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Good, Bad, Ugly: What History Can Teach You About Product Design


They say history is the best teacher, and that’s probably one of the wisest statements ever made. That wisdom reigns true when it comes to product design. There are tons of brands who rose to new heights or plummeted to new lows due to the design of their goods and services. For you, the burgeoning innovator, a look at the last few decades can serve as a teaching tool. Before looking at these examples, however, look at your company to see if they can improve some of their fundamental skills.

What to Brush Up On:


  • Design/Artistic Skills – Graphic design training should be an ongoing, lifelong process in your organization. Whether you are a designer or work with a team of them, mastery of form and function contributes to a more efficient product. A little extra time spent with Illustrator or experimentation with Photoshop in a course setting can open up new tricks to the trade. New fields such as UX and responsive design will most likely have a place in your curriculum.
  • Project Management & Strategy – A good product or service is the result of planning and organization. Gather your “troops” together and examine how you can improve your management tactics for the process. That may mean having to try new approaches, such as agile methodologies, but it’s well worth the effort.


 A Walk Through the Gallery

The realm of product design has its own works of art – creations from corporate Picassos and Cezannes (the latter, a 19th-century impressionist painter). And there are the products which fall under the category of ‘laughing stock’. A look at these “predecessors” can build a mental reference guide for you and your colleagues. Ultimately, you can use these examples to help you make better choices, in terms of graphic design, strategy, and marketing.

The Good


VespaStyle, efficiency, practicality - Vespa has it all

For those of you admire the Vespa, you can be thankful of Italian ingenuity and design mastermind Corradino D’Ascanio. Influenced by pre-WWII cushman scooters from the U.S., Vespa has sold over 16 million units and won the hearts of many urbanites. Why? First of all it’s compact, perfect for crowded and narrow streets (a big deal in Europe), making it easy to maneuver through traffic. Second, it’s fuel efficient, something that everyone wants in this era of high gas prices. Finally, it’s stylish – minimalist in design and colour, toy-like, yet easy for onlookers to take seriously as a scooter. Talk about a triple threat!

Lessons to Learn:

  • Think about the environment your audience lives in (Narrow streets – compact vehicle)
  • Factor in the economy and cost of living (Gas prices – fuel efficient vehicle)
  • Consider the feedback and expertise of designers from other disciplines (Corradino D’Ascanio designed planes before working on scooters)
  • Look at what’s “trending” in your area (scooters were gaining popularity in Milan and Turin)



Powerful yet sleek, Dyson is the epitome of great product engineering

You’ve probably seen quite a few Dyson commercials.  Sir James Dyson, the genius behind the vacuums, envisioned a bagless-device, and was inspired by a ‘giant cyclone used to rid a sawmill of wood dust’. These futuristic cleaners are the products of trial and error, failure, and dusting off and trying again. Dyson puts much emphasis into R&D, and encourages their engineers and designers to work on projects as if they all have the same role. As a result, their product line includes a string of powerful and sleek vacuums that outmatch the clunky cleaners of yesteryear.

Lessons to Learn:

  • Obsessive research isn’t a bad thing!
  • Look everywhere, even the most unlikely places for inspiration
  • Allow your creative, technology, and strategy experts to work under the same roof…
  • …and, everyone should learn something about each other’s trade (i.e. engineers taking up graphic design training)
  • Learn from your failures instead of sulking over them



The Angry Birds franchise has established itself as an iconic series. Threes! combines a fluid layout and mechanics for addictive gameplayHowever, other mobile games are on the rise and poised to make an impact. One such title is Threes!, created by Asher Vollmer (designer), Greg Wohlwend (illustrator), and Jimmy Hinson (composer). This puzzle game draws influences from Sudoku and Dots. So far, Threes! has garnered universal acclaim from many outlets. Critics have praised its gameplay mechanics, and how well it suits the constraints of smartphones and tablets (something that many mobile games fail to do). The visual style is quite appealing as well – minimal yet colourful. Reviewers also appreciate the learning curve, citing that it’s “easy to pick up although hard to master”.

Lessons to Learn:

  • Test your product/service so it suits the channel you want to present it on/in
  • Make your product/service simple to use yet sophisticated enough so your consumer can explore and savour it
  • Balance your design; keep it simple but don’t make it dull
  • Study and imitate (without jacking) other successful ideas


The Bad & The Ugly


Windows Vista

Vista could have been so much more if it wasn’t so slow and demanding!Sure, Windows Vista wasn’t a complete failure, but neither was it a triumph in any way, shape, or form. An overwhelming number of people will tell you how much they hated it, and how they felt it was rushed. If you bought a PC or laptop back in ‘07, you probably dealt with your fair share of bugs. Memory protection issues. Sluggish speed. Uncanny battery drainage. The list of complaints is indeed a long one. Compounding the performance issues was the expense. Upon its release, Vista Ultimate carried a $399 price tag, while Home Premium Vista stood at $239. A hiccup on behalf of Microsoft.

Lessons to Learn:

  • NEVER rush your product – test, fix, and repeat until there’s no other way to improve it
  • Scrutinize features and requirements before adding them on
  • Rethink your price before announcing it


Baby Wee Wee

Baby Wee Wee - an example of a toy that belongs only in a school health classChucky was a scary and disturbing doll, and it worked well for the big screen. But then you had Baby Wee Wee, an equally creepy kids’ toy that bombed. The designers may have had good intentions, but “cute” turned out to be inappropriate for kids. A doll with replica “private parts” that squirt water to resemble pee is anything but top-selling material. Watch the commercial and you just might shudder.

Lessons to Learn:

  • Ask yourself what’s socially acceptable and what’s taboo
  • Test the reactions to your product or service if you’re not sure of social boundaries (before releasing it)
  • Consider the moral, religious, and ethical concerns of your target audience


Ford Pinto

Poor Ford. Did they really think Americans wouldn’t notice exploding cars?

Considering the stats, the Ford Pinto (first introduced in 1971) seemed like a promising car. It had a 10-year production cycle, sold 3 million units, and competed with top-selling vehicles from the likes of Toyota and Volkswagen. And despite all of that, critics have labelled the Pinto as one of the worst cars of all time. Why? A poorly-designed fuel tank that caused explosions upon impact. As early as 1972, reports emerged about explosions occurring when Pinto drivers were rear-ended, resulting in injuries, deaths, and lawsuits. To top it all off, Ford denied the flaw, insisting their car was just as safe, if not safer than similar vehicles. A head-scratcher indeed.

Lessons to Learn:

  • Product safety flaws can forever tarnish your reputation
  • Test rigorously, even if all seems good
  • If products or services in your market have unique safety flaws, test your own for such problems
  • Take full responsibility if a safety issue arises – your audience will be much more forgiving


There’s a lot of other things you can learn if you analyze these examples. Graphic design training and marketing skills can certainly contribute to a great product, but true success relies on research, empathy, and good judgement. Decisions are the driving forces of products and services. Ultimately, making the right ones is what matters the most.

Looking for a long term improvement in your product or service design?  Browse through our list of management, computer training, and sales courses to build your product design strategy holistically.

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