which aims to grab attention and provoke people’s imaginations, design is primarily about serving a function and solving problems. If you do this perfectly, then by definition, it’s likely that no one will notice. Or to quote God in Futurama: “If you do things right, people won’t know you’ve done anything at all.”
In this post, we look at eight designs that we truly consider game-changers, and pay tribute to the conceptual design thinking and superior execution behind them.
And just to emphasise their genius, we’ve also included a few examples of how NOT to do the same thing…
01. Graphic design: London Tube map
The London Tube Map was originally created by London Underground electrical draughtsman Harry Beck in 1931, whose revolutionary idea was to abandon geographical accuracy in favour of geometric simplicity.
Inspired by the electrical circuit diagrams he drew during his day job, the map represented London’s complex and sprawling network as a simple system of coloured, criss-crossing lines.
This approach was initially rejected by his employers too radical, but a test run was hugely popular with the public, and so they quickly did an about-face. And although it’s been updated periodically since, as more lines and stations have been added, the basic design remains intact.
There is a downside, of course: the map does make it less easy for visitors to work out how far places are from each other. Transport for London has consequently had to post signs at key stations, advising tourists that it may be quicker to walk between them.
But overall, that’s a sacrifice worth making, because the design really has become the gold standard around the world for clarity and usefulness. (Though it doesn’t mean people haven’t created concept tube map redesigns over the years.)
From New York to Shanghai, subway maps have followed its basic template of colour-coded circles and lines, and it’s even been used for other purposes, visualising everything from US National Parks to the solar system.
And the wider lesson for designers is clear: making something simpler is usually the path to making it better… even if that might mean sacrificing some accuracy along the way.
Worst idea: Lots of other transit maps
If you’re a lifelong Londoner, you probably take the Tube Map for granted. And yet, when you compare it with those featured in the Transit Map Hall of Shame, such as the example above, its artistry soon becomes apparent.
02. Digital design: What3Words
These days, geolocation technologies allow anyone with a mobile device to identify their exact location. But annoyingly, sharing that location with others is not that easy.
Yes, you could give someone a complex, 18-digit long series of coordinates and in theory they could find you, or use Share My Location on your phone. But if you’re one of the millions in the developing world without a proper street address, good luck trying that with your local pizza delivery firm, or your neighbourhood mail carrier.
Enter What3Words, a more user-friendly geocoding system that divides the entire world into three-metre squares, and identifies each using just three words (random example: ‘belly rises indeed’). This might sound weird, but it’s both easy to remember and easy to convey to others.
Plus if an error is made, it’s immediately apparent: a misheard word will almost certainly point to a place in another country, alerting both parties to instantly realise a mistake has been made.
It’s already been adopted as an address standard by the postal serves of Nigeria, Kiribati, Mongolia, Sint-Maarten, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Tonga, and Solomon Islands. “In Mongolia you can get a pizza, you can get a taxi, you can open a bank account, all with a three-word address,” CMO Giles Rhys Jones told our sister site Tech Radar.
Travel companies have also been keen to use the system, including Go Fjords, who say: “In the past we’ve had tourists book our tours and then miss their entire trip because they couldn’t find the meet up point, so we decided to add three-word addresses for all departure points.” It’s now included as a standard feature in the navigation system of all new Mercedes-Benz cars. And the list goes on.
In the UK, What3Words is also being used by many of the emergency services, and has been instrumental in, for example, the police rescue of an abducted women in Humberside, a man who fell down a railway embankment in Sheffield, and a woman who crashed her car into a ditch near Bristol.
As with many game-changing designs, the secret to What3Words lies in its simplicity. In fact, a day will problem soon come when a new generation is so used to it, they won’t even consider it ever needed designing.
03. Packaging design: Smart sunscreen
Nowadays most of us know about the importance of sunscreen in protecting our skin. But we’re often a bit muddled about how much of what factor to use, and when. So Australian sunscreen maker Blue Lizard has pioneered a simple but brutally effective solution: bottles that change colour in UV light.
Its 30+ Baby Sunscreen , for example, turns from blue to bright pink, which is particularly useful on cloudy days when you may not have realised the sun protection was needed. It’s significantly more expensive than other sunscreens, but could potentially save your children from significant pain and suffering.
In a way, it’s reminiscent of Dulux’s Magic Paint, which goes on pink and dries white, thus helping you notice if you’ve missed any spots. Both are great examples of how thoughtful design can make life easier for the customer.
And that’s an excellent principle to apply to any design work, whether you’re crafting an app interface or laying out a brochure.
04. Print design: The tourist picture dictionary
When you’re stuck in a country where you can’t speak your language, and no one speaks yours, Google Translate can be a lifesaver. But when your phone is out of battery, or there’s no available internet, then you might need to fall back on more traditional, printed means.
However, if you’re travelling around a lot of different countries, or a country where multiple languages are spoken, then you don’t want to be lugging around a ton of phrase books. So a more elegant solution can be a picture dictionary like the Tourist Picture Dictionary. Need to find a toilet? Point to the picture of a toilet. Simple!
Okay, it’s quite a niche product, and ideally one you hope you’ll never need. But it’s a great fallback for when all other attempts at communication break down. And another example of a design idea that’s so simple, it’s brilliant.