The Designer's Dilemma: Durability Vs Repairability in Product Design

How to balance durable product design without making it a nightmare to repair
Eric Goodwin

In any kind of physical product design, designers face the challenge of balancing durability with repairability. This balance is difficult because a more permanently assembled design may increase durability, but it often compromises repairability. This isn’t just a design challenge but a sustainability issue, influencing the lifecycle of the product and its impact on the environment.

Take a car as an example; if we welded the wheels directly to the axle it would be more durable and less prone to failure, but we would have to buy a new car every time we needed a tire change. This might seem like a silly concept, throwing out a whole car because it needs new tires, but we do this for most other products. Shoes get thrown out because the sole is worn out, apparel gets tossed because a zipper breaks, sofas go to the curb because of a stained cushion.

So let’s just make everything repairable! Done, right? Well real life is more nuanced than that.

The Durability-Repairability Paradox

In product design durability is often synonymous with quality, but achieving this durability can lead to designs that are difficult, if not impossible to repair. As a general rule the more permanently you attach materials the stronger and more durable it is, but the more difficult it is to repair and replace. Take smartphones as an example, where modern phones are assembled with adhesives that make them water-resistant. This increases the durability and lifespan of the phone (now you don’t need a new phone if yours gets wet) but makes it very difficult to disassemble and repair. The question then arises: How can designers create products that last without making them a nightmare to repair?

Real-World Examples and Their Lessons

Recognizing the environmental impact of disposable furniture, IKEA has introduced products designed to enable customers to repair or upgrade parts without replacing the whole item. This is an interesting example for designers, while IKEA furniture doesn’t have the reputation of being the most durable, it has always been designed to be assembled and disassembled easily by the customer. There’s a wealth of design knowledge around simple, durable product assembly at your local IKEA that you can apply to different products.

Danner Boots is another compelling case study in the interplay between durability and repairability. Renowned for their rugged durability, Danner has also embraced repairability as a core aspect of their product design. By utilizing certain construction methods Danner is able to craft boots that are both incredibly durable, but also repairable - or as they call it Recraftable

Design Tips for Balancing Durability and Repairability

  • Modular Design: Using a modular design allows parts of the product to be replaced or repaired without the need to dissect the entire item. For something like outerwear, this could mean detachable hoods, cuffs, or liners.
  • Standardized Components: Using standardized parts makes it easier for customers to find replacements and perform repairs themselves. As an example using a more standard #5 zipper rather than a #4.5 will make it easier to find a replacement slider.
  • Quality Materials with Repair in Mind: Choosing materials not only for their durability but for their ease of repair, such as metals over plastics for certain components, can make a significant difference in a product's ability to be repaired.
  • Design for Disassembly: Design products (and apparel) so that they can be taken apart and reassembled, facilitating repairs, alterations, or recycling of materials.
  • Educate Consumers: Provide resources and guidance on how to care for and repair products. Empowering consumers with this knowledge extends the life of the product and adds value to your product and brand.
  • Innovative Joining Techniques: Explore alternatives to permanent adhesives or welding, such as clips or screws that can be easily removed. In the case of apparel, using techniques such as attaching the zipper later in the construction process can make it easier to replace when it eventually breaks.

The Future of Design

Striking the balance between durability and repairability is more than a technical challenge, it's a philosophical question that asks designers to consider the full lifecycle of their products. As consumers become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their purchases, the demand for sustainable, durable, and repairable products will continue to grow.

By balancing durability and repairability designers will create better products that last longer and stay out of the landfill. By striking this balance successfully brands will increase the value of their products and create raving fans - a win win.