Great design is often invisible to people. And that’s not surprising. Unlike art, which aims to grab attention and provoke people’s imaginations, design is primarily about serving a function and solving problems. If you do this perfectly, then by definition, it's likely that no one will notice. Or to quote God in Futurama: "If you do things right, people won't know you've done anything at all."
In this post, we look at eight designs that we truly consider game-changers, and pay tribute to the conceptual design thinking and superior execution behind them.
And just to emphasise their genius, we've also included a few examples of how NOT to do the same thing...
01. Graphic design: London Tube map
The London Tube Map was originally created by London Underground electrical draughtsman Harry Beck in 1931, whose revolutionary idea was to abandon geographical accuracy in favour of geometric simplicity.
Inspired by the electrical circuit diagrams he drew during his day job, the map represented London's complex and sprawling network as a simple system of coloured, criss-crossing lines.
This approach was initially rejected by his employers too radical, but a test run was hugely popular with the public, and so they quickly did an about-face. And although it's been updated periodically since, as more lines and stations have been added, the basic design remains intact.
There is a downside, of course: the map does make it less easy for visitors to work out how far places are from each other. Transport for London has consequently had to post signs at key stations, advising tourists that it may be quicker to walk between them.
But overall, that’s a sacrifice worth making, because the design really has become the gold standard around the world for clarity and usefulness. (Though it doesn't mean people haven't created concept tube map redesigns over the years.)
From New York to Shanghai, subway maps have followed its basic template of colour-coded circles and lines, and it’s even been used for other purposes, visualising everything from US National Parks to the solar system.
And the wider lesson for designers is clear: making something simpler is usually the path to making it better... even if that might mean sacrificing some accuracy along the way.
Worst idea: Lots of other transit maps
If you’re a lifelong Londoner, you probably take the Tube Map for granted. And yet, when you compare it with those featured in the Transit Map Hall of Shame, such as the example above, its artistry soon becomes apparent.
02. Digital design: What3Words
These days, geolocation technologies allow anyone with a mobile device to identify their exact location. But annoyingly, sharing that location with others is not that easy.
Yes, you could give someone a complex, 18-digit long series of coordinates and in theory they could find you, or use Share My Location on your phone. But if you're one of the millions in the developing world without a proper street address, good luck trying that with your local pizza delivery firm, or your neighbourhood mail carrier.
Enter What3Words, a more user-friendly geocoding system that divides the entire world into three-metre squares, and identifies each using just three words (random example: 'belly rises indeed'). This might sound weird, but it's both easy to remember and easy to convey to others.
Plus if an error is made, it’s immediately apparent: a misheard word will almost certainly point to a place in another country, alerting both parties to instantly realise a mistake has been made.
It’s already been adopted as an address standard by the postal serves of Nigeria, Kiribati, Mongolia, Sint-Maarten, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Tonga, and Solomon Islands. "In Mongolia you can get a pizza, you can get a taxi, you can open a bank account, all with a three-word address,” CMO Giles Rhys Jones told our sister site Tech Radar.
Travel companies have also been keen to use the system, including Go Fjords, who say: "In the past we’ve had tourists book our tours and then miss their entire trip because they couldn’t find the meet up point, so we decided to add three-word addresses for all departure points." It’s now included as a standard feature in the navigation system of all new Mercedes-Benz cars. And the list goes on.
In the UK, What3Words is also being used by many of the emergency services, and has been instrumental in, for example, the police rescue of an abducted women in Humberside, a man who fell down a railway embankment in Sheffield, and a woman who crashed her car into a ditch near Bristol.
As with many game-changing designs, the secret to What3Words lies in its simplicity. In fact, a day will problem soon come when a new generation is so used to it, they won’t even consider it ever needed designing.
03. Packaging design: Smart sunscreen
Nowadays most of us know about the importance of sunscreen in protecting our skin. But we’re often a bit muddled about how much of what factor to use, and when. So Australian sunscreen maker Blue Lizard has pioneered a simple but brutally effective solution: bottles that change colour in UV light.
Its 30+ Baby Sunscreen , for example, turns from blue to bright pink, which is particularly useful on cloudy days when you may not have realised the sun protection was needed. It’s significantly more expensive than other sunscreens, but could potentially save your children from significant pain and suffering.
In a way, it’s reminiscent of Dulux’s Magic Paint, which goes on pink and dries white, thus helping you notice if you’ve missed any spots. Both are great examples of how thoughtful design can make life easier for the customer.
And that’s an excellent principle to apply to any design work, whether you're crafting an app interface or laying out a brochure.
04. Print design: The tourist picture dictionary
When you’re stuck in a country where you can’t speak your language, and no one speaks yours, Google Translate can be a lifesaver. But when your phone is out of battery, or there’s no available internet, then you might need to fall back on more traditional, printed means.
However, if you’re travelling around a lot of different countries, or a country where multiple languages are spoken, then you don’t want to be lugging around a ton of phrase books. So a more elegant solution can be a picture dictionary like the Tourist Picture Dictionary. Need to find a toilet? Point to the picture of a toilet. Simple!
Okay, it’s quite a niche product, and ideally one you hope you'll never need. But it’s a great fallback for when all other attempts at communication break down. And another example of a design idea that’s so simple, it’s brilliant.
05. Font design: Dyslexie font
When it comes to choosing a font, readability is always an issue. But what if the reader is dyslexic?
To answer this question, Christian Boer has developed a special typeface, Dyslexie, to overcome some of the problems that people with dyslexia, including himself, can have when reading. His aim was to develop the kind of typeface that he wished existed when he was a child.
Its design is all about making it easier to distinguish different letters from each other. For example, the openings of the letters are enlarged to make them look less alike and easier to recognise by their shape. Punctuation marks and capital letters are bold, emphasising the breaks, endings and beginnings of phrases. And the distance between individual letters and words is enlarged, which makes reading more convenient and avoids the 'crowding effect'.
The font has been downloaded more than 300,000 times, and the lesson is clear. If good design is about solving a problem, then the best person to solve it is often someone who it’s affected most of all, on a personal level.
If that's you, then great! If not, it's worth getting in touch with the relevant people and doing some serious research before you start designing.
Worst idea: Ink-saving font
Dyslexie is not the only font design that's aimed to change the world. Another recent trend has been the design of fonts that save printer ink. It's a great idea, but as ever, the key is in the execution, and some type makers have been seemingly caught out on this score.
A study by the University of Wisconsin, for example, looked at Ecofont, a system which adds holes to existing font families in order to reduce ink use. And yet it found that some Ecofont fonts, such as Ecofont Vera Sans, actually used more ink than regular fonts, such as Century Gothic.
06. Interior design: the toilet-sink combo
If you live in Japan, it may perplex you to know that in other countries, bathrooms separate their toilet and sink. Because the standard toilet model here is based on a much more elegant and efficient system.
Quite simply, your toilet incorporates an in-built sink (note that this design doesn't above washing your hands in the toilet, but above it), and so the water for washing your hands is then recycled for flushing.
This design originally came about in the 1950s as a space saver, because apartments in Japan are on the smaller side. But with the rising importance of environmental issues, we’re sure it will start become more widely adopted across the world.
This device doesn’t just present an important way to conserve water, it also offers a broader lesson in not taking everyday designs for granted. If we continually ask, 'Could this be put together differently?', who knows what game-changing ideas we could come up with.
07. Industrial design: Cat’s eyes
Here’s another brilliant design that some take for granted, but which is unknown in many countries around the world.
The cat’s eye is a type of road marker that uses a retroreflector to illuminate your night-time journeys via your own headlights. Its key features are a flexible rubber dome which can withstand the passage of traffic if driven across. It’s also self-cleaning, thanks to a build in rainwater reservoir; resistant to snow ploughs; and proves particularly useful in fog.
The original design was the work of Percy Shaw of Halifax, England in the 1930s. His inspiration came from the tramlines that reflected his headlights, helping him to see at night. One night, though, the tramlines were shrouded in heavy fog and he was completely blindsided... until suddenly he saw light reflecting from the eyes of a cat.
While there are many reasons that Britain has one of the best road safety records in the world, this clever design, which its used on the vast majority of its roads, has certainly made a big contribution.
And its success offers an important lesson to designers everywhere. Namely, if you find something useful by accident (in this case, shiny tramlines and wandering felines), why not design something that does the same thing, on purpose?
08. Product design: Ride-on suitcases
Product design student Rob Law was 21 when he came up with the idea for taking a suitcase and turning it into a ride-on vehicle for kids. And anyone who’s had to put up with an overtired and cranky child in a long-haul airport will appreciate what a fantastic idea this was.
However, putting into production was a long slog for Law. He was turned down by both luggage companies (who said they weren’t interested in toys) and toy companies (who said they weren’t interested in luggage). He also failed to get investment on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, the equivalent to Shark Tank in the US.
Law finally got funding from The Prince’s Trust enterprise fund and launched the Trunki in May 2006. Within 10 years he'd sold over three million suitcases in over 100 countries, and won over 100 design awards.
There are two lessons here. Firstly, a good idea is not always enough; you often need bucketloads of patience and perseverance to convince people of your vision.
And secondly, new product designs don’t have to involve radical new materials, processes or technologies. Sometimes just combining two things that already exist can be the game-changer everyone is looking for.
Worst idea: 3D TVs
Of course, it's important to remember that just bringing two popular things together doesn't always add up to a good idea. Sometimes it can lead to truly terrible ones.
An example from the recent past is when tech companies decided to capitalise on the popularity of 3D movies such as Avatar and spend millions developing 3D TVs.
In fact, while people were happy to wear clunky 3D glasses in a darkened cinema, far fewer were keen on doing so in their (more sociable) living rooms, where in any case the smaller size of the screen made the effect far less awe-inspiring.
Only a few years later, no company is manufacturing 3D sets, and broadcasters like Sky have closed their 3D channels. It seems that in the rush to design a revolutionary new product, everyone forgot to ask if people actually wanted it (also see, Amazon's latest smart clock).