Design Through The Years

When was the last time you spared a thought for the design of your mobile phone? Or your kettle? Or your hipster espresso machine? You may not realise it, but many of the products that we take for granted today have had design influences that go all the way back to half a century ago. Some even more.

Here’s a look through the decades for a glimpse at the influences of those times and how they found their way into the everyday products that we use and see.

Groovy, Baby!


The sixties were probably the most significant decade in history. This was when the “baby boomers” discovered their communal voice, experimented with psychedelics, started the youth movement, and initiated the move to create an egalitarian society free from discrimination.

So, while The Man was more interested in propelling the world into the Space Age, the kids preferred to espouse peace and love. The result was the emergence of two very different styles: one forward-thinking and futuristic, the other organic and free-flowing. Yet, designers were able to capture the essence of both these styles, resulting in often outlandish combinations that make 60s design so distinctive, and so instantly recognizable.

Let’s Get Personal


If the 60s were a decade of “us”, the 70s was the “Me Decade”. The seeds of social progression were planted in the years before, and now, the world saw the fruits of that action: feminism, environmentalism, industrialization, and a new attitude towards the importance of the individual.

Having made two successful moon landings, the global perspective turned inwards: this was when we first attempted face lifts to prolong our youthful looks; the first IVF baby was born; and technology became personal – the Sony Walkman, the personal computer, the first email. Culturally, we continued to look towards the stars, but with a very intimate touch. Star Wars became the highest grossing movie in 1977; we experienced close encounters of the third kind; and Christopher Reeves took us into a super world of pure fantasy. Design trends were still slightly influenced by the hippie movement of the late 60s. Prints were the must-have of the day, and the geometric designs appeared everywhere. Clashing browns, purple, orange and yellow were used ubiquitously, sometimes all at once for a garish effect.

The Decade Of Decadence


Forty years after WWII, the world was finally able to put their major differences behind. The eighties welcomed a period of relative peace and prosperity globally, with economic liberalisation in the later half of the decade opening up opportunities and markets in the developing world. Personal wealth among the younger demographic grew (giving birth to the Yuppies) and industries took full advantage of this.

There was an explosive growth in personal computers (including the introduction of the first Apple Mac in 1984); the already popular Walkman was designed even smaller and more affordable, and was starting to give way to the Discman; VHS triumphed over Betamax; and arcade games became a major industry. The glut of opportunities meant designers could go wild with their ideas, with many products becoming status symbols, but hardly practical.

Take the gull-winged DeLorean DMC-12 (of Back to the Future fame). A gorgeous machine, but not very practical if you have to park it between two cars. One revolution that would pave the way for personal communications was the mobile phone. At this point, this was still a 2kg handset, but it was one accessory coveted by every upwardly-mobile (pun intended) person.

Still Going On


The emerging capitalism of the 80s evolved into a democratization of markets. Combined with the rise of multiculturalism, the world saw increasingly liberal ideologies embodied by movements such as grunge, rave and hip hop. The birth of the World Wide Web, cable television and new media started the transfer of voice and power to the people.

The 90s were a revolutionary decade for digital technology. By the end of this period, almost every home in the developed world owned a personal computer. And with the Internet providing open source information and knowledge to the masses, products built with a strong aesthetics was very much in demand. As a result, the defining design credo of the 90s was somewhat of a mystery: designers began to look to the past for inspiration, drawing elements that would fit the zeitgeist of the digital age. The result often broke traditional molds, and Apple’s candy iMac was a clear example of this, which looked like it literally broke the jelly mold.

What’s remarkable about the 90s is how the design trends have endured. Throughout the 90s, the noughties, and now even in the mid-teens, little has changed. It was a decade that feels like only yesterday, yet like ancient history at the same time.

2000 and Beyond


Fears of Y2K aside, the eclectic design trends of the 90s survived with very minimal changes as we entered the 21st century. With a new generation of youths injecting a fascinating dose of dynamism, optimism and a growing acceptance of technology and the Internet of All Things, the disciplines of design and tech began to merge.

The iPhone was perhaps the most iconic designed device of this current era, setting the stage for sleek and elegant, yet fully functional technology. This trend of beautiful tech grew exponentially – literally going viral – and can now be observed in almost all the devices we use daily. From wearable tech like the Fitbit, to slim-line LED monitors, to netbooks, everything “i” and everything “fi”. Tribal movements that took root in the previous decade, like the Hipsters, the Goths, the Emo, the Geeks, and so many others, blossomed into full-strength communities, both online and off, each one influencing and contributing to the global gestalt. Together with the protracted period of relatively global peace, this resulted in a deeper appreciation of the past. But it would be technology that drove the evolution of design.

So, from steam-punk to retro-futurism, there’s a sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Could it be that we’re holding on to the best bit of human history? Or is it the Matrix running on loop? Maybe we’ll only find out in the next re-boot of the Star Trek franchise.

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