Innovation and the Test of Time

While some products are great because of the new things they let you do, others are great because they’ve been around for a long time.

Innovations are important; they generate growth, increase productivity, and improve our lives. Many emergent technologies give us incredible new abilities. Because of this, we apportion much attention (and money!) to innovative products. However, this focus on innovation can lead us to discount things that work well and have done so for a long time. New things often come with tradeoffs — especially when a technology is very new. If we focus exclusively on the new abilities they give us, we’ll be more willing to overlook their downsides and discount the value of older things that do less — but often do it better.

For example, an Apple Watch does things a mechanical watch can’t: It can show you notifications, receive and make phone calls, keep track of workouts, unlock your computer, and alert emergency services if you fall. Those are all superpowers that can make your life better. However, they come with tradeoffs. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear some of them do make your life better. An always-on device that shows you notifications may keep you from focusing. For another, an Apple Watch isn’t really “always on;” the battery on mine barely makes it past 9 pm on most days. It’s another device to keep charged, another cable to track.

Then there’s the matter of obsolescence. My Apple Watch doesn’t last the whole day because it’s an older model and its battery capacity is waning. It also does fewer things than newer models. As the owner of an older model, you’re tempted to upgrade — even if the new abilities afforded by more recent products are marginal when compared to those of the model you bought. When you augment your capabilities through technologies that are changing fast, you set yourself on a path of continual upgrades. This may be fine if you have the cognitive and material resources to do so, but many people want stuff that just works, and don’t want to be constantly rethinking the decision.

On the other hand (pardon the pun), a mechanical watch only affords you a few superpowers: Telling the time, the date, and (in the case of chronographs) the duration of arbitrary events. That’s not much when compared to an Apple Watch. However, a mechanical watch relieves you from this upgrade cycle: Its battery won’t degrade and its operating system will never be outdated. A fine mechanical watch will likely continue serving your time-keeping needs for the remainder of your life (and perhaps those of your children.)

Now, that may not be what you want. Perhaps a future Apple Watch will afford you a new superpower so compelling that it makes you jump on the upgrade bandwagon. But there’s a lot to be said about using things that aren’t constantly changing — especially those that have stood the test of time. Although they’re old, often they’re beautiful. And many don’t feel old; their timeless design is part of their appeal. Their durability in the market is a sign that they serve a need in a way that transcends fashions and passing market fads.

A vintage Omega Speedmaster Pro. Image via Wikimedia.

For example, the Omega Speedmaster Pro is a watch that looks contemporary even though it was designed over sixty years ago. It’s still in production. Watches come and go; for whatever reasons, this one has proved useful, reliable, and pleasing to generations of customers. It’s evolved slightly, making it an ever-better fit with the market. If you buy a Speedmaster today, you’re benefiting from its (relatively) long evolutionary process.

Another example is the Lamy 2000, a pen designed about a decade after the Speedmaster. As with the watch, it doesn’t look like something from half a century ago. The Lamy 2000 and the Speedmaster are products that capture the essence of their intended uses in ways that grant them enduring appeal even as tastes and contexts evolve. There are newer pen designs in the market, some with great innovations; owning one would add some convenience to my life, but not enough to merit abandoning a product that’s proven its mettle and gives me pleasure. (In part because it’s proven its mettle.)

Even though they grant us incredible abilities, digitally enabled products cannot stand the test of time in the same way the Lamy pen or the Omega watch do. While the Apple Watch’s industrial design is somewhat timeless (its form will age well), the functionality of my three-year-old model is already quite outdated. Nobody will be using a 2015 Apple Watch in 2065 — at least not un-ironically. It may even be impossible to do so; many of the Watch’s key features on systems that are external to the physical object itself and which could go away or change in unexpected ways over such a long period.

As a designer — and as someone who uses pens, watches, computers, and many other designed artifacts and systems — I often think about the tradeoff between innovation and enduring appeal. The two are often at odds. The newest, most innovative products — the ones that afford truly new abilities — have (by definition) not yet stood the test of time; they’re often just beginning their evolutionary journey. While I like the ones that have proven their mettle, I also like the ones that let me do new things. Determining which to invest time (and resources) on is a constant (and somewhat fun) curatorial exercise.


Jorge Arango is an information architect and strategic designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the author of Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places and co-author of Information Architecture: for the Web and Beyond. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him via email.

This post was originally published on jarango.com.