By Thomas Wagner.
In a repeat of a 1959 study, the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, together with Fortune magazine, asked what the “100 best-designed products” of the last 100 years were.
The study is more than another ranking of popular products or questions about individual taste, even if the original list inspiring the new study might have had a few teething issues. It was 60 years ago that Jay Doblin, then director of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, decided to send out a survey to find what products in the modern world were the best designed. Previously he had already asked who the world’s leading designers, architects and teachers were. Why not also take the opportunity to compile the mass-market products of the modern era that had a design playing a key role?
The 100 best designs: a survey with obstacles
Everyone in the field who was asked to take part had to name their ten favourites. Roughly 80 votes were sent in. Some well-known designers refused to be involved because they thought the task was impossible to achieve. Others only voted out of protest, believing that the poll would mostly reflect “personal bias” and that the selected objects were in any case incomparable. Once the nominations had been sent in, the institute found that only 62 products had been put forward enough to justify their inclusion on the list of finalists. A draft list was then sent out to the respondents, asking them to vote a second time. The results were recorded in a table and the products listed from first to 100th place by the number of votes that they had received.
First place in 1959 went to a typewriter
Today’s readers would be taken aback by the 1959 list. Occupying first place for mid-century design was the portable Lettera 22 typewriter from Olivetti, designed by Marcello Nizzoli. Second place went to the Eames Plywood Chair from 1947 and third place to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair from 1929. This first list was made in a time when private transport was booming, and this can not only be seen in Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker Hard-Top Coupé from 1953, but also in the 13 other cars voted among the 100 products – including the Porsche 1500 Super (40th place), Citroën DS 19 (66th place) and Ford Model T (82nd place). The list also includes a broad range of kitchen appliances and utensils, from cutlery to carpet sweepers. It was evidence that product design – primarily in the United States – was taking over all areas of life, most of all within the “white affluent American middle class”. Also somewhat of a surprise was the Luger Standard Army 9 mm from 1908, a pistol, in 85th place.
A new list after 60 years
The Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, together with Fortune magazine, has now created a new version of the list of the “100 best-designed products” of the last 100 years. When Jay Doblin did his study, design was still a relatively young discipline controlled by white men and the values of a consumption-oriented, Western economy on an expansionist drive. Design mostly took place at the end of the development process, relegated to a styling role. These days it features at the start of that process and provides the grounds for what is to be produced in the first place.
It therefore follows that the perspective would be widened in the repeated study and that the diversity of different sectors, a characteristic of today’s design industry, would be factored in. Design in the contemporary era is much less a question of appearance and the mere styling of a product. The practice long ago ceased to be a matter of making an object look good and the focus has shifted much more visibly to the user. Designs are not just developed for isolated solutions, but rather for complete ecosystems where it is key to judge and anticipate how customers interact with products and brands.
Practitioners, academics and influencers were invited
The participants – one-third women, two-thirds men; 86% individuals, 14% teams – were chosen from the following groups: 54% practitioners, 23% from teaching and academia and 23% influencers. Just like in 1959, this time they each had to nominate ten products and provide the criteria they used to make their choices. At the end, the roughly 300 submissions were used to establish defined criteria for good design: it should consider the needs of users just as much as it does social and environmental aspects; it should work well, make people happy, be effective and shake up the familiar.
The people involved share their thoughts in this video:
Apple ranks top
The makers of the list are aware that the perspective on design and the nomination of companies, services and products remains US- and Europe-centric and that the US dominates the picture, even if there are significantly more countries and industries represented today than there were 60 years ago. In the current ranking, Apple, as the most influential company guided by design, took over the place held by Raymond Loewy and Associates in 1959. Unsurprisingly, the top position on the new list goes to the iPhone, a product which Steve Jobs announced in 2007 with the words, “It’s an iPod, a phone and internet communicator.” The reasons why are quite clear, as the iPhone has radically transformed human communication – nearly every aspect of daily life – like no other device before. Right behind it is the first Macintosh from 1984, with an interface that Apple deliberately concentrated on the user. In third position is Google with its search engine that started in 1997, which makes it unmistakably clear that the focus on analogue products such as cars has moved onto digital ones such as software, search engines and social networks.
Fourth place is – surprisingly – taken by the Eames Plastic Chair, a piece of furniture; this is likely a result of the ceaseless admiration of the mid-century design and innovative use of new materials by Charles and Ray Eames. In fifth place is the Sony Walkman from 1979, which for the first time made it possible to listen to music on the go and with headphones. The dominance of Apple design is evident in the large number of other Apple products making it onto the Fortune list: the iPod in tenth place, the MacBook Pro in 14th place, the App Store in 22nd place, iOS in 29th place, the Apple Watch in 46th place and Apple Pay in 64th place. Coming in one place above Apple Pay is a product that exercised a great influence over Apple design: the Braun calculator designed by Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs.
It is unmistakably clear that the focus on analogue products such as cars has moved onto digital ones such as software, search engines and social networks.
Services in demand
Rounding out the top ten: in sixth place is the OXO peeler, in seventh place the Uber App, in eighth place Netflix, in ninth place Lego blocks and in tenth place, as mentioned above, is the Apple iPod. Services such as Uber and Airbnb show how difficult it is for such rankings to differentiate between abstract criteria and tangible political, social, economic and environmental impacts. A 1934 pencil by Eberhard Faber made it to 100th place despite the dominance of digital services, which may be comforting to some readers.
The latest trends are one thing, but there is a role for continuity, too. The ubiquitous Billy bookcases from IKEA, for instance, took 41st place and Bialetti’s espresso machine 47th whilst the Volkswagen Beetle, at 49th place, was the highest-ranking car with a combustion engine – the Tesla Model S, on the other hand, took 18th place. It may sound like speculation, however the Volkswagen Kombi’s position in 85th place could well be due to its popularity in California.
- Apple iPhone
- Apple Macintosh
- Eames Plastic Chair
- Sony Walkman
- OXO peeler
- Uber App
- Lego blocks
- Apple iPod
Design as a driving factor
Although various criteria are listed and considered, in the end it is still hard to assess what particular reasons contributed to the votes for these specific designs. Did aesthetic preferences or nostalgia tip the scales when respondents were in doubt? Are there certain things or services that are simply trending right now? Are they so innovative, successful and suitable for the masses that there is no getting around them? It is indeed surprising that social, environmental and ethical aspects and impacts were not weighted more heavily. However, the most important finding from the list and the study behind it is this: while design was considered a desirable add-on to the value creation process 60 years ago, today it is without doubt the driving factor. Good design makes for good business and strengthens brands.