When we were first approached by Daniel Bentley, senior editor at Fortune magazine, to re-run the 100 Best-Designed Products research study, run originally by then-director of the Institute of Design (ID), Jay Doblin, we were not sure if this project still fit into our research interests and practice expertise.
Today at ID we are focused on improving complex systems in healthcare, finance, education, technology, and civic infrastructures. But then we considered how much the term “product” has changed since Doblin’s time, and what it means to people and the field of design today. If we reconsidered the definition of a product, a definition that has changed over the ensuing years—just as the definition as design has—we realized that undertaking the survey yet again would allow us to gain insights about these evolving definitions, and insights into how the value that design offers has shifted. This approach certainly does fit well into our overall focus at ID: as pioneers of human-centered design and early champions of applying design principles to business, we seek to create value out of emerging technologies and consider the impact of new products and platforms on society. And so we said yes, and embarked on the new survey in summer 2019. We are so glad we did, as our hypothesis turned out to be right: our report clearly identified that design has moved from being value-adding to value-driving, and that its focus has evolved from form and aesthetics to framing strategies and driving social impact. Same as in 1959, our research study is crowdsourced and of an inductive nature, using Doblin’s approach for codifying emerging practices by “distilling and passing along the most effective techniques.”
We are happy to “pass along” to you our distillations from the more than 300 nominations we received from leading design practitioners, educators, and influencers who were so generous with their time and expertise. We think that these 100 great designs of modern times can serve as 100 case studies that don’t just tell, but demonstrate, the critical value of design for business, communities, and the world, ranging from “The Great Green Wall” to “Havaianas.”
The roots of our study: 1959
A decade after Jay Doblin’s 1959 survey, “100 Best-Designed Products,” was released in Fortune magazine, Doblin published a follow-up book entitled 100 Best Product Designs. The book provided Doblin with the opportunity to expound upon the meaning and significance of the list he had generated in 1959.
In his day, Doblin, a believer in systems, was surrounded by designers and industrialists overwhelmingly concerned with products. Doblin thought the myopic focus on products was unsustainable. “Product design is enamored with the primitive notion that we must have a product to solve every problem.”
Sixty years since Doblin first published his findings, the Institute of Design’s new study shows that we stand at the opposite end of the spectrum, with physical products being increasingly replaced by digital, or connected, services.
Doblin envisioned a future in which the activity a product enabled would become the key value driver, rather than the product itself: “In the future, pride of ownership and concern for the status support of products will give way to human values—education, intelligence, contributions to society, creativity—and type or number of products owned will diminish in importance.”
Doblin was right.
Our findings: 2019
Our 2019 study, “100 Great Designs of Modern Times,” has thus tracked an evolution in values amidst design’s expanding footprint and the increasing role of strategic design.
With a focus on tangible products (98% in 1959) giving way to service and digital designs (up to 29% in 2019), design has become an everyday encounter, always at our fingertips.
So our new list is not focused on high-end automotive and furniture, but internet services and consumer goods. With the iPhone taking the #1 slot—and seven other ranked designs—Apple is today’s most influential design-led company. Car models, which made up 18 percent of Doblin’s 1959 list, have been largely offset by Uber (#7), and its notion of connected on-demand transportation.
Similarly, we witnessed a decrease in concern for particular models, and an increase in concern for designs that introduced or gave form to new value sets. OXO’s Good Grips Peeler (#6) emerged as an archetypal example of the value of inclusive design, or designs that are accessible to all people, regardless of age or disability. Some products, like Sony’s TPS-L2 Walkman (#5), were invoked for their social and human value rather than their aesthetic or technological value: “Sony’s portable cassette player changed listening habits by enabling people to listen to music on the move, adding a personal soundtrack to your everyday life,” said Bas van de Poel, Creative Director at SPACE10; IKEA’s external research and design lab.
Establishing new criteria for good design
The 2019 report helped us establish criteria for good design (see Methodology, below):
- Adaptable + Expandable: adapts to the needs of users.
- Society + Environment: equitable, addresses environmental and societal issues.
- Great to Use: performs well and brings delight.
- Market Success: demonstrates impact through adoption, scale, or growth.
- Redefined Category: transformational, changes the known.
These criteria have changed versus 60 years ago: Society + Environment (#2) has expanded from its original concern with social status to focus on social impact and environmental sustainability. And three other criteria are new: Market Success (#4) and Redefined Category (#5) were specifically called out to not have been criteria in 1959, as “Few products in this study have managed to combine credibility and clean design with mass acceptance.” And Adaptable + Expandable (#1) was not in Doblin’s study as he had excluded systems—today, with the expanding definitions of “design” and “product,” systems and seamlessness have become integral aspects of successful offerings. Great to Use (#3) is the only that has remained largely unchanged.
Design’s evolution: 2020
In 1959 Doblin remarked, “design has grown from an informal backroom activity to a line operation in the most major manufacturing organizations.” That growth has continued to this day. In the intervening years, we’ve seen design pass several notable milestones. It’s been invited into C-suite leadership, with the formation of the role of Chief Design Officer (CDO) at a handful of organizations, including Apple, the first company to reach a trillion dollar market cap valuation. It’s outgrown its role as a discrete department with an end-of-process production focus and metamorphosed into an (internal) strategic consultancy-based model focused on the front end. Finally, due in large part to the popularization of “design thinking,” design has been accepted within the business community.
Design has become increasingly democratized
With greater popular access to ‘good design,’ design has democratized. Reflecting on his 1959 list, Doblin was quick to comment that, “this is not the list of items that Mr. or Mrs. Average Citizen would select.” Today, this is less the case. From phones to computers, search engines to streaming services, more and more people are accessing and benefitting from the designs on our list. In the case of the Google search engine (#3), Netflix (#8), and Amazon Prime (#24), convenience is crucial. “Press a button get almost anything delivered to your door, without paying for shipping,” says Jason Ring, Senior Design Manager at Uber. Carole Bilson, President of the Design Management Institute, similarly praises Post-Its (#15) for their low cost, versatility, and usefulness.
Perhaps design as a discipline also benefits from a more informed public than in Doblin’s era, due to the fact that design decisions have become mainstream news—like the congressional hearings regarding Facebook’s (#40) conduct.
Design has become a team sport. We now recognize brands and design teams for good design, where we used to recognize individual designers (Raymond Loewy, Alvar Aalto, Henry Dreyfuss). And often, good designs are only made possible by the dedication of the collective, as in the case of Wikipedia (#27), which Barbara Barry, Design Strategist at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, praises for addressing the complex problem of “democratizing and sharing knowledge.”
From value-adding to value-driving
In 1959, design was largely recognized as a noun, synonymous with style. Postwar consumption and the growth of the American middle class fueled the notion that design stimulated repeat consumption and accompanied the peak of planned obsolescence. Today, design, increasingly understood as a verb, is core to the value proposition and often accompanies disruption. With our focus moving from designing artifacts and products to designing experiences, we have gone from designing “how it looks” to designing “how it works.”
In short: design has graduated from “value-adding” to “value-driving.”
Despite some gains in gender parity, today design leadership, regretfully, remains male-dominated and Euro-centric. Two-thirds of our respondents identified as male. Design also remains intertwined with industrialized economies.
And although challenged, a bias toward physical objects remains, with form and aesthetics essential ingredients.
This bias bothered Doblin decades ago. Speculating on the opportunities of sensor-enabled automation, he wrote that it “could result in a brighter, more rational world where cooperation replaces competition.” Could is the key conditional, and translating “could” to “should” to “would” is exactly what designers are trained to do.
For Doblin and for us at ID today, the value of design to society is not in our shaping the appearance of products but in shaping the future.
Like Doblin, ID’s researchers in 2019 had to make decisions regarding parameters for inclusion. As Doblin said, “Evaluating a product’s excellence is difficult since it involves personal bias as well as facts.” To address these personal biases, he set up a three-part hierarchy to determine what should be considered: parts, products, and/or systems. Doblin decided to only consider products; parts and systems were exempted from consideration.
Although our contemporary list also did not include parts, the exclusion of systems was untenable given today’s digitally driven economic reality. In turn, we attempted to guard against our biases by ranking products through a blind peer review, and abstracted the five design principles listed above using computer-aided meta-linguistic analysis of our survey submissions.
Overall, the ID research team undertook to follow Doblin’s methodology whenever possible and appropriate, with key changes. Our main departures from Doblin’s approach were in three areas:
- We set out to crowdsource a list of top designs as well as principles for good design.
We thus required all nominations be accompanied by rationale.
- We reconsidered how to define “product.”
Doblin’s analysis was category-based. Categories are converging now, with the term “product” being used much more broadly. In Doblin’s time, a product was understood as a mass-manufactured physical thing—with the focus on how it was designed. Today, a product can be anything that is designed—with the focus shifting to the what and the why. In short: we expected to be more inclusive, and include digital products and service design, for example, in our final list.
- We sought to go beyond the physical.
Doblin regarded the common physical attributes of good design. We wanted to consider performance and other values—and expected these to arise in the rationale provided by our respondents.
We considered equity and environmental factors, while social factors were broadened from their role as signaling social status to their role in galvanizing behavioral change—as exemplified by Deborah Adler’s Clear Rx (#36) prescription system.
Respondents, nominations, and ranking
It was with this approach that in summer 2019 we surveyed design practitioners (more than half of respondents), design educators, and design influencers—among them representatives from Design Observer, Frog, IDEO, LEGO, Nike, the Mayo Clinic, and TU Delft—via email invitation. We received more than 300 unique nominations. Convergence emerged around 25 designs, which became the top 25 on our list. A team of six ID design researchers conducted a peer review to complete the remaining 75 rankings.
Step 1: Expert crowdsource
Our poll asked respondents to provide 10 nominations of what they consider to be instances of the best design since 1919, as well as their rationale for including these “products” in their list.
Step 2: Convergence
Researchers found convergence among the top 25 and completed the remaining 75 rankings (see Step 4: Ranking). We treated submissions for which there was convergence differently from independent submissions. In order to assess non-duplicated results, we conducted a linguistic meta-analysis using the rationale provided by respondents to determine an abstract set of principles for “good design.“ To do so, we scripted a Python program that counted select words grouped into like sets, for example:
[“democratic”, “social mobility”, “liberation”, “freedom”]
Step 3: Definition
A set of principles was defined according to the criteria offered by our voters. Our researchers grouped the sub-categories that emerged into a higher order of categorization, from which we arrived at our five principles for good design: 1) Adaptable + Expandable: Does the design adapt to the needs of users and expand beyond a designer’s intent?; 2) Society + Environment: Does the design indirectly or directly address environmental and societal issues?; 3) Does the design bring delight? Is it easily used?; 4) Market Success: Does the design demonstrate scale, growth, or impact?; and 5) Redefined Category: Does the design enhance the scope of the category or field?
Step 4: Ranking
For those 75 nominations without convergence, a blind study was administered to our six design researchers, each of whom independently ranked the submissions using a 1–5 Likert scale. We then tallied, weighted, and averaged the results in order to determine the selection and ranking of the remaining 75 “best designs.”
In the case of a rank-based tie, the ranking position was determined by an analysis of the distribution spread. Within the three groups, we ranked design teams and design practitioners first, design influencers second, and design educators third and assigned numeric values accordingly (i.e., 3,2,1) to tally the results. The only exception was if a practitioner, educator, and influencer all independently nominated a design—that constituted a consensus, thereby garnering a score of 10.
Step 5: Explanation
We included quotes from our respondents, providing rationale for the final 100 list (these are available in the PDF below).
 In the introduction to his book, Doblin frames the motivation for the initial study: “We know of three stages in mankind’s progress. The agricultural stage saw him climb down from the trees and learn to feed and protect himself. The second stage, technological, began in the eighteenth century and is now ending [. . .] The third stage, systems, which began in the 1950s, stresses total utility and will replace the myriad of poorly coordinated products with invisible and efficient services.”
 “Modern times” was defined as beginning in 1919, 100 years before we undertook our contemporary survey as well as the year that the original Bauhaus was founded in Weimar.
 This was a retroactive decision, as the original 1959 Fortune list included a zipper, which Doblin explicitly defines as a part.