It’s 2011. My father, in his late 50s at the time, asks me to “open the internet” for him. He wanted to read the Nigerian papers while he was in London visiting me. His choice of words reflects his conceptualisation of something he didn’t fully understand, how the internet works. You see, my father’s the kind of person who still writes important stuff on paper, even when it’s 60 pages of legal documents.
Now, when he visits, he doesn’t need me to read the Nigerian papers. He just turns on his iPad and browses to the right pages. The iPad and the iPhone that came before it transformed the internet from an opaque thing that required intermediaries to connect with to something that technophobes could access from their pockets or briefcases.
With World Design Day fast approaching, I reflect on the things that transformed lives like my dad’s. Design that shapes our world. Let’s look at five other physical and digital products that have transformed my world.
Every time I get on a plane, I marvel at how wild it is that I’m in a giant metal object traversing cities, countries, oceans, and continents.
I read a lot of period books and I can’t imagine the world being as small as the distances you could cover on a horse or even in a car or needing days, weeks and months to see a friend or family member on a different continent. People often talk about flying as the ultimate freedom. The Wright brothers transformed our world by figuring out how to create something strong enough to hold a bunch of humans but dynamic enough to travel through the air.
I got into a lot of trouble when I was a kid because my mum found me playing Tetris on a friend’s Gameboy one evening. We had a strict no-borrowing rule that I chose to break because I couldn’t believe that something so beautiful and functional existed.
The 8-bit graphics, portable cartridges, robustness, and universal appeal of design were groundbreaking. The PSP (Playstation Portable), Nintendo Switch and other arguably more impressively engineered handhelds have come and gone but very few have had the staying power and transformative nature of the Gameboy.
It was my entry into the amazing world of game design. You see, unlike other products, gaming has always had to take the user experience seriously. No one needs to play a video game. It has to be exactly what the user wants and needs. No one knew they needed a Gameboy before it came out. Yet, even now, so many years on and many handhelds and consoles later, I’m on the lookout for a vintage Gameboy because it was perfect and revolutionary.
Those who've been alive for as long as there have been IKEA are probably thinking, huh? Those that are quite snobby about where they get their furniture from are also probably thinking, huh?
For me, a person who grew up in Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, IKEA (and other beautifully designed flatpack furniture) is magnificent. People used to throw (housewarming) parties to furnish their homes. Now, anyone can have affordable, functional, aesthetically-pleasing furniture that reflects their personality. My engineering mind marvels at the relative ease of putting IKEA furniture together. I’ve witnessed friends with zero carpentry, DIY or even natural analytical ability put pieces together.
The aspects of design that I find most fascinating are:
- the layout of the IKEA store. Seeing the pieces in settings that stoke the imagination helps people visualise the possibilities.
- the instructions. I remember the manuals for my first DVD player, Playstation, Walkman etc. They had multiple pages and multiple languages. You get a sheet of paper with IKEA. Zero words, zero translations required. A real feat of design.
I remember seeing the iPod ad with the tagline “A thousand songs in your pocket”. Simple, effective, powerful. I wanted one terribly but I couldn’t afford it. A few years later, in 2008, when Spotify launched my breath was taken away. I’ve been a Spotify premium member since then (although I might be rethinking my position).
Why? Let me take you back to 2000 when I bought my first CDs. I went to HMV on Oxford Street and spent what felt like hours listening to songs before I committed to Craig David’s “Born to Do It” and P!nk’s Can’t Take Me Home. I was chuffed to finally own CDs but also somewhat disappointed when I loved only four songs on each album.
Design was a browsing experience that replicated the joy of navigating a physical record store for hours. Design was allowing you to save your favourite songs in playlists. Design was nailing the world’s best recommendation engine (in the beginning) and creating playlists that felt like Spotify knew you. Design was giving you access to any music for £4.99 a month.
Yes, I know. Twitter is super controversial at the moment and many people have bad feelings about it but it used to be my favourite social media app. You could be witty, clever, or satirical. An activist. A film-maker. A thought provoker. You could discover entire universes that you didn’t know existed before. Disability Twitter really opened my eyes to ableism in a way that I couldn’t have experienced in the real world with the dearth of disabled people in my social circles.
Design was 128 characters on a mobile phone. Design was a space for anyone to voice an opinion, share an experience, tell a story, stand up for what you believed in, or act on a dream. Even if it never reclaims the glory of the early days, it was transformative.
What are your reflections on World Design Day?
I asked someone what they would expect from this article and what they would write about if they were the author. They started with airports which feel consistent no matter where you are in the world, shaping your experience of arrival in different countries. I hadn't thought about that and that might resonate more with you than anything I shared.
So go on, what design has shaped your world?