Do products ever reach an "ultimate state"?

Is there ever an “ultimate state” for a product whereby the product have evolved to the point where it cannot be significantly improved anymore? EG. I felt that Apple’s MacPro, Mac Mini, and MacBook have already reached its “ultimate state” (in terms of industrial design). If there’s ever going to be a design change to that product, it would be very minor or non-industrial design related (eg. a new processor, more rams, better graphics card).

See if you can list other products that have reached its “ultimate state”.

Also what happens when a product have reached its “ultimate state”? Sit back, layoff all the designers, and watch the sales grow?

The natural answer is that as long as people continue to innovate newer technologies, there will always be a better “ultimate state”. But what if the technology have become so advanced that it’s no longer worth it to invest more resources into improving the product?

Whenever a product reaches an “ultimate state”, the company will shift resources to either other categories or specialize their product.

Example: Kitchenaid arguably made the ultimate mixer decades ago. However, they are constantly growing by investing in new categories: knives, blenders, range hoods, etc.

Example: VW arguably made the ultimate car with the original Beetle. Almost immediately, they started using the same parts to make, what would be called today, lifestyle cars. The Bus for families, Karmann-Ghia for secretaries, etc.

As for your example, I think in a decade we will think the MacBook is as out of date as the iMac looks today.

the Swiss Railway Clock


the lightswitch


Bic Pens

the LED

the aluminum can

8.5"x11" plain copy paper

the STOP sign

medicine capsules / pills

just thinking of a few off the top of my head…

simplicity is key

it takes time to remove all of the extra BS and get to the basic, simple, primitive, beautiful soul of the product for its intended use

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”

See, what I find in designing household products right now is that most household items have already reached an “ultimate state”. I can clearly see that the product cannot be substantially improved other than making it just a bit “greener” or approaching the design with an innovative manufacturing or CAD technique, or applying certain hot trends. And yes, I do see that companies would shift their resources in developing new categories of product, but really, those “new categories” are mostly just a category that already existed in the marketplace but it’s just that the company have applied its own brand identity to it.

I see that the competition is sort of moving from product based to brand based where each brand designs their own brand experience and the products that they sell is basically an extension of the brand.

So then, the competition is not really about the “ultimate product” anymore, but the “ultimate brand experience” - which is much harder for competitors to replicate.

So now if I ask if there would ever be an “ultimate brand experience”, the answer becomes much harder to answer because brand experiences are much more emotional and subjective.

Ultimate state products are the ideal from a sustainability standpoint, but far less than ideal from a capitalist position. In reality, it is nice to only ever have to own one of anything, say a hammer can last lifetimes, sure you can make improvements to it’s handle comfort, drive ability, balance, etc. The reality is that it drives a nail, you can only use 1 (maybe 2 if you’re good) at a time. Improvements to this type of product have to be very compelling in order to see the benefit of buying another of similar purpose. But then you have different types of hammers for different types of applications, you wouldn’t use a tack hammer to drive framing nails, you in fact might use an air hammer for this, but still, a framing hand held hammer would do the job. Weigh the value of owning the hammer, even a nice one that you can show off to your friends, against the value of what you can create with it and the value that brings to others, enablement to do good things, to progress, is what we should be doing with our resources.

Cars, can we, as in the human race, develop a chassis and powertrain that can last 500,000+ miles with minimal maintenance? Certainly. Problem is many have been conditioned to see a car as a commodity, not a tool, a way transport oneself, this is a great enabler we all too often covet as a status symbol. We often don’t see 10 years into the future when that new car no longer grants the satisfaction of having the newest or coolest, and if we do, I would say it’s negligible that many see that car a generation older (in the junkyard) and envision it’s impact not on what it itself is doing to the environment, but the indirect impact of those resources sitting in a pile, wasted.

My point in all of this is that this planet has a finite amount of resources and we’re blowing it, big time, on re-making stuff that ultimately can and should have a final state, or design. Instead we re-tweak, and market it as the new thing to have, because people needs jobs and income to buy more. Planned obsolescence is, in my mind, thievery against future generations. In interesting thing to contemplate is what could we do with those resources in the future. Cold Fusion? Infinite energy? Cures for diseases? Deep space exploration? World Peace? Then consider if it’s possible that we’ve already expended the resources we would have needed to accomplish those endeavors.

I know that a lot of this sounds very cliche, but back to Transformist’s question about improving the product. In regard to Apple having arrived at Ultimate States in industrial design, have they? Is your G5 case upgradeable for the foreseeable future? Has Apple so wisely designed their hardware platforms that you never need to buy a new case/power supply ever again, just the peripherals, ram, etc? Can you easily, as the user, remove the MacBook’s internals in exchange for more advanced technology, and retain the components that you know are in the final state? And those components you removed, can they be 100% re-insreted into Apple’s manufacturing cycle? Has Apple adopted power/video/USB plug standards to insure universal compliance with 3rd party manufacturers for things such as cables and cords? I’m just asking, because I know that in a few years when I need to harvest metals for recycling, my hammer will still be up to the task of breaking it down.

Actually, it’s quite funny how asking about the “ultimate brand experience” is almost like asking which is the ultimate culture…

That topic can almost start wars don’t you think?

Eg. Which is the better culture? Apple or Microsoft? Mini Cooper or VW?

It’s up to what your genes are telling you…

Why mess with perfection when the vast majority of the world isn’t perfect? Designers will always have more work than can be accomplished.

These are sub-cultures, consumer sub-cultures in fact, much of it is learned behavior, but i’ll stand corrected if they decode the Apple preference gene. Sorry if my post came off brash, I wasn’t arguing for any particular brand experience, but for the future of humanity.

The questions I ask about Apple are simply to question the real value they provide, i think when you have the large of a brand culture you have a certain responsibility to question how your business and products affect their future, and that of the rest of the planet as well. I would say they have certainly made amazing advances in Industrial design in arriving at ultimate forms and possibly immediate function, I think they fail in life cycle and long-term function. I use Apple as an example because it’s easy, but there are thousands of other companies and products that fall into this category. For example, compare an Estwing hammer vs. a Mennard’s ToolShop hammer. Estwing is the superior tool, the culture is craftsmen that value quality and realize its potential, ToolShop is the inferior tool, its culture is thrifty homeowners that just use it once in a while and want to save money. Physically under the same use conditions that Estwing is going to far outlive the ToolShop, possibly many times over and is less likely destined for landfill or degenerative recycling. My point is that they are booth tools that enable the direct user the ability to drive nails, however one has a secondary higher value for everyone no matter what culture they subscribe to, and that is by its nature of longevity, not having to be re-bought and consumed. This is longevity by design, and that is a key determinate in the ultimate state.

Sustainability is why I think we need more products and more designers. Consider this:

In rural Japan there are still a few basket weavers. Basket weaving, using locally sourced bamboo, has existed in Japan for centuries. Every basket weaver “designs” and produces their own baskets, always custom according to the needs of their client. Despite the variety of designs and inefficient production techniques, these designs emit no CO2, are biodegradable and create jobs.

Now let’s re-imagine a post-industrial society. As production techniques fall in cost and manual labor is not needed, the production methods replicate across continents. In lieu of multi-national brands, local designers, manufacturers, engineers and sales people join together to produce a low volume of product for their region. They will probably source some materials or parts from afar, but will be motivated to do things locally to reduce costs and control quality. Again, despite the multiple designs and seemingly inefficient techniques, these designs will emit less CO2 and create jobs.

I think we’re in the birth pangs of a new economic system. Don’t fight all this new product, join it. It will evolve.

Great points Mr-914, and I hope you’re right. I also see that there will be a major shift in the economic system, my hope is that a stronger local community or village system comes about, and I think it can if people start to contemplate what really provides happiness. My fear is we will see a lot more war before that can happen. I’m certainly not against new products, but we need to really question the larger impact beyond the market place and find ways to increase value, not just to the single consumer, but to everyone.

The techniques you mentioned are “seemingly inefficient”, but only to those looking to maximize volume and profit, those types don’t see the other values that this type of manufacturing brings about like pride in supporting local vendors/craftspeople, etc. If they do, it’s usually in the form of a marketing footnote, covering a base, so to speak.

its a very dangerous place to be when you think you have reached this so called ‘ultimate product state’ I don’t believe there is such a thing.

You are correct sir! Nothing is permanent. It’s an ideal and a perception, and if not for finite resources I would say we should strive to meet that ideal indefinitely, but, there are times when good enough IS actually good enough, and striving for better becomes a dangerous place.

“ultimate state” …product have evolved to the point where it cannot be significantly improved anymore.

Ultimate implies finite (end), and may occur right before social, economic or technologic transformation or shift. So whatever you may consider as achieving ‘ultimate’ status, be ready for designers, technologists, and even engineers to shift perceptions again, and again…to infinity, implying sustainability.


Now let’s re-imagine a post-industrial society. As production techniques fall in cost and manual labor is not needed, the production methods replicate across continents. In lieu of multi-national brands, local designers, manufacturers, engineers and sales people join together to produce a low volume of product for their region. They will probably source some materials or parts from afar, but will be motivated to do things locally to reduce costs and control quality. Again, despite the multiple designs and seemingly inefficient techniques, these designs will emit less CO2 and create jobs. >

I’ve been musing over the above comment and here are a few thoughts:
1.I think the above is currently the situation or very close to what we have.
2.Looking at our history (post roman in Europe and early settlers in USA onwards) it was all about local materials, local designers (although they didn’t really exist then) local solutions. But even then society revolved around status and cache, wealth and greed. The rich bought imported, expensive goods and the less wealthy aspired to have what they had. Because of our commerce/consumer based society, local solutions may become more heavily adopted again, but possibly only as a temporary fashion –this may be what we’re experiencing with being ‘green’ at the moment. How local is local and with the media being global, people are always asking where can I get one of those items and the poor substitute just won’t do. . Some social climber wants to be better than their neighbour, imports something, then everyone wants one Until it becomes the norm and then a counter culture emerges and the cycle continues. Unless it becomes socially unacceptable to buy imported goods, which I can’t see being possible, due to the way we consume and the amount of materials needed that cannot be sourced locally.
3.There are too many people in certain parts of the world (many major cities) without enough local resource, so for those places to survive, importing is the only option.
4.To work, the world population would have to reduce. Any animal population grows to match the available resource of the area it inhabits. Humans do the same, but their area is global. There will always be a limit, size of population verses available global resource. As population increases and resources decrease (more areas turn to dessert limiting acreage for food production etc) then we will reach a natural limit. Unless we synthesize our food – the matrix etc.

I personally don’t think the main role of designers will be to produce low volume options for their region (crafts people already do all over the world). We are already seeing the loss of culture as globally we all start consuming the same/similar things. I recently saw a program on the production of a star trek replicator. Scientists predict that in 20-30 years time, they will be able to manipulate and build with atoms, the building blocks of life, to create materials from scratch. I think the time line is a little optimistic but it may raise an interesting glimpse into the future. There are currently rapid prototyping machines (particularly SLS machines) dotted around the country. As manufacturing files are e-mailable (iges etc) customers would shop on line, choose their product and a database would locate the nearest manufacturing centre, send them the file and the customers address and hey presto. As an experiment, if you sold a prototyped salt and pepper pot through e-bay, found out the address of the buyer, then located their nearest prototyping machine you would have taken the first step (it’s a project I’m currently working on). One local centre would produce the goods for all manufacturers who’s shops would exist online. So designers would be global, it’s the manufacturing that would be local. Food for thought?

It seemed like the discussion have shifted to a discussion about sustainability. Here’s a chain of thought that I have to add to the discussion:

  • People in developed countries have already what they need to live a decent life.

  • People in developed countries have a tendency to consume more than developing and undeveloped countries.

  • Undeveloped countries will gradually become developed countries.

  • At this rate, the burnout rate of the world’s resources will only increase.

  • Being a citizen of the world, developed countries have a responsibility to find solutions to reduce resource consumption.

  • This is the only way towards a sustainable future.

As designers, we should strive to reach that ultimate state of a product as fast as possible so that there will be less waste generated and less reason to create a better product in the future.

Here’s an illustration that I quickly drew up to illustrate what needs to happen:
Sustainable Future.jpg

While writing my last post. I thought of something that is a big resource hog to the planet: STYLE

If we stop creating a gazillion style for every product, we probably would be much better off in reducing waste.

Being someone who is working in Hong Kong, every time I walk down their shopping districts, it’s sick to see just how many styles every product can come in. I see a lot of what I called “beautiful landfills”.

I’m glad some “ultimate products” do stand out in this material world such as those durable white iPod earbuds. Somehow, in order for a product to become ultimate, I think it has to be minimal (I think someone already mentioned something like that above).

hmmm, good original question.

I think with the ever shifting currents of culture, a product might reach it’s “ultimate state” for a few years, but when people move, the product has to be ready, or a competitor slots in.

The true ultimate product?

Waxing philosophic for a moment, perhaps the ultimate product (end result) for those of us fortunate enough to live a rich life, as opposed to those who survive in filth and disease, have nothing to eat, or clean water to drink, will be to learn to do with what we need, not necessarily what we want.

To do that we will have to be very selective in the products that we choose to purchase; a selection based on need, cost, durability, and maintainability.

e.g., I have an old scythe (not the one pictured) that belonged to my great grandfather, I also have the stone used to sharpen it. The wooden handles are worn but still supple, the blade is thin, and the stone shows great wear in the area that touches the blade. But both are still in very usable condition. He passed at the age of 93 in 1951; meaning he probably actively used in around 1900, over one hundred years ago.

In reality, it is nice to only ever have to own one of anything, say a hammer can last lifetime[s] … My point in all of this is that this planet has a finite amount of resources and we’re blowing it, big time, on re-making stuff that ultimately can and should have a final state, or design.

The problem remains; new humans are born everyday, and they will “need” too. But unlike my great-grandfather’s scythe, I feel it highly unlikely that anything manufactured today will have a lifespan long enough (20 years?) to benefit them. So unless we alter our cultural mindset the cycle will continue unabated; make, discard, make, discard, make . … … but along with the population, at a greatly accelerated rate.

True, but probably not a result of manufacturing. Plenty of record players and tape decks work fine today, but who sell LPs and cassettes? Making something obsolete makes profit. Business is inversely related to the environment.

I wish I could remember who said something about turning the products we use into the products we consume. A 1950s NY ad agency.

Something to think about:

One source of ammonia before chemical synthesis was distillation of urine.

We will someday mine our trash for precious resources. Don’t hold your breath though…this is a vast world.