Heirloom Design (from Good Magazine)

Good magazine asked me to write something about Heirloom Products.  I must have said the words too many times publicly.  If you want to read the article at a fancy website with nice pictures and good design layout go here:


Or, here are the words:

As an inventor, Saul Griffith has spent a lot of time thinking about how to make useful things. Griffith developed innovative designs for low-cost prescription glasses and energy-producing kites, founded the DIY website Instructables, and created a comprehensive carbon calculator called WattzOn. He was also awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2007. Recently, onstage at high-profile conferences such as TED and PopTech, Griffith has been arguing that we need to stop buying things and then throwing them away so quickly. In short, we need more “heirloom design.”

GOOD: What do you mean by “heirloom design?”

SAUL GRIFFITH: An object with “heirloom design” is something that will not only last through your lifetime and into the next generation, but that you also desire to keep that long because it’s beautiful, functional, and timeless.

G: Why is it important that we design stuff to last longer?

SG: An enormous amount of the energy we use [industrially] is locked up in “embodied energy.” It’s trapped, or embodied, in the materials our stuff is made of. It’s the energy that we use to mine materials and process them into products. While we can choose materials that have less embodied energy for any given product, it’s much better to choose objects that last two or three, or preferably 10 times, longer.

As I see the climate change and carbon dioxide problem, it is one way of figuring out how to live the best quality of life while using much less energy. Heirloom products are one way to make a significant contribution. It probably means you will end up owning less junk, your life will be less cluttered, and your stuff will be more beautiful and serve you with more joy.

lego-diagram-2G: How do you design an heirloom product? Do you have to think about function, materials, and aesthetics differently?

SG: The principal and only way to make an heirloom product is to design something that people will need not just this year, but for the next 50 or 100 years. Choose good materials that will last that long; but in essence, don’t even bother making fad products. If you have to design something, choose things that we need as opposed to frivolous things that we might just want for a month or two for bragging rights. In many respects, designing heirloom products means saying no to designing consumer crap that you know will not last very long.

The hardest challenge is in electronic goods or mechanical goods. With electronics, think long and hard about how to make the firmware upgradable, or perhaps even how to have the same functionality without any electronics (electronics are notoriously short-lived and toxic). With mechanical products, think about supplying repair manuals and designing the product to be repairable or customizable from the start, such that in 13 years, when a bearing fails, it will be easy for the customer to find and replace that bearing with a similar one. Choose the timeless and standardized over the faddish and esoteric.

G: What makes an object something a consumer actually wants to hold on to for generations? Its cost? Its craftsmanship?

SG: Probably both. I don’t think this is an easy question to answer, and the answer is different for different people. I would, however, posit that a key ingredient is functionality. If an object performs its function beautifully, efficiently, and intuitively, it is likely an heirloom product. If not, you shouldn’t
make it.

Think about the beautiful timeless objects: Le Creuset pots and pans, Bialetti or Bodum coffee makers, Iittala glassware, Vespa motor scooters, the Citroën 2CV, the Volkswagen Beetle, Lego toys, Zippo cigarette lighters, Montblanc pens, the Land Rover (the old aluminum ones before the queen bought one), the older KitchenAid products…

lego-diagram-3I don’t want to be called elitist. These typically sound like high-end products. But the reality is we need to figure out how to help people pay for higher-quality things up front, and have them last longer. This is a solvable problem with new business models.

G: There’s the design challenge, but isn’t there also a psychological challenge? Don’t we have to disabuse people of the attitude that most things can be instantly discarded?

SG: Absolutely. It’s either that or accept a very ugly climate future for your children. Or perhaps you should look at it this way: If you are 30 now, you either make these changes to how you shop, or you should expect your children to not pay for your health insurance
when you are 80 because you screwed them over so badly on climate change.

G: What about the dictates of fashion? I have some old clothes I still like, but styles change. Isn’t there an aesthetic imperative to update what you own?

SG: Suck it up. We have to change. That’s the gig with climate change. We have to do things in new ways and think differently. That’s an opportunity for people with their eyes open. Planned obsolescence and fashion seasons are new and constructed problems. There is no reason why we can’t do things differently. In fact, if you care about the environment and climate change, we sort of have no choice. You can ride this wave to success, or you can stick with your current mental model of the world and fail.

G: But don’t companies make more money if their products need to be replaced frequently?

SG: Maybe, in the short term, but the companies that last a century typically make things that last a century. Think about that for a minute.

G: Some businesses would have to make big changes to incorporate heirloom design. How do they do that?

lego-diagram-4SG: You figure out business models that are profitable when you also supply the repair service. You have more sustainable business models that mean you’ll be around for a while.

Perhaps we should think about heirloom companies too. Companies that you can give to your children because you make something beautiful and well designed that the next generation will want. I used to love the brass plaques on 100-year-old machines made by “Schmitt and Sons.” I’d like to have a company that makes the perfect heirloom coffee grinder. I’d call it “Griffith and Daughters,” maybe (though I don’t have any daughters yet—just a son).

G: Do you think major companies like Nokia and Nike will get onboard?

SG: They will either get this in the next 10 years or go out of business. I don’t mind if they go out of business. It’s their choice.

G: Are any companies bringing heirloom design to new products—items other than pens and watches? Who’s putting this idea into action?

SG: Sadly, very few. That’s why I talk about this stuff. You can’t make a solution for climate change add up unless you address this issue. If you are a young designer today, it might be hard; it might go against the grain. But the only way you will win in the long run, the only way you will design for the world we all want, is if you design heirloom products. Thumb your nose at the establishment.

Lego blocks, which last for generations and have infinite permutations for continued use, are an excellent example of heirloom design. The images in this post are designs that were submitted with the Lego patent application.

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