Martins, J.(a), Simões J.(b) and Franqueira T.(c)
a) University of Aveiro and Polytechnic Institute of Viana do Castelo, Portugal
b) ESAD College of Art and Design, University of Aveiro, Portugal
c) University of Aveiro, Portugal

Keywords: sustainable design; environmental impacts; eco-design strategies; design for longevity; design classics.

Abstract: This research identifies the process of the study that focuses on durability as a strategy for the prevention/reduction of environmental impacts caused by the production and consumption of Western societies. The study was first based on collecting issues to justify the need for the research. Through knowledge about the consequences of premature disposal of products, including the production of waste and use of resources, the research was directed to strategies that motivate consumption reduction by increasing the product’s life. The durability of some products referred to as Design Classics was the trigger for the research. After defining the universe that fits this category, a selection of samples considered representative was made and a database with systematized content for research was made. Through the qualitative and quantitative analysis of these samples, we obtained a standard model that enabled us to set a strategy for designing products with a relatively greater useful life. The results of the implementation of this strategy for future manufacturing of artefacts will be presented to our national industry.


Strategies and tools have been developed to integrate eco-design or design procedures addressing environmental concerns. This paper describes the on-going research that aims to contribute to the development of an eco-design strategy-“Design for longevity”, to increase product life and reduce environmental impacts mainly due to obsolescence. Motivated by the environmental consequences of excessive consumption of natural resources, energy and disposability of products, the research was focused on the product system level, which includes the optimization of initial lifetime and more precisely the optimization of mechanisms that enable the reduction of environmental impacts by consumption reduction. Design for longevity aims to extend the product’s useful life, its technical, functional and aesthetic qualities, i.e. the time that the product functions correctly and the time the user finds the product attractive. This implies that objects will be used for longer periods of time, postponing the need for premature replacement, minimizing resources and environmental impacts. However, we are aware that a shorter life is preferable if a new, more energy-efficient and less resource-consuming product is a natural choice. For this strategy, designers should know design principles described in the literature that may be considered during the product design development. In this context, we investigated issues and reasons that lead to obsolescence of products and acquired the necessary comprehension about exceptional industrial products (timeless design) based on durability concepts defined in the literature as Design Classics, Icons and Cult objects. Through the characteristics of each we identified the inclusion criteria that characterize and define the boundaries of the universe of elements that were needed for our investigation. The Design Classics which are products that remain in production for several generations despite the production of new versions and changes in fashion, taste and cultural changes were the ones chosen.

Motivations for research

We are becoming increasingly conscious that our planet will not cope with many more years of intensive use, as happened in the twentieth century. Faced with this undeniable fact, an important question is how to invert this situation and simultaneously satisfy our daily needs and aspirations without jeopardizing the needs of future generations. Researchers and various organizations have appealed to the responsibility of manufacturers and consumers calling for an urgent change in behaviour. Design can play an important role in defining more sustainable solutions that can allow us to live consciously better, consuming less and regenerating our physical and social environment considering ethical principles.

Concerning the practical results, we are able to show a model for the development of products with low environmental impact based on the theoretical hypothesis that long-lasting products will be better for the environment. Increased durability and consequent extension of useful life can contribute to diminishing impacts caused by premature elimination (waste production) and production of new artefacts (consumption of raw material and energy).


The reasons leading to product elimination are several: properties’ degradation or structural fatigue caused by intensive use; chemical or natural degradation; damage caused by accidents through improper use; technological obsolescence of products that incorporate mechanical or electronic devices which are frequently updated, and cultural and aesthetic obsolescence for fashion products (Kazazian, 2005; Lewis & Gertsakis, 2001). Programmed or planned obsolescence implies the design of products or components to have a shortened useful lifespan by manipulating their durability characteristics (Fiell & Fiell, 2000). “Relative obsolescence”, including the disposal of products that still work adequately at the time of alienation and “absolute obsolescence”, concerning the disposal of products due to damage, are designations also used to characterize the processes through which products are transformed into waste (Cooper, 2004). This waste has three major destinations: recycling, landfill or incineration.

The “European Waste Hierarchy” expressed in Directive 2008/98/EC on waste (European Parliament and Council, 2008) which defines 5 actions/ solutions:

  1. Waste prevention
  2. Reuse and preparation for reuse
  3. Recycling
  4. Recovery (including energetic valorisation)/ incineration
  5. Disposal (safe storage/landfill).

This work intends to present contributions at the first level, defined as a set of measures taken to avoid a substance, material or product becoming waste (European Parliament and Council, 2008). In this sense, and in the scope of this investigation, extending products’ useful life is an encouraging factor to reduce consumption.

According to the literature review, different design strategies present effects in different phases of the whole product life-cycle, from extraction and processing of raw materials to its elimination. Together with the so-called Eco- design strategies described in the bibliography (Fuad-Luke, 2004; Hemel, 1998; Lewis & Gertsakis, 2001; Lindbeck & Wygant, 1995; Manzini & Vezzoli, 2002; Tischner, 2001; Yeang & Woo, 2010), “extending products’ useful life” or “design for longevity” is one of those approaching objectively the issue of durability. The aim of this strategy is to extend the product’s useful life in its technical and aesthetic qualities. This implies that products will be used for a longer period of time.

There are at least two ways to optimize products’ useful life: increasing product durability or intensification of use. The design concepts associated with these types of possibilities are various and range from multi- functionality and modularity to personalization, adaptability, easy repair, and maintenance or possibility of re-use. However, investigation has focused on the principle of “how to reach a classic design” (Hemel, 1998), “considering classic design” (Lewis & Gertsakis, 2001) or seeking greater product longevity through “timeless design” (Tischner, 2001).

Aims and questions of the research

The following initial research questions were elaborated:

Does the status of Design Classic “obtained” by some products depend to a great extent on a combination of aesthetic, functional and material factors rather than on technological factors?

Can the detailed study of Design Classics be synthesized in a set of product attributes usable in the design process of new products?

Can a design strategy based on characteristics of Design Classics allow the manufacturing of products with the potential for a longer useful life than competing products?

Universe of products and sample constitution

A large variety of consumer products with a relatively long useful life, reputation or importance in the industrial design field are portrayed in different publications such as exhibition catalogues, monographs and within a variety of work joining a wide range of objects. Selection of this set of objects for collections, publications or exhibitions is due to the acclaim of academics, critics, historians, curators, journalists, designers and architects who consider them exceptional (Julier, 1993; Phaidon Press, 2006; Pile, 1994).

In the literature we can find various terminologies that are generally used to define a range of products considered exceptions. For example, in the “This is Design” exhibition of the Design Museum (2011) we can find designations like icons of Design (Albus, Kras & Woodham, 2004; Parra, 2009), Cult Objects (Sudjic, 1985), Marvels of Design (Antonelli, 2005), The Genius of Design (Sparke, 2009), Objects of Desire (Forty, 1986), Design of the Times (Bhaskaran, 2005). These titles include not only products that stand out through having a long useful life and still being in production. In fact, for different reasons, other products belong to the history of product design: objects of devotion or veneration reflecting the style preferences of a certain group or sector of society; objects that go beyond their usefulness and reach greater recognition; objects that cause social changes; objects that give their users more quality of life; or small objects we use every day without realizing how important they are in our daily life. The Design Classic (Clay, 2009; Gay, Camden Arts Centre & Arkwright Arts Trust, 1977; Julier, 1993, 2008; McDermott, 2002, 2007; Phaidon Press, 2006; Pile, 1994) can be defined as a mass-produced product of aesthetic value and lasting quality which stands out because of its timeless influence and lasting significance, and which is innovative in integrating new materials while remaining unchanged since its creation (Phaidon Press, 2006). Another approach goes further, stating that classics are objects which due to the quality of their design remain practically unaltered and in production for more than 25 years (Parra, 2009). Other authors (Clay, 2009; Pile, 1994) also refer to timeless quality. Transcending changes in taste and fashion give these products a lasting quality (Julier, 1993; McDermott, 2007). Fascination with the long and useful life of some objects was also at the origin of the collection of monographs dedicated to Design Classics, edited by Volker Fischer and published by Forum Verlag in 1999. Various authors (Botsch, 1999; Droste, 1999; Irrek, 1999; Klemp, 1999; Mende, 1999) describe products which, according to the editor, established standards of form, function and brand communication. Older references to Design Classics appeared in two exhibitions in London, United Kingdom, “Classics of Modern Design” (1977) and “Classics” (Heal & Ltd, 1981), events that reflected the desire for a standard of formally approved and historically irreproachable models (Jervis, 1984). The Museum of Modern Art in New York has been most influential in establishing what is a Classic (Jervis, 1984; Julier,1997).

The knowledge obtained from the literature review of exceptional industrial products allowed us to select inclusion criteria that characterize the universe of products (Design Classics) considering the main objective of the investigation. The first criterion is concerned with the year from which we should include and consider these products. Considering that “… industrial design is born from technological development, i.e., without the possibility to offer the machines to mass produce, we could not speak of industrial products and design.” (Torrent & Marín, 2009). We considered the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as the starting point, and the year of 1760 is generally accepted. The second criterion used is the minimum lifetime to be considered as a durable product. For this point we consider the previous reference to the same product being used for generations. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary defines the term generation as “the average time in which children grow up, become adults and have their own children (generally considered about 30 years). Thus, for a product manufactured in 2012 to be considered as belonging to the universe of products studied, it must be in current production (as a Design Classic) and have been produced in the period of three consecutive generations or more than 90 years, 1922-1952; 1952-1982 and 1982-2012 , because the resumption of its production/editing in a more recent decade may be due to fashion, which seems to be the case with some objects designed by the Swedish designer Greta Magnusson Grossman (1906- 1999) and produced by the Danish company Gubi (SUQI, 2011).

Briefly, we decided that products belonging to the universe of Design Classics should meet the following criteria:

  • Durable, non-disposable consumer goods
  • Industrially mass-produced
  • Non-technical/professional
  • Manufactured currently with the name of the manufacturer
  • Produced/commercialized in the period corresponding to three consecutive generations including the current one (1923-2012)
  • Currently in production (2012)
  • Keeps the original design and may have undergone some updates in order to improve safety, production efficiency and reduce environmental impacts
  • Published in the literature of reference
  • With creation date, known author and information about the history of production.

Since we observed a large number of disperse elements belonging to that universe, it was necessary to select a relatively small set of representative products (sample) and the results obtained can be statistically generalized to the entire target population with an adequate margin of error. Through document analysis, it was possible to study this sample and characterize the objects (products) and their authors. Considering the criteria proposed above, we selected a sample of 100 products described in Phaidon Design Classics (2006) that were also described by several authors (Julier, 1993; McDermott, 1999; Albus, Kras & Woodham, 2004; Antonelli, 2005; Polster, 2008; Morteo, 2009; Sparke, 2009). For this study we used the document analysis technique, where written sources were the basis of the research focused on contemporary or retrospective documents with information considered reliable and valid for the study.

Instrument of data collection

To facilitate data analysis, a data-collecting tool was built to provide information about the set of products selected and under study. The instrument/table was separated into several columns (title, year of creation, country of origin, author’s name, author’s date of birth, author’s nationality, author’s profession, components, materials, dimensions, function, colours, shapes, manufacturers, weight, price and the words that describe the product) destined to characterize the sample of Design Classics. The set of criteria gathered was based on the Portuguese standard NP 405 (1998), which specifies the elements of references regarding objects: “Three- dimensional artefact”.


The results revealed that Design Classics include a vast number of home products and reinforce the idea that the classification is very frequently associated with furniture (Julier, 1993). Other types of products included are mainly in the categories of cutlery, household iron products, kitchen utensils, ceramics and utility glassware, and lighting articles. At the time of their launch in the market, many of the products listed included innovative materials and manufacturing technologies. Considering form, function and relationship with users, they are characterized by the almost complete absence of decoration, simplicity, functionality, elegance, lightness, sophistication, hardiness, balance, purity, ergonomics, being comfortable, cheap, a prize-winner, popular, flexible and minimalist. No product contains electrical or electronic components, only mechanical ones, and they are made mostly of wood, metal and glass. Most products have been designed in the USA. In Europe, products come mainly from six countries: Germany, France, England, Denmark, Italy and Finland. Most authors are architects, followed by designers, inventors, and artists from seven countries, namely Germany (the majority), USA, England, Italy, Denmark, France and Finland.

More interesting were the results of the adjectives used to qualify the products of the sample. The 10 most frequently mentioned adjectives were placed in a hierarchy counting the number of times the adjective (or grammatical form which refers to that adjective) was quoted in the documents analysed. The list of 10 adjectives most frequently mentioned is presented below in descending order:

1st. Simple
2nd. Innovative at its time of creation
3rd. Ergonomic
4th. Elegant
5th. Functional
6th. Robust
7th. Economical (Cost)
8th. Variable
9th. Versatile
10th. Combined


The results of the investigation presented instead of trying to produce a definitive explanation, intends to demonstrate that the field is fertilized not only by the consensus that exists among several authors on the recognition of the quality of these exceptional products, but also through the abundance of examples which, despite being “old”, are still purchased by consumers. In this scenario, the focus is on building a strategy that can lead to the design of products that include durable characteristics of Design Classics and whose results we can extrapolate for the future. The evaluation of results and verification of the efficiency of the applied strategy will be made through comparison with previously identified case studies, since only time can confirm if new products developed will have a longer lifespan. The research will find fundamentals for the development of new products in the combination of historical and contemporary examples spread over the field of industrial design as a means to find solutions that contribute to building a more sustainable future.


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