And on a level equal to art, music and culture, our unique ability to create objects sets us apart as a species. Now, in this new world, that ability has never been more important as it connects us to reality.
Since the first Homo sapiens, materials have inspired and facilitated the evolution of designs from the earliest hunting tools to the ultra-high-tech products that we know today.
In the same way, the innate human characteristics of problem-solving and an unrelenting improvement of product designs have continually pushed the limits of available materials, in turn stimulating the innovation and development of new ones.
With a cursory glance at the defining periods of human development, we can trace a connection between materials and design and vice versa.
Kings of the Stone Age
Over 3 million years of the Neolithic or Stone Age period, Man was making use of readily available natural materials such as wood, flint and animal bones. We know that our earliest ancestors fashioned tools for hunting, construction and agriculture as well as using clay for rudimentary earthenware.
Walk like an Egyptian
The smelting of copper and bronze metals of the Bronze Age enabled both an improvement and diversification of more elaborate tools, objects and art. Around 6 thousand years ago, more effective cutting materials brought world-changing wood inventions such as the wheel and the lever.
Throughout Ancient History, the Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilisations developed impressive engineering skills and materials such as metals, paper and glass – forbearers to those that we still use today.
Heavy Metal Thunder
The Iron Age is typically characterized by the development of ferrous metallurgy –the smelting of iron ore using wood or charcoal, from which the resulting material is then hammered into shape. The harder and more durable material allowed a further elaboration of the performance and design of weapons, implements and utensils. And the combination of the transition from wood to coke and coal fuel and the refinement of fired furnace techniques in the Late Modern period gave rise to an expansion of steel production that accompanied the Industrial revolution.
In our comparatively recent history, iron and steel transformed the mechanisation and industrialisation of manufacturing in just a few generations. The shift from the land to the city, the expansion of transport and the generation of unprecedented economic growth created the social and cultural basis of life as we know it.
The frenetic acceleration of innovation, design and methods of mass-manufacturing of the last century has resulted in more refined and technically advanced materials that are not found in nature.
A new generation of products is being made of high-performance materials such as gold, copper, aluminium, titanium as well as and composites, ceramics and mined materials such as lithium and cobalt. Rapidly evolving, cutting-edge technology, minimisation, computers, AI, 3-D printing, robotics are now commonplace, allowing incredible feats of human ingenuity such as the Mars Exploration Program. Worldwide reliance on fossil fuels also has exponentially increased for energy generation as well as petroleum-based materials.
But while we are exploring other worlds, legitimate questions exist over the environmental impact of the last few hundred years of human history and the current sustainability of materials on Earth.
One of the first plastics, known today as celluloid, is generally accepted to have been invented by Alexander Parkes in 1855. Work to polymerise Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic began around the same period, but the first synthetic, mass-produced plastic was Bakelite, created in 1907 by the chemist Leo Baekeland.
Interestingly the term “product design” does not mean the same thing to all comers, mainly due to the influence of Silicone Valley on the language we use online. A small tech bubble in the South West of the USA has begun to erode (some might say expand) the term “Product Design” and what it is to be “Product Designer”.
Head of Product Design at Facebook, knows nothing of the physical embodiment that connects us to our built environment. Unfortunately in our view, this causes some confusion for those who are looking for UX or App developers.
Kind of ironic then, that we value the importance of the materiality of physical products because it is a reassuring and anchoring antidote to the virtual nature of the digital world. And though a combination of materials, design and function, objects have the potential to evoke emotions that connect us with a real Human Experience.
Materials can influence an appreciation of the aesthetics of a shape, form or colour, enable an understanding of the technicity and utility of a design and create a unique sensorial interaction with products when you can feel, touch and use them.
This leads us to ask the question:
How do materials inspire contemporary Product Design?
Wood holds a special place in human history as a natural material and energy source. From the very first fire, buildings and tools, to the construction of the wheel, vehicles, ships and furniture, the availability, structural strength and versatility of wood remains unrivalled. Anyone who has worked with or carved fresh wood will tell you it can be a sensory experience and even therapeutic. We feel this is a grounding process because we have evolved with those aromas and tactile experiences for millennia.
Now, as a (potentially) sustainable resource, wood as a design material imposes natural respect, comforting warmth and grounded reality that connect us with our earliest ancestors. And with physical qualities that are complex to replicate with man-made materials, perhaps it is time to think about going back to our roots in Design.
As design materials, iron and steel girders, bar, plate, sheet, rod, bolts, rivets have forged the backbone of modern society. From stainless to high-tensile, its cost-effective suitability to dial in structural properties, strength, resistance, malleability and reassuring solidity means even today in design, steel is real.
‘High-tech’ metals such as aluminium alloys, titanium, scandium, cobalt and lithium however would seem to offer huge performance and technical potential rather than generating an emotive connection. It is probably unlikely that you have felt any emotion when considering a smartphone battery, a low friction bearing or a medical implant.
Looking for high-performance design material? Packing a premium punch of light weight, dialled characteristics and aesthetic potential, carbon fibre is the uber-material of choice for high performing cars, bikes and boats. Assisted by computer modelling, a carbon construction can be programmed with strength, rigidity, or flexibility wherever it is required rather than being uniform. And although labour intensive and so coming at a price, designers have gravitated towards carbon composites to create aerodynamic forms that reduce wind resistance while pushing the boundaries of lightness.
Like it or loathe it, plastic is surely one of the defining materials of the 20thcentury. The fact that plastic is everywhere, in all shapes and sizes and in huge quantities is testament to inexpensive mass production, infinite forms and technical prowess.
But at what price?
As a material, the ‘anything is possible’ promise of plastic is hard to resist. Yet it is hard to disassociate the material with Man’s misuse of it. With millions of tons of waste plastic piling up, recycling has a long way to go to redress that balance and is still just a drop in the ocean (excuse the pun) compared to current production.
The huge effect of plastic pollution should force us to reconsider the impact of materials in design.
The Guardian reported that global capacity to produce virgin polymers for single-use plastics could grow by more than 30% in the next five years. Yet globally, only 10%-15% of single-use plastic is recycled globally each year.
Responsible designers are slowly beginning to take the whole lifecycle of consumer goods into account. We are hopeful that products take inspiration from previous generations in having a longer lifespans, being reused, repaired and adapted rather than simply being replaced. For current as well as future generations, sourcing and recycling materials for new products more responsibly will inevitably inspire and take designs in new directions. Read our article about the environmental impact here and our views on how we could turn the tide on ocean plastic.
Design materials of the future
So what will the products of the future be made from?
What designs will be inspired by the mechanical and aesthetic qualities of new materials and new energy sources that don’t yet exist?
We can anticipate that recycling will become a responsibility of the manufacturer as well as the consumer. The increasing transformation of existing materials will hopefully accompany a more measured use of natural resources, development of new naturally available resources and renewable materials. Plant based-products such as flax, new bio-plastics, compounds, and mineral products will also require sustainable energy and bio-fuels for transformation or production.
Throughout history, humans have shown themselves to be uniquely able to solve big problems, adapt to new environments and continually improve lives. Could the development of space-age materials designed to travel to other worlds help us solve the challenges we face on this planet?
Got a new product idea?
At Flynn Product Design, we’re here to accompany you on your product development journey. Our one-to-one, confidential design workshops are an accessible and convenient way to explore the future potential of your product idea. We’re dedicated to working with individuals and companies on a one-to-one basis through all stages of the design process including: