Good design is long lasting
This essay originally appeared in the Inskie Journal of Design & Culture, as part of a ten-part series on Dieter Ram’s principles of good design.
When an object of design is long lasting, it has two concurrent effects: first, we gain a respect for its stability and persistence. It becomes like an old friend, something we can count on. A sturdy chair, a comfortable knife, a well-bound book—all impress upon us a lasting sense of security—a pleasant stubbornness—in the face of the ever-ticking clock.
Second, when we spend time with an object, it takes on the mark of use and so becomes evidence of our existence. The wear on the chair’s arm where your elbow rests, the nick in the knife’s blade from when you tried to butcher a leg of lamb, the phone number of your future lover hastily scrawled in the back of the book. By these means, a good design grants a bit of immortality with every use.
This, I think, is at the heart of Rams’ statement that good design is long lasting. When we think of objects that last a “long time,” we think of those that we inherit from our grandparents, or those that we hope one day to pass on to our children’s children. In other words, long-lasting design is design that lives past the end of our own lives, a gift at the edge of an imagined future.
But what of pixels, or bits and bytes? If I died tomorrow, I can confidently assume that the books on my shelves will last a hundred years. But the files on my laptop—where I’m typing these words right now—won’t survive more than a year or two. The words I’ve blogged not much longer than that; the drives they live on will fail, or else the space I’m no longer paying for will be filled by someone else.
Does this mean they are inferior? Perhaps. But, perhaps instead long lasting can now be measured not only in years, but in minds—not in how long an object persists, but in how many people it changes. A book that is read by millions but vanishes in the span of a decade does more good than one that sits untouched for millennia. Speaking of the destruction of the Library at Alexandria, Borges said, “If a book is lost, then someone will write it again, eventually. That should be enough immortality for everyone.” Meaning, nothing lasts forever, but some things last long enough.