History of the Designed Object

The design of everyday objects is as old as human invention. In ancient history, any tool, pot, or storage vessel is an object designed for human use. The style of designed objects shifts most abruptly with the changes brought on by each new economic revolution.

The agricultural revolution led to the development of farming tools that allowed humans to live in just one location, kicking off the beginning of civilization. In the early 1800s, the first industrial revolution introduced steam power, reliable running water, and mechanical production. In the early 1900s, the second industrial revolution normalized factory labor, division of labor, and electricity, leading to the mass production of new products.

In the late 1960s, the first workable prototype for the Internet came about with the creation of ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, funded originally by the U.S. Department of Defense. In the 1970s, the third industrial revolution brought on the widespread adoption of electronics and communication technologies, introducing information technology to the masses. Silicon Valley led the charge in making the personal computer attractive and useable for everyday people in society.

In the 1990s, the Dotcom era transitioned many industries into the online space. Besides a few undeniably influential physical products, such as the iPod, iPhone, MacBook, and the Alexa, the design of new software products has been the most pervasive type of new design since the early 2000s. These software products primarily focus on services for humanity. Major products have found success by connecting people socially, automating processes that are best performed by computers, bringing all virtual information into the cloud, and innovating in any industry that has not yet fully integrated with software.

In order to be a great designer, it’s essential to have a robust historical context of what product designers have accomplished before us. In this article, we’ll give a short history of many influential physical objects, and then, after the 1960s, begin shift to covering the software products influencing our time.

1849 — Safety Pin

In order to repay a $15 bet, Walter Hunt designed a fastening pin out of copper wire with a clasp to hold the end of the wire. His invention is the basis of the modern day safety pin. Hunt actually sold his patent to WR Grace and Co. for $400, using the money to pay off his friend. As we know today, the safety pin is an invention that is used throughout the world, and one that made WR Grace Co. millions of dollars. Mr. Hunt only made $485.

1876 — Model 302 Telephone

Western Electrics Model 302 was the first widely-used telephone to include a ringer and network circuitry in the same unit. Its iconic form was designed by predominant industrial-designer, Henry Dreyfuss. The phone was first deployed on the Bell System in 1936 and appeared in many TV shows and films, including a memorable scenes in I Love Lucy. The phone is still referred to as “the Lucy phone” by collectors.

1890 — Swiss Army Knife

The Schweiser Officersmesser (or the Swiss Army Knife as U.S. soldiers called it during World War II because they couldn’t pronounce the German name), was designed by West & Co. for the Swiss Army. The knife was designed to open food containers and disassemble rifles, among other things. The original knife had a blade, reamer, can opener, and screwdriver.

1892 — Converse Sneakers

The sneaker we are familiar with today stems from the U.S. Rubber Company’s design for Keds shoes. These rubber-soled, canvas-topped shoes were mass-produced until 1917. That same year, Marguis Converse produced the first shoe made for basketball, the Converse All Star. In 1923, Chuck Taylor, an Indiana basketball player, endorsed the shoe and the name was changed to Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

1901 — Burberry Trench Coat

The Burberry trench coat was originally developed as an alternative to the heavy coats worn by British and French soldiers in World War I. The garment was an optional part of the uniform for officers, but it was not permitted to be worn by any other rank. Because of their original role as a staple for military officers, the trench coat gained respectability as businesswear.

Early 20th century — Chinese Food Container

What we know now as the Chinese take out container was originally an oyster pail. When oysters were more prevalent (and cheaper), the container was used to carry them home from the store (at one point they were also used to hold honey). Once the price of oysters went up, demand decreased, and the containers weren’t widely used. But after World War II, the demand for take out and take-home meals rose, and the oyster pail was soon adopted as the container of choice, especially for cuisines like Chinese and Thai.

1915 — Pyrex Measuring Cup

Of American households, 75% percent of them have some kind of Pyrex in their cupboards — either baking dishes, measuring cups, or other items from the line. Pyrex, invented by upstate New York glass company, Corning Class Works, is known for its strength and durability.

1916 — Glass Coca-Cola Bottle

Coca-Cola wanted to create a bottle that could be easily identified by shape alone, so in 1916, Root Glass company designed the 6.5 ounce bottle, inspired by the gourd-shaped coca pod.

1917 — Band-Aid

Earle Dickson worked for Johnson & Johnson, and he also had a very clumsy wife. This aided Dickson in creating one of the best-selling bandages ever. Sales were initially slow; they only sold $3,000 worth of Band-Aids the first year, but once Johnson & Johnson decided to give free Band-Aids to Boy Scout troops as a publicity stunt, the sales started picking up. Now the company says that sales have topped over $100 billion.

1918 — Kitchen Aid Mixer

The idea for the stand mixer was developed by Herbert Johnson, an employee at The Herbart Corporation. The first incarnation of the machine was used on Navy battleships. The first household, Kitchen-Aid branded mixer was unveiled in 1918.

1920 — Red Telephone Box

The first standard telephone kiosk was introduced in 1920. Because of widespread dissatisfaction with the original design, the London Metropolitan Borough Joint Standing Committee organized a competition to find a more appealing design. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott won the competition, and the post office chose to produce it in steel and paint it red.

1920 — Q-Tip

By sticking cotton balls on either end of a tooth pick, Leo Gerstenzang invented the cotton swab. It was renamed and marketed as the “Q-Tip” (the Q stands for quality).

1925 — French Oven

Le Creuset was founded in the French town of Fresnay-le-Grand, Aisne, Picardy by Armand Desaegher and Octave Aubecq. Desaegher (a caster) and Aubecq (an enamel specialist), created the French Oven as their first product, which is still their most famous item and one your family (or you) probably own to make casseroles.

1933 — Zippo Lighter

Zippo lighters became popular in the military, primarily during World War II. Initially the lighter was made of brass, but due to the war, it had to start being manufactured in steel. Although Zippo was not officially contracted by the U.S. Military, the product was so popular among soldiers and armed forces that they became stocked in base exchange and post exchange stores.

1933 — One Fifty Vacuum Cleaner

Henry Dreyfuss’ One Fifty vacuum cleaner didn’t just deliver an aesthetic redesign of previous models, it was a total overhaul of all aspects of the design. Dreyfuss modified the materials used to create the vacuum, making it lighter and allowing more of the parts to be custom designed.

1938 — Bic Ballpoint Pen

Lazlo and Gyorgy Biro presented their pen design at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. By this time, many variations on the ballpoint pen had been patented, but none of these were as commercially viable as the Biros’ design. The Hungarian Biro brothers patented their design in 1938, and in 1943 they moved to Argentina, where they formed Biro Pens of Argentina. The design was licensed to the British, and in 1945, Marcel Bich bought the patent, which soon became the star product of his Bic company.

1939 — Swingline Stapler

Swingline was founded in 1925 in New York City by Jack Linsky. In 1939, the company created a stapler that would set the standard for the office product. This new design had an opening on top that allowed the user to easily drop in a new strip of staples. The Swingline stapler has also become an iconic everyday object of the screen, appearing in TV shows like The IT Crowd, Scrubs, and The Simpsons, and most notably, the movie, Office Space.

1945 — Tupperware

Earl S. Tupper’s storage containers were revolutionary to their class of kitchen supplies; they were durable, flexible, and beautiful. House Beautiful even gushed about the line in 1947, calling the products “art objects.”

1948 — Polaroid Camera

Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, invented instant film in 1947. A year later, he unveiled the first commercial instant camera, the Land Camera. Although other “instant” cameras were available before Land’s camera, they were more like portable darkrooms than instant cameras or film.

1949 — Planner Group Compact Furniture

Paul McCobb’s planner group compact furniture was the first system of modular furniture components to be produced for the mass-market.

1950 — Weber Barbecue Grill

George Stephen worked for Weber Brothers Metal Works, a metal fabricator that primarily made buoys. Stephens was frustrated with his open-brick grill, because he felt that it produced uneven heat and too much smoke. The open top also allowed too much wind to blow ashes into his food. So Stephen took half of a buoy and welded three steel legs onto it. This marked the beginning of the Weber-Stephen Products Co. and one of the most iconic cooking objects to date.

1952 — Dualit Toaster

Max Gort-Barten, a German-born entrepreneur, started Dualit in Britian after World War II. Gort-Barten designed the first six-slice toaster with a built-in timer in 1952. The toaster’s iconic design (virtually unchanged since its conception) makes it a staple in many homes today.

1956 — Phonosuper Phohograph and Radio

The cabinet design of Dieter Rams and Hans Gugelot’s Phonosuper revolutionized the series from Braun and introduced the concept of the transparent plexiglass cover. The sleek, minimalistic styling of the Phonosuper epitomized the company’s dedication to modern design aesthetics and set the standard for high-quality product styling.

1958 — Predicta Television

Philco’s Predicta television set was the first TV in America to break away from the standard cabinet format. It was also the first to swivel, allowing the viewer to move the set as needed.

1963–40 in 4 Chair

David Rowland’s 40 in 4 chair was conceived to allow for more compact storage. Intended for use in public spaces with small storage areas, the chair quickly became popular for domestic and international use, as well.

1966 — CIRFA 3 Table Clock

Gino Valle employed the same technology in the CIFRA3 travel clock as he did in his airport and train station projects for Solari. His travel clock told time by clipping numbers. As the center rotating cylinder turned, it allowed the number tiles to drop and change the time. He also designed the type of numbers that could be more easily read from across the room, bolding the hour number so that it was differentiated from the minute numbers.

1967 — JanSport Backpack

The JanSport backpack came to be through a backpack design competition. An aluminum company sponsored the competition to solicit new backpack designs. Murray Pletz won the competition; with his winnings, he started a new company with his cousin, Skip Yowell, and his girlfriend, Jan Lewis (the namesake of the company). During the ’70s, after the company was under new ownership, they started marketing their backpacks more heavily to schools and colleges, and by the 1990s, JanSport was the supplier for almost 30% of backpacks in the U.S.

1968 — Post-It Note

While attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive, Dr. Spenser Silver accidently created something that was pretty much the complete opposite — an adhesive that could be applied, removed, and applied again, without damage to the object it was applied to. He attempted to market the “low tack” adhesive to 3M to no avail. In 1974, Art Fry overheard Silver talking about his invention and quickly realized a use for the tack; he applied it to paper and created the Post-It Note.

1968 — Panton Plastic Chair

Eero Saarinen’s famous tulip chair, designed in 1955, was one of the first plastic chairs to be produced. But in 1968, Verner Panton created the first single-form injection-molded chair — his stackable, cantilever Panton chair. The sleek lines and singluar form of this chair have made it an icon and secured it a place in design history.

1969 — Valentine Typewriter

Olivetti regarded design as a top priority in product development, collaborating with influential designers like Le Corbusier and Louis Khanh. Not surprisingly, many of their products are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. One of Olivetti’s most famous designs was their Valentine typewriter, designed by Ettore Sottass and Perry King. The Valentine was unique, in that it was designed to be an attractive object. The designers wanted something that was anti-machine, anti-work, and something that people would enjoy using.

1970 — Sony Walkman

When Sony’s Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka became unhappy with the weight of their portable tape recorder, the Pressman, they decided to refine it with a stereo amplifier. The new product, the Walkman, soon took off. Sony had to design new machinery to handle the growing demand.

1982 — Apple IIc Personal Computer

The Apple IIc was the first truly user-friendly computer. By creating a clean, sophisticated design and scaling down components, Frog Design, along with Apple, was able to create a modern, easy-to-use product that was immediately copied by competitors.

1983 — Microsoft Word

The first version of Microsoft Word was developed by Charles Simonyi and Richard Brodie, former Xerox programmers hired by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1981. Both programmers worked on Xerox Bravo, the first WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processor. The first version of Microsoft Word was released in October 1983.

1984 — Tea Kettle

Although it’s one of the few successful mass-produced post-modern products, the bird-whistle tea kettle by Michael Graves sells over 100,000 units annually and is seen as a design landmark. Graves’ concept was simple — a molded plastic bird that provides the sound for the kettle and recalls the memories of the American 19th century Federal tea and coffee services.

1987 — Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop was developed in 1987 by two brothers Thomas and John Knoll, who sold the distribution license to Adobe Systems Incorporated in 1988. Thomas Knoll, a Ph. D. student at the University of Michigan, began writing a program on his Macintosh Plus to display grayscale images on a monochrome display.

1991 — RC-M90 Boombox

Arguably the most iconic boombox there is, the JVC RC-M90 has been referenced numerous times in music and film, and it even appeared on a few album covers (like Solid Gold Hits by the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J’s Radio.) While the boombox itself is an icon of everyday design, the RC-M90 has become an icon of pop-culture as well.

1994 — Amazon

Amazon’s goal in its early days was to sell books online. In the early days, the company was operated out of the garage of Bezos’ house on Northeast 28th Street in Bellevue, Washington. Jeff Bezos and his small team set up a little bell to ring in the office every time somebody placed an order. Bezos selected the company name by looking through a dictionary; he settled on “Amazon” because it was a place that was “exotic and different”, just as he had envisioned for his Internet enterprise. The Amazon River, he noted, was the biggest river in the world, and he planned to make his store the biggest bookstore in the world.

1998 — Google Search

Google started as a research project by two PhD students at Stanford. The goal of the project was to rate the “relevance” of different web pages by counting how many other web pages on the Internet linked back to the original page. So if a certain website was linked to by 30 other websites, for example, then it would have a higher relevancy score than another website that was linked to by, say, 10 other websites.

2003 — LinkedIn

LinkedIn started out in the living room of co-founder Reid Hoffman and the site officially launched on May 5, 2003. In 2004, LinkedIn took a major step forward when it added the ability to upload your address book to invite your colleagues, introduced groups to start building communities and even embraced partnership with American Express to promote their offerings to its clients. This really started to broaden out its appeal and took membership up to 1,217,647 at the start of the year.

2004 — Facebook

Facebook is a social networking service launched as TheFacebook on February 4, 2004. It was founded by Mark Zuckerberg with his college roommates and fellow Harvard University students Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. The website’s membership was initially limited by the founders to Harvard students, but was expanded to other colleges in the Boston area, the Ivy League, and gradually most universities in the United States and Canada, corporations, and by September 2006, to everyone with a valid email address along with an age requirement of being 13 and older.

2004 — GMail

Gmail started as a limited beta release in 2004 and ended its testing phase in 2009. At launch, Gmail had an initial storage capacity offer of one gigabyte per user, a significantly higher amount than competitors offered at the time.

2005 — YouTube

YouTube was founded on Valentine’s Day in 2005. It was the brainchild of Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, who were all former employees of Paypal. The platform, like so many others in Silicon Valley, began as an angel-funded enterprise with makeshift offices in a garage.

2006 — MacBook

The original MacBook, available in black or white colors, was released on June 28, 2006. The MacBook Pro was introduced by Steve Jobs at the Macworld Conference & Expo. The first design was largely a carryover from the PowerBook G4, but uses Intel Core CPUs instead of PowerPC G4 chips.

2006 — Shopify

Shopify is a Canadian multinational e-commerce company headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario. Shopify offers online retailers a suite of services including payments, marketing, shipping and customer engagement tools.

2007 — Apple iPhone

The iPhone revolutionized cell phones. It took a basic object, with a purpose to only place and receive phone calls, and turned it into a hub of all electronic communication.

2007 — Kindle

Amazon’s answer to reading books in the electronic age was the Kindle, an E-Ink electronic paper reader. The display of the Kindle was revolutionary, because instead of a backlight screen, it rendered 16 tones to simulate reading on paper, making it easier for the reader and minimizing power consumption.

2008 — Beats Headphones

Beats Electronics LLC (also known as Beats by Dr. Dre, or simply Beats by Dre) is a consumer audio products manufacturer headquartered in Culver City, California. The company was founded by music producer Dr. Dre and record company executive Jimmy Iovine. Since 2014, it has been a subsidiary of Apple.

2009 — Square Payment System

Square has been available in the United States since 2010 and the company launched in Canada at the end of 2012. In May 2013, the firm announced that its mobile payments service was available in Japan after agreeing to a partnership with Sumitomo Mitsui Card Corporation. Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, is also the founder of Square.

2010 — Stripe

Irish entrepreneur brothers John and Patrick Collison founded Stripe in 2010, initially using the name /dev/payments. Stripe offers a payment solution to e-commerce sites and other online businesses in need of a mechanism to capture digital payment.

2010 — Instagram

Instagram is a photo and video-sharing social media application that was launched in 2010 by Kevin Systrom. The first prototype of Instagram was a web app called Burbn, which was inspired by Systrom’s love of fine whiskeys and bourbons. The Instagram app was launched on Oct. 6, 2010, and racked up 25,000 users in one day. From the beginning, the primary focus of the app was to feature photographs, specifically those taken on mobile devices. Just prior to Instagram’s initial public offering (IPO) in 2012, Facebook acquired the company for $1 billion in cash and stock.

2011 — Snapchat

Snapchat is an image and video messaging application created in 2011 by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown. The app was created when the trio were studying at Stanford University, with Spiegel presenting its first incarnation as part of a project for his product design class.

2011 — Zoom

Zoom was founded by Eric Yuan, a former corporate vice president for Cisco Webex. He left Cisco in April 2011 with 40 engineers to start a new company, originally named Saasbee, Inc. The company had trouble finding investors because many people thought the videotelephony market was already saturated.

2012 — Calm

Calm was founded on May 4, 2012 by Michael Acton Smith and Alex Tew. Tamara Levitt became the Head of Mindfulness in November 2014 and is one of the app’s primary narrators. Calm was Apple’s “App of the Year” in 2017, and was ranked by Inc. as one of the fastest-growing companies in America in 2018.

2012 — Google Drive

Google Drive is a file storage and synchronization service developed by Google. Launched on April 24, 2012, Google Drive allows users to store files on their servers, synchronize files across devices, and share files.

2013 — Slack

Slack began as an internal tool for Stewart Butterfield’s company Tiny Speck during the development of Glitch, an online game.

2013 — Robinhood

Robinhood was founded in April 2013 by Vladimir Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, who had previously built high-frequency trading platforms for financial institutions in New York City. The company’s name comes from its mission to “provide everyone with access to the financial markets, not just the wealthy”.

2014 — musical.ly

Musical.ly Inc. was founded by long time friends Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang in Shanghai, China. Before launching Musical.ly, Zhu and Yang teamed up to build an education social network app, through which users could both teach and learn different subjects through short-form videos (3–5 minutes long).

2014 — Amazon Alexa

Amazon Alexa, also known simply as Alexa, is a virtual assistant AI technology developed by Amazon, first used in the Amazon Echo smart speakers developed by Amazon Lab126. In January 2019, Amazon’s devices team announced that they had sold over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices.

2016 — Tiktok

Also in 2016, Douyin was created in China, which was a short-form video sharing app. Douyin eventually took off in East Asian countries besides China, and then TikTok was launched by ByteDance in 2017. TikTok eventually came to the US when it merged with Musical.ly in 2017 for nearly $1 billion dollars.


The design and development of new software products are a dominant economic force in today’s economy. Periodically, game-changing physical products are designed that change culture and shape the development of new software products.

The history of the designed object over the years informs our work as designers. UX/UI design is as old as time. It has just taken on more sophisticated language and been developed into a more organized processes as the field of design evolves and gains influence as a practice over time.

design, technology, entrepreneurship

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