Longevity in Design

How to create a design that spans centuries
Eric Goodwin

The start of a new year always seems to revolve around what new trends we’ll see this year. What’s hot and what’s not, what’s in and what’s out. But I want to buck this trend and explore longevity in design - the kind of longevity that is rarely, if ever even considered in the design phase.

I want you to imagine the year 1495

529 years ago

276 years before Beethoven was born

105 years before Shakespeare invented the word bedroom

A designer named Francesco Griffo designed Bembo, the typeface in the image above - five centuries ago. As much as designers love trends and being current, I think any designer would relish the idea of their designs being used 500 years in the future.

So how do you make a design that can span hundreds of years? Well let’s dive in!

Keep it simple

Designs that span decades or even centuries are usually simple, clean, and beautiful. Ornate designs usually fade out of style and complexity reduces the lifespan of products - making it difficult for future generations to make and maintain.

Solve basic human needs

When Francesco Griffo designed Bembo typeface, the idea that I would be using it on a laptop and sharing it with you via the internet would be science fiction. We can’t even guess at the technology future generations will use 500 years from now, but we do know they’ll need to communicate through words, sit down on chairs, eat food, and plenty of other basic human needs that likely won't change for hundreds of years.

Future generations likely won’t code in the same computer languages that we do now, but they’ll need to keep themselves warm and dry, shield their eyes from the sun, and myriad other things that we do now.

Make it nice

It’s unlikely anything cheap will last hundreds of years unless it’s an incredibly genius simple design (like a safety pin). Strike a balance of quality and affordability, something that future generations will both need and desire.

Also on that note make it nice for people. Unlike a timeless flattering design, a trendy design that makes a person look sort of goofy probably won’t last decades. A standard mens suit has been relatively unchanged for hundreds of years because a suit is flattering and, well, men look pretty good in suits!

Create a system, not just a product

Remember you’ll be long gone when people are still enjoying your designs, so you need to design something that future generations will be able to make, maintain, modify, and enjoy without your help. Bembo font has been added to and modified by numerous people before being created digitally where it continues to be tweaked from time to time. Design a product and a system that future generations can make their own and adapt to the times.

Create your signature

You don’t necessarily need to invent something new, but rather develop a signature design that can span decades, or even centuries. Think Opinel pocket knife (c. 1890), Louis Vuitton’s signature monogram canvas (c. 1896), Aviator sunglasses (c. 1935), or the Eames Lounge Chair (c. 1956). Joseph Opinel didn’t invent the pocket knife, Louis Vuitton didn’t invent trunks, American Optical didn’t invent sunglasses, and Charles and Ray Eames certainly didn’t invent the chair. What all of them did is design their own signature version. It’s a much easier task than inventing something entirely new.

So on your next design project try bucking the trends and creating something that future generations will find useful, beautiful, and also be able to create and modify themselves. I know some designs being created now will still be here in 500 years, the question is will they be yours?