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10 Most influential designs that changed the Modern World

Everything you encounter in your life, from your toothbrush, to your computer; the water bottle you drink out of and the pen you write with, have been designed. Design is essential for so many reasons in the products we buy and how we use them, going well beyond mere aesthetics.

“You know a design is good when you want to lick it”

As quoted by Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc., is one way to describe ‘Design’. But a truly iconic design must do more than make you salivate. It must have a social impact too. A great design must not only be pleasing to the eyes and evoke a sense of emotion, but must also serve its purpose. A great design is a marriage between form and function.

In this article, we shall explore to the depths of what made the world which we live in today, so profoundly influenced by some of the greatest designs of the last several decades.

From revolutionizing the market and boosting sales to completely influencing the products we see today, each one of these products were designed with a specific purpose in mind : to change the face of the future. If you’re a designer looking for inspiration, let these ten ultra-disruptive and highly iconic designs fuel your ambition and pave way for success in your future design endeavours.

I do not intend to list them in any particular order because each one of them have been influential in their own domain of innovation and engineering. So, let us start off…

1) Graphical User Interface (GUI)

xeorx gui apple

GUI, also known as Graphical User Interface, is not as complex as one might expect. In reality, we come into contact with a GUI every day we are on our computers! You are using a GUI right now to read this page. It is the digital platform that enables us to interact with the huge amounts of data and information that is available on the web or on a machine.

A user interface is a way to have a person communicate with a computer. In the very earliest computers, user interfaces were usually a bunch of switches that a user would change to change what the computer was to do. This method was slow and the users had to know the code that the computer would understand. Only a small number of people used this method and as computers improved, better ways to talk to computers were invented.

Eventually a Command Line Interface (CLI) was developed that would allow a user to type in commands that the computer would interpret. A user had a keyboard and a display to see the results. This proved to be a much better way for people to communicate with computers and is still a favorite method for some people to use computers. As computers became more powerful and better able to display graphics, and new ways to communicate with computers became the next potential breakthrough. This is when the Graphical User Interfaces were developed.

microsoft surface design that changed the world

Microsoft Surface Computing platform

Apple’s achievement in recognizing the potential of the GUI and putting it into a mass-market machine cannot be denied. But Apple did not invent the system, as many still believe. The honor for producing the first working GUI goes to Doug Englebart – at the time an employee of Stanford Research Institute, while working at the Palo Alto Research Center, XEROX. Sadly, if XEROX had somehow managed to foresee the potential advantages of the GUI, they could have ruled the entire computer Industry as we know it today.

After the arrival of GUI, contemporary computers and their boring text screen was replaced by graphically rich interface. By GUI or graphical user interface we understand how fun it becomes to do work in a more enhanced visibly improved environment.

Today, we see a whole new plateau of GUIs; ranging from superfluous mobile interfaces to high definition 3D imaging to super realistic holographic screens. Much has evolved since the first GUI was developed at XEROX but one thing remains the same, it will forever be the way we interact with computers regardless of what platform we transform ourselves into.

2) Apple iPod

apple ipod design that changed the world

The iPod line came from Apple’s “digital hub” category, when the company began creating software for the growing market of personal digital devices. Digital cameras, camcorders and organizers had well-established mainstream markets, but the company found existing digital music players “big and clunky or small and useless” with user interfaces that were “unbelievably awful,” so Apple decided to develop its own. As ordered by CEO Steve Jobs, Apple’s hardware engineering chief Jon Rubinstein assembled a team of engineers to design the iPod line, including hardware engineers Tony Fadell and Michael Dhuey, and design engineer Jonathan Ive. The product was developed in less than one year and unveiled on 23 October 2001.

Apple did not develop the iPod software entirely in-house, instead using PortalPlayer’s reference platform based on two ARM cores. Apple contracted another company, Pixo, to help design and implement the user interface under the direct supervision of Steve Jobs. As development progressed, Apple continued to refine the software’s look and feel. Starting with the iPod Mini, the Chicago font was replaced with Espy Sans. Later iPods switched fonts again to Podium Sans—a font similar to Apple’s corporate font, Myriad. iPods with color displays then adopted some Mac OS X themes like Aqua progress bars, and brushed metal meant to evoke a combination lock. In 2007, Apple modified the iPod interface again with the introduction of the sixth-generation iPod Classic and third-generation iPod Nano by changing the font to Helvetica.

Steve Jobs is widely held to be the design maestro at Apple. But Jonathan Ive, the company’s senior vice-president for industrial design, also requires nothing less than perfection from his team. Ive, 42, has overseen such iconic products as the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and, most recently, the iPad. In so doing, he and his team have produced a range of products that have been central to the company’s revitalization. For his part, Ive says he prioritizes “better” over “new” and favors user-friendly design that is simple to use and understand, a philosophy that many have copied, few have repeated.

No other product has had the incredible, loyal devotion that the iPod inspires. It revolutionized and popularized music players with its stylish design and is still considered the industry leader. Even if you devoutly believe other music players have better features now, you have to acknowledge that iPod is still the king.

3) The Guggenheim Museum

guggenheim museum design that changed the world

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a museum of modern and contemporary art designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, built by Ferrovial and located in Bilbao, Spain. The museum features permanent and visiting exhibits of works by Spanish and international artists.

One of the most admired works of contemporary architecture, the building has been hailed as a “signal moment in the architectural culture” because it represents “one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something.” The museum was the building most frequently named as one of the most important works completed since 1980 in the 2010 World Architecture Survey among architecture experts.

The curves on the building were designed to appear random. The architect has been quoted as saying that “the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light”. The museum’s design and construction serve as an object lesson in Gehry’s style and method. Like many of Gehry’s other works, it has a structure that consists of radically sculpted, organic contours. Sited as it is in a port town, it is intended to resemble a ship. Its brilliantly reflective titanium panels resemble fish scales, echoing the other organic life (and, in particular, fish-like) forms that recur commonly in Gehry’s designs, as well as the river Nervión upon which the museum sits. Computer Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA) and visualizations were used heavily in the structure’s design.

His buildings, including his private residence, have become tourist attractions and many customers seek Gehry’s services as a badge of distinction. His works were by far the most often cited as being among the most important works of contemporary architecture in the 2010 World Architecture Survey, which led Vanity Fair to label him as “the most important architect of our age”.

4) Motorola StarTAC

motorola startac design that changed the world

The Motorola StarTAC is a clamshell mobile phone manufactured by Motorola. It was released on 3 January 1996. This was the first ever clamshell mobile phone and very small relative to the competition. The StarTAC was the must-have-gadget of its day and one of the first phones to feature a vibrating call alert. Back in the day, if you were lucky enough to own a StarTAC, you were the top cat in town.

In 2005, PC World put StarTAC at #6 in The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years. The StarTAC was one of the first phones that was popular; 60 million StarTACs were sold.

5) Apple iMac

apple imac design that changed the world

The thought of an Apple computer being meaningful was laughable before the iMac. Apple had fallen on hard times, and some predicted its death. Now some of those same pundits say the iMac saved it. Whatever you think, the iMac set Apple on the road to dominating through style and functionality rather than sheer features and power.

The iMac made an instant impression when Apple first unveiled it in May 1998. But it didn’t start to really shake things up unitl it began to ship—which happened 10 years ago on August 15, 1998. Arguably the most influential desktop computer of the last decade, the original iMac’s specifications seem quaint by today’s standards. For $1,299, you came home with a 233MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 32MB of RAM, a 4GB hard drive, a 15-inch built-in monitor, and stereo speakers—all in an amazingly stylish case.

The Bondi blue wonder heralded the return of Steve Jobs as a visionary leader for Apple, and it halted Apple’s mid-1990s financial freefall. Initially marketed as an easy-to-use gateway to the Internet, the iMac transcended that simple role and redefined the desktop PC market—not to mention consumer industrial design—forever.

6) Tupperware

tupperware designs that changed the world

In 1946, America was booming, fresh off World War II and heading into the baby boom. At the same time, Earl Tupper invented the Tupperware, an airtight plastic container for storing food. He was born on a farm in Berlin. He unveiled his eponymous line of plastic food storage in New Hampshire, USA. Tupperware has grown with the times: From happy 1950s days to women entering the work force en masse.

Today the company has sales of more than $1.1 billion worldwide. In the early 1940s, Tupper — like most American manufacturers — devoted his plastics company to the war effort. But after the war, with the economy booming, he found new uses for plastic, especially as more consumers bought homes and refrigerators. The first products, the Wonderlier Bowl and the Bell Tumbler, offered homemakers lightweight and unbreakable food storage options. In 1947, Tupper introduced the legendary airtight seals, which he patterned after the inverted rim on a can of paint. Though the products didn’t sell well at retail, Tupper soon discovered the untapped gold mine in home parties, launching the first party in 1948.

The company quickly gained ground as homemakers around the country hosted parties. The products were then removed from retailers altogether and for years Tupperware was sold only through direct sales. The products changed to meet consumers’ evolving lifestyles, from the Tortilla Keeper of the 1960s — meeting consumers’ ethnic food demands — to the MicroSteamer of the 1980s, in response to both the prevalence of the microwave and dual-income families with no time to cook.

Tupperware is still introducing new products to meet changing demands and has returned to traditional retail environments.

7) The Ballpoint Pen

ballpoint pen designs that changed the world

Necessity is the mother of invention, no doubt. Ladislao Biro, an Hungarian, was a sculptor, a painter and a journalist. But he was also a printer’s proof reader, and the need to incessantly refill his fountain pen from a bottle of ink was driving him crazy.

In the early 1930s he and his brother Georg, a chemist, started experimenting with a pen that would not need to be refilled and would not smudge the pages. The concept would revolve around a ball that was used on the tip of the pen. As the object moved along the paper the ball would rotate and bring ink from the cartridge. In 1943 the two brothers moved to Argentina, and there they found someone willing to finance their invention. They started selling ballpoint pens in Argentina under the name of Birome, and soon they opened a factory in England to provide pens to the Royal Air Force.

The pen used to be publicized as the only pen that could write under the water. In the first promotional event 5000 customers (who apparently longed to write under water) gathered in a square to watch the demonstration. After a couple of years BIC Corporation bought the company, and the rest is history.

8) Model 302 Telephone

model 302 telephone design that changed the world

Upon its release, Western Electric’s Model 302 telephone was a technological marvel. The telephone featured a built-in mechanical ringer and accurate turn-dial calling interface – two features that were considered innovations at the time. Released in 1937 and manufactured for over three decades, the Model 302 was the world’s first mass-market telephone and a huge success for AT&T.

The clean, functional design of this rotary telephone quickly became iconic.  Nearly every phone that followed, from wall-mounted versions for kitchens to the bedroom-specific Princess model, took design cues from the 302. As the cheap, stylish objects made their way into every room of the house, they drove massive investment in the telecommunications infrastructure: Transcontinental calling became possible in 1951, and overseas calls began in 1956 (actually after the introduction of the 500 model from Western Electric)

Despite its ancient design and analog calling system, the Model 302 remains an attractive piece of technology. Amazingly, it’s also one that is just as supported today as it was upon its release; plug the Model 302 into a standard phone outlet and you’ll find it’s just as capable of making calls as any other telephone. The Model 302 is perhaps the most ultimate executive phone ever built.

9) Helvetica

helvetica designs that changed the world

The original Helvetica was designed in Switzerland in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann at the Haas type foundry. Helvetica has played a crucial role in providing shape and tone to the modern visual landscape. It was created specifically to be neutral, to not give any impression or have any meaning in itself. This neutrality was paramount, and based on the idea that type itself should give no meaning.

Helvetica’s rise in popularity came during the war period. Helvetica was designed in post-war Europe, and many companies were looking for a change. It was the opposite of all the kitschy, fancy, decorative typography that covered corporate materials and advertisements. Helvetica’s sleek lines and modern sensibilities were just what companies were looking for to remake their identities and set themselves apart from the past.

Perhaps the most relevant benchmark of typographic success is sheer perseverance. The rising popularity of Helvetica is a clear example of that. Even today, we fall in love with the type just when we see it. But, there have been a widespread criticism about the true nature of the font and the epitomicity is bestows. Some remark it has no character and like a beautiful person, it lacks personality. Many complain about its bloodless neutrality.

Regardless of its future, Helvetica has left its marks on modernity. It has certainly changed the world, but probably in a very subtle way that most people wouldn’t realize or even care about. Helvetica might boss us around, but we continue to appreciate its no-nonsense efficiency and reserve. Like it or not, it’s clearly our type.

10) Atari 2600 Video Computer System

atari the design that changed the world

The Atari 2600, originally called the Atari VCS, is the godfather of modern videogame systems, and helped spawn a multi-billion dollar industry. Atari sold over thirty million of the consoles, and together with other companies sold hundreds of millions of games. Cartridges for the system were produced across three decades, and there are still new games being produced today.

What this innovative product did was to spawn a new hobby for young and old alike. This cartridge-based video game system could be hooked up to any standard television (either color or monochrome) and easy enough for kids to play and use.

So what is the legacy of the Atari 2600 VCS? I think that it turned on the American public of the late 70′s and early 80′s to a new hobby called ‘video games’ and indirectly to home computers. Atari changed the way people thought of their TV sets – television could be interactive, not just a passive entertainment device. The 2600 VCS provided a multiple-gaming platform that the gamer could just go out and purchase a new cartridge when they grew tied of the existing game — unlike most system that predate the VCS that were dedicated to a specific game and could not be changed. The 2600 provided a standardized platform where third party hardware and software could develop products. The VCS controllers are still an industry standard. And yes, the 2600 games were fun to play then and they’re still fun now – even after all these years!

Today, the 2600 still has a large number of fans who remember the countless games played over the years, and the years to come. There are even games  being produced today by hobbyists, often in cartridge format with a full color label and an accompanying manual. Finally, the recent trend in retro-gaming has introduced many more video game fans to the 2600, and it continues to live on 24 years after its release!

Your thoughts ?

Well, I suppose those were my picks of the 10 most influential designs. I would love to hear about your thoughts on this collection. I am pretty sure there are many other iconic designs that have completely revolutionized the world, so I would be more than grateful if you could shed some light on those via comments.

What has influenced you the most? Which design has been a undaunted source of inspiration to you and your work? Do you have any flagship designs in your mind that you will never forget, even in your lifetime? Please share it with us.

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32 Responses to “10 Most influential designs that changed the Modern World”
  1. Jeprie says:

    I still remember playing PacMan on Atari. After that, Super Mario in Nintendo. That was amazing game. We could all really have fun in gaming. Todays game is too complicated, to play it we need to run a long tutorial. I missed the old days.

    I think you forgot to mention that Star Trek film has similar technology to touch screen in IPod (iPad) and wireless phone in Motorola StarTAC.

    • Richie says:

      Haha … very true, Jeprie :) NES was one of my favorites back then. Today’s gaming consoles have been heavily inspired by the concept of having a ubiquitous entertainment system Atari envisioned back in the early days.

      Yeah, i remember seeing such a gadget in the Star Trek series. Those were really cool..

  2. You credit the role of jonathan ive in the production of the ipod but make no mention of him in the iMac? People often overlook his significance due to him not wearing a turtleneck!

    • Richie says:

      I have mentioned the important role Ive played in designing the entire iSeries in the iPod part itself. I thought it would be redundant if I did it again :)

      Well, i don’t know if most of the people overlook his contribution in designing the products at Apple but he usually prefers to stay away from the spot light. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the year 1997, the first thing he did was to appoint a product designer and that’s where Ive came in (or so i think)

  3. Really enjoyed this article Richie. It’s great to look back and see how past designs have directly influenced what we have now.

    I remember spending many hours on the Atari when I was a young boy. It’s incredible to think how far video games have advanced in a relatively short period of time and how they might be in the future.

  4. shrikumar says:

    Very nice article…
    enjoyed it.. :)

  5. I think the remote control was a pretty influential design =)

    Also, the remote control shows off good design or bad design depending on which one you get. It seems like some manufacturers intentionally went the wrong way with their design. Even if a remote had such a clean design that I did want to lick it, if things aren’t where I’d expect them to be on the geography of the remote, I’m more likely to throw it out the window.

    • Richie says:

      Yep… the remote control is indeed a great innovation. The remote control must not only be a great design but also emphasize simplicity.

      Too many features sometimes proves disastrous when it comes to the matter of functionality. I dealt with how such a remote can be made simple in both form and function in one of my articles on Simplicity here : http://bit.ly/bfdbWu

      I’m glad you bought that up, thanks!

  6. I still remember when i’m playing atari, i sued to shout due to excitement. it’s amazing brilliant inventions.

  7. Awesome article. So many classic designs, this was an awesome read.

  8. Fabian says:

    Yeah baby! Tupperware…that’s the good gear, not the cheap knock offs they have at red-dot. I want my lunch crisp. Great article by the way:)

  9. VigaPlus says:

    Interesting review! I like your style!

  10. burman says:

    The invention of apple ipod has revolutionized the face of handy music players a lot I thoroughly enjoy it whenever

    I play it

  11. Microsoft Surface is missing in the list. Apart from that you have listed some nice examples.

  12. apple always manages to change the game. its not just the ipod its everything

  13. Many thanks for this article! I think that we shouldn’t forget about Walkman (a portable audio cassette) that changed even Music Industry! :)

  14. Rahul says:

    Good read!

    Thanks for the effort.

  15. I like apple. All apple products is very modern, hitech

  16. After viewing these designs i got some new ideas for my college assignments. Thanks

  17. KN says:

    I agree with most of the things in this list except for the Helvetica and the clamshell phone. I find the clamshell design too fragile and vulnerable for my taste (too many moving parts, and the fact that I have to flip it open before I can use it and flip it closed afterwards is a little too annoying for my spoiled, modern sensibilities. Helvetica, on the other hand, has just one major flaw: it’s lowercase a looks nothing like the one my kids have in their level 1 reading books, so when they encounter that vowel in that font, they get confused. Why, I wonder, to font makers insist on changing the shape of the lowercase a?

  18. jack says:

    great one..nice read..thanks

  19. Vladimir says:

    This is a really good article :)

    I like the research you did for this.

    Looks and sound good and fun.

  20. zohaib says:

    the apple is the most influence company in the IT field because of its designs like iPad and as you mention the iPod. Nice Post

  21. Colin Hall says:

    I lick all of my designs before setting them loose on the world …. For luck I guess ;-)

    All the best

    Col :-)

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