What's the lifespan of your design?

September 17, 20234 minutes to read

I recently refurbished a vintage road bike (1988 Cannondale Black Lightning) that was sitting unused in my apartment. Cobbling together a mix of parts ranging from five to thirty-five years old I was able to resuscitate it from an ignominious fate in the recycling bin. It was remarkable to me that the special tools could last across generations; and that some of the parts - bottom brackets and brakes specifically - are superior to those available today.

(sidenote: you know you're old when vintage products were made in your lifetime 🤕)

Many of the essential design details of the bike – the frame geometry, the shape of the tubing, the drop bars – are the same today as they were when the bike was made. Granted at the top of the market the advancements in aerodynamics and material science have pushed the envelope, but you could put this bike into a shop today and it would fit in.

1990 Black Lightning 1990 Black Lightning

2023 Cannondale CAAD 2023 CAAD Optimo

Fiddling with the bike gave me time to ruminate on the specific differences between these product generations that define what makes a product durable:

I'm not qualified to speak about the quality of the manufacturing but I can say that the aluminum casing in the older BB held up better than the plastic sheath of the new model. The old bearing races were still smooth as well but I can't tell the condition of the new ones because they're sealed, which leads to point 3: modularity. At the risk of sounding like a retro-grouch, the serviceable bearings are a better design because they can be fixed and replaced without sacrificing the entire component. On the new model, not only can you not service the bearings, but you can't even get the bearing race out of the component! Is this planned obsolescence?

I once read an interview with a civil engineer who was asked, "How long will the Empire State Building last?" He replied that it could stand indefinitely 🤯 so long as people kept replacing components as they aged.

Durable, long-lasting, products fascinate me. Think of the stories they have to tell! All the projects they’ve worked on, the hands to hold them, the homes they’ve seen...

Theodore Levitt of HBS said, "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!" Well… that’s almost true. That 1/4” hole is still a means to another end; to build a baby’s crib, hang a picture your friend painted, or repair the desk you'll write the great American novel. What adventures has this bike seen? Maybe its previous owner raced it in their first crit or rode it to school.

There's a huge ecological benefit to designing durable products. As a citizen of the world living through a time of climate upheaval, the environmental footprint is top of mind. Durable products reduce their impact in several ways:

  1. Longer lasting products reduce the need to consume replacements
  2. Modular designs that can be repaired extend their lifespan
  3. Higher quality materials can be recycled more efficiently
  4. Higher quality materials often include steel, aluminum or glass. Reducing our use of synthetics has a compounding benefit on the supply chain in terms of material production, waste cycles and emissions.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Our descendants will look back on the consumption of the 21st century with the same horror we feel looking at 19th-century hospitals.

How might we apply these lessons to digital products? It got me thinking about my own work building software today and the durability of our design decisions. I've started asking designers and engineers, "What is the expected lifespan for this product?"

In the software industry, we call these multi-generational products “legacy systems” (be sure to make a face like a child smelling boiled Brussels sprouts for the first time when you say “legacy”). It’s fair to say the digital product industry has a modernism fetish – always obsessed with the newest generation of whatever. We’re constantly chasing the dopamine hit that comes from a new release. We overlook or don’t value the warm serotonin embrace of doing a job with an older product, always there for you like a trusted friend.

"Good design is long lasting." -Dieter Rams

What criteria do we look for in designing digital products to enable them to last a generation:

  1. Quality of manufacturing
    definition here
  2. Quality of materials
    fonts colors
  3. Modular construction that can be repaired
    Design systems