator.
The aviator sunglasses also exemplified a key design principle, keeping the user’s needs in mind.
Another famous design to emerge in the pre-world war 2 years was Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen Beetle. Conceived to be priced at 990 Reichsmarks (the cost of a motorcycle), everything had to be designed so that parts could be quickly and inexpensively exchanged.
Ferdinand Porsche Final Edition of the Beetle (2003)
The war years saw he emergence of another iconic vehicle, the American Jeep. A testament to rugged design and mass production. The original Bantam BRC 40 was planned out by Karl Probst in just 2 days using mostly off the shelf automotive parts.
Bantam BRC 40
The final example of good design is a more controversial one, but one whose longevity and continued popularity ensures no design list can ignore it, the AK 47 assault rifle. Originally brought brought for trials in 1946 in the Soviet military, the gun was designed keeping in mind the needs of the Soviet military and the limitations of Soviet industry.
Kalashnikov himself stated…
“I was in the hospital, and a soldier in the bed beside me asked: ‘Why do our soldiers have only one rifle for two or three of our men, when the Germans have automatics?’ So I designed one. I was a soldier, and I created a machine gun for a soldier. It was called an Avtomat Kalashnikova, the automatic weapon of Kalashnikov—AK—and it carried the date of its first manufacture, 1947.”
The AK 47 had to be rugged an reliable under the harsh conditions experienced by the Soviet army in WW 2. It also had to be cheap and easy to manufacture given the primitive state of Soviet industry as compared to its western counterparts.
To achieve this goal, Kalashnikov tried to combine the best features of the American M1 and the German StG44, avoiding wherever possible the need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.
before attempting to create something new, it is vital to have a good appreciation of everything that already exists in this field. I myself have had many experiences confirming this to be so.
The AK 47 is inferior in performance to many rifles, most notably the American M16.
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But its core design principles ensured it remained popular. As of 2004, “Of the estimated 500 million firearms worldwide, approximately 100 million belong to the Kalashnikov family, three-quarters of which are AK-47s”. The AK 47 features on the Flag of Mozambique acknowledging its role in its independence.