Elegance and Sustainability

Steve Fitz, Director, Technology

By: Steve M.Fitz
Director, Technology

5th September 2019

3 minute read

There is a grandfather clock in my house that is nearly 200 years old – it has been in the family for a long time. Its face is lined and the body is a bit shabby (rather like its owner I hear you say) but it keeps good time and announces itself on the hour with a musical bong. Once a week I lift the 7 kg weights approximately 1m to make sure that it continues for the next 7 days. That energy input is equivalent to about one-quarter of the capacity of an AA cell; an impressive exercise in low power design given the amount of ticking and bonging that goes on in a week. In its 200 year life, it would have used about 2400 batteries if that was how it was powered.

Were it to break we would have to get it fixed because it is impossible to contemplate destroying something with such dignity. Luckily the designer had in mind the ability to repair so it has been patched and bodged over the years. If it ever finally comes to the end of its life however, every part of it could be recycled: the wood, the brass the lead weights. In fact, it could be reborn as a whole new clock.


Designing for a changing world

I have been thinking about this clock and the lessons it can teach us in designing future products that face up to the implications of climate change.

Form: Most of the products that we use are so ugly that we cannot wait to sling them the minute their function is superseded by the next model. They have no personality or vitality, they are just there to do a job and we have no emotional attachment to them at all. Looking at it more positively, if a product is to be designed to have a long life it will have to be sufficiently elegant for us to want to have it around for that long. Something that is old (or at least not current) will have to get cool; people who carry around and use stuff that is not the latest will themselves have to get cool. It has happened in the past and it needs to happen now.

Function: The clock is quite demanding. It needs winding weekly and putting right occasionally; wouldn’t it be better to have it powered by electricity and set by radio waves? – wouldn’t that improve the ‘user experience’? Definitely not. One of the attractive things about the clock is its dependence on me to wind it; we have bonded, I and the clock are one machine.

So some questions to ask when designing our next product: How can I make this last 200 years? How can I make this so elegant that someone wants it to last 200 years? How can I make this completely recyclable, even if that means making it more demanding of the user?