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Charles Eames, inspecting bases for the original Aluminum Group chair, which has become a modern icon.

Co.Design

How Do You Manage A Design Classic, When Tastes Change Constantly?

Here’s a playbook for improving a classic while staying true to its essence, courtesy of Lenovo’s David Hill.

As a general rule, designers chase the “new.” They’re taught in design school that all ideas must be exciting and original. They get extra points for that. In worshipping the new, they appear disgruntled with the status quo and the present state of things. Every aspect of every object must be reconsidered, reinvented, remodeled, and ultimately redesigned. Design pioneer Raymond Loewy wrote a book on the subject, his 1951 classic aptly titled Never Leave Well Enough Alone. More than 50 years later, designers are still challenging everything old with something new. Who can ever forget the famous Lowey before-and-after photos of the Gestetner duplicating machine? Planned obsolescence is often a strategy in modern-day corporate America. But creating new stuff isn’t the only problem designers face. They also sometimes have to figure out how to revamp an old classic.

A design classic isn’t established overnight; its notoriety is earned over time and must demonstrate lasting appeal and cultural or historical significance. Often, it sets the standard by which others are judged. Managing and developing such an asset is in many ways more complex and demanding than generating something from scratch. To add to the complexity of this design leadership problem, there are several orders of classics, and each requires unique management approaches.

True Classics

True classics never change, or at least that is what they want you to believe. Change is made only when there are absolutely no other alternatives for solving a safety, manufacturing, materials science, or some other significant issue. I can assure you that the iconic Charles Eames Aluminum Group chairs didn’t move to a five-star base for aesthetic reasons. I’ve experienced the pitfall of the original base design first-hand. Herman Miller handled the modification well, and sales never missed a beat. Other products that fit into this class are things like Ray Ban aviators, Levi’s 501 jeans, a Noguchi coffee table, or even the alluring Chemex coffee maker. Tweaks should never be based on some newfangled design trend, or at the whim of an ill-informed marketing manager. The design must appear as close as possible to the original, or it’s a failure.

Evolving Classics

Evolving classics are revised on a fairly frequent basis. These changes are driven by new legislation, changes in consumer requirements, or advances in technology. My favorite example is the Jeep. You can’t buy an exact replica of the original, but you can certainly own its descendant. The designer’s job is to ensure that there is a clear and unmistakable lineage to the original. Essentially, make people believe that the latest Jeep is a credible offspring of the one that liberated Europe in World War II. Laws regarding windshield inclination, wheel-track modifications to ensure stability, and other requirements all fight against this goal. The addition of air conditioning, air bags, and modern stereo equipment have changed the Jeep—some would say for the better. I contend with a very similar situation when it comes to every new iteration of the ThinkPad. Each subsequent generation since its original launch nearly 20 years ago is linked to its forefather. This design approach is nearly unheard of in the rapidly changing computer industry.

Reborn Classics

Probably the most unique and challenging category is the reintroduction of a retired design classic. The automobile industry has clearly led this category, with such notable reintroductions as the Thunderbird, Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, Mini Cooper, and, of course, the Volkswagen Beetle. Designers typically begin to psychoanalyze the original for sources of design inspiration. But regardless of their noble intentions, they can’t escape the fact that their work will forever be compared to the original. Critics will dwell on every detail and lament the manufacturer’s inability to deliver on their fond memory of the “real McCoy.”

End results vary in the world of reintroductions. The Thunderbird was not so successful; in fact, it was discontinued ahead of schedule. Perhaps some of that could be attributed to the somewhat quirky design of the original. My favorite reintroduction is the Dodge Challenger. I think it captures the spirit of its forebear, and some aspects of the redesign may be called improvements. Sure, you can criticize details such as the somewhat busy dashboard design, or the inability to rattle the windows like the original, but it does display the same essence. All of these design classic reintroductions beg the question: Can you ever really go back home again? Perhaps the Beatles had the best strategy. By never truly getting back together and introducing a new album, they avoided critical comparison to the original that people love.

With all of the above in mind, here are some six considerations for managing the design of a classic:

1. Develop a clear and deep understanding of the core elements that define your classic.

2. Merchandise internally and externally what those core elements are. Celebrate them as an offense.

3. Be prepared to defend your design classic to those who just don’t get it.

4. Avoid your own temptation to mess with the secret sauce; plenty of others will try.

5. If you must make a change, ensure it’s true to the design essence and is viewed positively.

6. Approach all design reintroduction proposals with an interested but wary eye.

Managing or creating a design classic is a challenging but rewarding task. It requires keen understanding of many aspects related to the design assets you own and unique skills for cultivating, retaining, and managing them. On the surface, managing design classics may seem to fly in the face of what some would call design innovation, but that’s alright. It’s every bit as important. After all, what would the world be like without them?

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7 Comments

  • Lo Phi

    As an example what you are facing, after completely removing a crucial aspect of an design classic and trying to counter act with bold marketing messages:

    "Change Is Hard: Why You Should Give In to the New ThinkPad Keyboard"

    Close to 200 outcries of indignations by long standing users until now.

    Beware of the expletives:
    http://blog.lenovo.com/product...

  • Lo Phi

    7.) Do not copy from other brands, and maintain the crucial aspects of your design classic

    8.) Do not allow the bean counters to drain the internal qualities of your design classic and ensure the technological level is improving over time.

  • Arman Nobari

    I'm with  on this one.. No mention of Porsche? You want a classic, that's just about as classic as you can get.

  • Justin Hastings

    The line about "if you must make a change" rings true. Advancing a classic design often requires simple, minimal changes. And "change" might not be the right word. Instead, these minor alterations can be seen as enhancements or evolutions. But simplicity is the key. 

  • David Hill

    I reference the Porsche 911 so often in my interviews and presentation I decided to use a different example for this blog. Not to worry, I still think the 911 is a true evolving classic. David Hill