Sketch by Drew Button — @dbutton_ink

Ancient Product Designers

Some of the most telling evidence of the lifestyles of our ancient ancestors comes from the tools they produced. It turns out they were quite the product designers making tools for you know…butchering woolly mammoths, controlling fire, surviving an ice age. The average stuff.

So, I’ve paired history with some imagination to explain ancient humans in their design thinking.

Brainstorm and create a minimum viable product.

Part of what makes us human, and what has been inherent since our Homo Habilis homies who lived ~2.5 million years ago is the fact that we possess a mental template. Naturally, you look at a tree and know that you could use that tree to produce something else. Maybe a table, a home, a birdhouse. So as our ancient ancestors stared at a rock, they figured they could make something more useful out of it. They just thought about it for awhile (~700,000 years). Somewhere along the way (~1.7 million years ago), an anonymous guy, we’ll call him Ned, became the founder of the first human tool, the hand-axe. I’m sure his pitch wasn’t too formal. In fact, they didn’t have language so it was probably more of a grunting show & tell. Either way, his product was widely adopted and became the sole tool that humans would use for the next million years or so. Nice, Ned.


Humans have an eye for refining what has already been developed. Research shows that as brains increased in size, tools decreased in size. With more smarts, came more sophisticated, refined tools. So basically, Ned’s “great” grandchild sat down with his closest cronies and put up some prototypes on the cave wall of how they would improve their current technology. And per usual, somebody got sidetracked and started doodling stick figures.

Classic cave doodles.

But through product iterations and rounds of testing, things evolved into blades, harpoons and poisoned projectile points. Let’s just say Woolly Mammoths became a lot easier to get ahold of.

Design for the user

Wanderlust and the sharing economy isn’t just a millennial thing. Turns out, our ancestors weren’t so attached to their homes either and lived out the hipster nomadic lifestyle better than any van life dweller I know. The point? Our ancestors eventually figured out that making tools that fit in with their lifestyles made everything a hell of a lot easier. So they made tools that were designed to be carried. The tools were smaller, more precisely made and multifunctional so that once they were out and about, they had everything they needed in one place. Think of it like the earliest version of a Swiss Army Knife, pretty nifty.

Mousterian toolmaking technology — started by the Neanderthals — basically shorter, stalkier versions of us with smaller brains. Pretty close to the Geico commercial cavemen (but not really.)

These ancient folks took an interest beyond utility of their innovations. As tools became more useful, they also became more aesthetically pleasing. They used antlers to carve designs and fine edges into their tools. Now, as they ran around hunting rhinoceros, they could show off their sweet, personalized design.

Allow others to do it better.

We (generally) accept that some people are better at making things than ourselves. Ancient humans put their egos aside many years ago and accepted the idea of trade. Humans of different regions added new expertise and diversity to the product design process bringing their background knowledge and regional resources to the table. Now, humans could really step up their game. In the late stone age, seasonal get togethers were held — much like today’s CES in Vegas. Everybody brought their latest and greatest products to share ideas and trade resources. They all left after obtaining new knowledge and some inspiration for what to make next (the lucky ones were sent home with a necklace made out of bone and antler beads.)

So really, product design has been around quite a while. Sure, we added agile methodologies and can pump out technology faster than they could draw a picture of a horse. But hey, sometimes it’s good to not take all of the credit. Ned deserves some.

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