Deng Xiaoping famously said that it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. And when it comes to catching mice, nothing except the cat has done the job better than the humble mousetrap. We present it here not because we’re enemies of Mus musculus but simply to illustrate what a classically beautiful design it is (although the mouse may not agree.) Elegant, easy to use, appropriate for its intended function and containing precisely the elements it needs and nothing more, the mousetrap is almost synonymous with perfection of design, and that’s what concerns us here today.
There are certain commonalities that run through all great product designs, and of course millions of words have already been printed trying to articulate the elusive qualities that come together to make a successful product classic, even iconic. Almost always, the design fits to the human hand or body just so, acting as an extension of ourselves and achieving a universality of purpose that cuts through all cultures, ages and periodic fads. Words like “proportion” and “balance” are often used, to suggest that some shapes just look right to our eyes more than others. We tend to like the suggestion of mass in some places and the presumption of lightness in others, and the discrete use of lines that join the two. What other perfect examples can you think of?
How about the lowly stapler perhaps, found in millions of offices around the world, so ubiquitous as to be invisible? It’s this unobtrusiveness that is another sign of a great design, something so natural to the environment in which it’s found that it becomes the environment, helping to define it. The stapler’s function is obvious, discrete and almost impossible to improve upon.
Most of you reading this have never used an old-school phone like this one, or a classic Instamatic Kodak camera.
But if it were your first time to use a rotary phone or instamatic camera, your fingers would immediately know where to go and what to do. The object’s design tells you what it’s for and how to use it – and that would be true even for future archeologists who dig up one of these strange vessels and immediately recognize that its lovely proportions just make you want to pick it up and put it to your lips.
The product designer of today has a number of advantages over their counterpart in times past. CAD software makes the drawing process fast and easy to modify, while rapid prototyping can give you a physical model faster and easier than ever before. Only when you have a prototype in your hand can you play with it and really understand if it inspires one to touch and use it as intended.
We recommend vacuum casting as the ideal technique for making solid models in a variety of colors that can be easily and economically molded into the final product. Many iterations and modifications can be made easily until you get the final shape down just right. We welcome you to tell us what other classic designs are the best of their kind. And if you want to read about some designs that don’t quite work, check that out here.