What Makes a Design Classic?

Often designers, or others, think that it’s easy to create a design classic. Like you can order one up at will, follow the tried and true formula, pick the right colors, materials, and forms, and out comes an instant classic. This is simply not true. This didn’t work for Dieter Rams of Braun fame or for that matter Charles Eames and his famous furniture for Herman Miller. Design classic status is earned not created. The dictionary substantiates this claim with this fundamental  definition:

Clas-sic (kla-sik) adj.
Belonging to the highest rank or class
Serving as the established model or standard
Having lasting significance or worth; enduring
Formal, refined and restrained in style
Simple and harmonious; elegant like the classic cut of a suit.

What is important is that the classic status is earned based on the quality of execution, enduring qualities, and restraint. You don’t just declare it so.The other quality that design classics have in common is that changes to them must be highly considered. Even the slightest change can wreak havoc amongst loyalists. Can you imagine what would happen to these brands if the following scenarios became real?

  • Harley-Davidson stops production of the V- twin engine. Whisper quiet replacement in the works!
  • Chrysler cancels production of the boxy-utilitarian Jeep in favor of low slung aerodynamic model.
  • Fender to discontinue Stratocaster guitar and replace it with obelisk-like minimalist design.
  • Levi Strauss to retire blue jeans from line up in favor of more trendy colors.

The Wikipedia has a great listing of products that have attained the status of design classic.


Included are some of my own favorites: The Wassily chair, the GEM paperclip, the Vespa motor scooter, and the Thonet bentwood chair I sit on every morning for breakfast. These things not only inspired me as a student nearly ten years ago, but they make me feel comfortable today. With so much changing in the world today it’s a welcome relief to find a familiar oasis wherever possible.

The same could be said for web design. Certain design principles should always be followed, whether you are designing for a small start up, or a huge business, innovation doesn’t always mean better. We closely follow what works and seek to improve upon that, not reinvent the wheel.