Murphy’s Hypotenuse: Evolution in Design
By Patrick Murphy
Design is constantly evolving.
Design is the answer to problems that reside different environments, and environments are always in flux. Along with the development of new technology, new markets, new styles, and the ever-changing tastes of the human mind, design adapts to embody and satiate all of these factors.
The design evolution of a product, or family of products, happens at varying speeds, for various reasons, as these products meet the changing circumstances of environments at their respective paces of change. It can occur very slowly, or not at all, after its initial conception. Sometimes a product undergoes a handful of design changes rapidly before settling on the holy grail of its being, where it then remains for quite a long time.
Such is the case with the glass CocaCola bottle. After a decade-and-a-half of filling standard “off-the-shelf” bottles with its product, the burgeoning soft drink company commissioned a more unique container. Designed by glass molder Earl R. Dean of the Root Glass Company, the bottle went from concept sketch to failed prototype to refined prototype to production bottle in about half a year. And the final iteration remains in production—with very little subsequent adaptation—to this day.
There are many other examples of this kind of design evolution, or more accurately, non-evolution. This kind of steadfast resistance to change is usually the mark of a product whose design has been perfected, and is timeless in appeal. Its design may even carry so much equity for its brand that a change to its nature, even if warranted by the advancement of style or technology, would be market suicide.
Another such example of this “non-evolution” in keeping with a timeless design is the Bialetti Moka, the iconic stovetop espresso maker designed by Italian engineer Luigi De Ponti in 1933.
The chiseled-looking raw aluminum form is still produced by Bialetti under the name “Moka Express,” having undergone such miniscule changes in design as to be nearly indistinguishable from the first edition. It now has a place in the Cooper-Hewitt, the Museum of Modern Art, the London Design Museum, and the London Science Museum. But unlike most museum “artifacts,” the Moka finds itself gainfully employed, making coffee on millions of stovetops across practically all of Europe and much of the rest of the world.
Most products aren’t so lucky, however. For every success story of an unassailably perfect design whose existence has spanned decades of endearment, there are oodles of products that haven’t achieved this level of market acceptance. Thus, the makers of these products find themselves forced to constantly float the river of design fashion, subjected to re-facings, upgrades, and feature impregnation to remain relevant.
And then there are the few products that evolve rapidly for more obscure, less desperate, sometimes completely unnecessary reasons. But it’s their stories that, in my opinion, tend to be far more interesting and much more awesome. In the coming weeks, I’ll share my thoughts on the evolution in design of several different products, starting with one of my favorites, the Slingbox.