Friday, January 9, 2015

Stuff that endures

Hi! I'm a white, middle class software developer in London, totally unqualified to offer wisdom or life advice to anyone.

Instead, I'll tell you about something that I've always found interesting: Certain product designs that endure.

Sure, there are simple time-tested designs that will never die -- paper clips, mokka pots, zippers, Bic lighters. I'm intrigued by more complex examples, that develop their own ecosystems, that become icons despite humble roots.

Here's a few I know of. I'm no expert, and have a word limit - apologies if I don't do them justice.


-- Shure SM58: A basic-looking vocal microphone, in a field of fancy specialist devices, that has been in production for almost 50 years. Meant originally for studio recording I think, it's become a go-to workhorse for the live music industry too. Versatile, solid, trustworthy, and pretty cheap. If you've ever seen live music, chances are you've seen one.

There's no magic special feature or technical marvel about it - it's just a good straightforward design, well made.


-- AK-47: (Yeah, guns, I know...meh.) The core design of the AK-47 & derivatives has barely changed in 70 years. They're legendarily robust & reliable. Their endurance is down to the shocking simplicity of the core design. Google it; it's amazing how little there is going on. Parts can be bashed, bent etc and the whole system still functions.

(They're also wildly inaccurate. Source: every video game ever)


-- Toyota Hilux: A pick-up truck family that's popular in the developing world (especially, infamously, in conflict zones) for their near-indestructability. There are probably 40-year-old Hiluxes bouncing happily through harsh offroad conditions all over Africa right now. They're also very customizable and adaptable (most notoriously, into mobile gun platforms :-/ )

I gather Top Gear did a famous set of segments trying – and failing – to break a Hilux. If you can tolerate Jeremy Clarkson, go watch them.

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And my personal favourite...The Technics SL-1200.

It's a turntable which first came out in the early 1970s. Originally meant as a home hifi turntable, it's definitely not for audiophiles, and was considered middle-of-the-road.

But it gave birth to much of our modern music & culture.

Largely by accident, its technical features (like high-torque direct-drive, good pitch control) along with a few design tweaks in the late 70s (like moving the pitch control to a slider on the top) made this humble home-stereo component a versatile tool for messing around with vinyl in unintended, unexpected ways...

...which, through some pioneers experimenting, gave birth to turntablism: scratching, cutting, sampling, mixing, remixing...
...which gives us hip-hop.
Oh, I wish I had more words to describe just how important that is to shaping our modern cultures.

The SL-1200 (and 1210) inspired and allowed new ways of playing music, blended playing with performing, redefining 'DJ', redefining 'nightclub', shaping the evolution of electronic music, spawning a thousand genres...the wheels of steel literally redefined what we call music.

Even when purpose-built competitors emerged, the SL-1200 endured because of its dependability and consistency. Not bad for a design that barely changed in 30+ years (the digital revolution won, it was discontinued in 2010).

As an icon, It is to hip-hop what the Fender Strat is to Rock.
(Or should that be the Gibson Les Paul? Guitar nuts, expand my knowledge :) )

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Compared to a world of gadgets designed for "planned obsolescence", these products' lifespans, impact and resulting icon statuses are pretty inspiring to me.

There are some common themes; robustness and adaptability, skilled engineering where it counts. But the biggest theme that sticks out for me.....Simplicity.

(Some software examples for nerds: unix, vim, http)

Got any more examples to awe me? Send a reply.

Owen Smith
owen.rl.smith[AT]gmail.com
London, UK

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