The world of design is full of great examples, like Apple's Jonathan Ive. Even the design of Apple's retail stores is purposeful and sharp.

Design can include a range of things from a particularly pleasing text font to a cardboard bicycle. But the attitude of many is that design is something best left to professionals. However, some great examples of design that changed the world (for better or worse) were created by people who weren't considered designers, as design writer Alice Rawsthorn has explained. Here are some of her examples, as well as others:

  • More than 2,300 years ago, 13-year-old Ying Zheng became China's first emperor by conquering neighboring areas. At the time, weapons were custom made and not interchangeable. If you were out of arrows, the archer next to you couldn't help. Ying had all weapons made the same way, giving his forces more flexibility.
  • Blackbeard the Pirate -- Edward Teach -- created a personal brand, including a tall hat and elevated shoes that made him look bigger, so he could better inspire terror. The more easily pirates could intimidate victims, the less those people would fight back and the faster and more economically the pirates could take what they wanted.
  • Florence Nightingale pushed for clean hospitals during the Crimean War to keep infections from killing so many soldiers. She pursued this goal after the war, helping to transform clinics everywhere.
  • Bette Nesmith Graham was an artist who made her living typing. When electric typewriters came into vogue, people found that the carbon film ribbons didn't allow for easy erasure of mistakes. Graham, who was not the most accurate typist, had the idea of painting over the mistakes with a white pigment and then retyping the correct text so she didn't have to start over.
  • Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, invented a reusable adhesive coating in 1968, but no one had a use for it. Then in 1974, Art Fry, a colleague, realized that taking some yellow scrap paper and putting the adhesive on it would make a fine bookmark for his hymnal. That was the birth of the Post-It note.
  • Brothers Irvin and Clarence Scott created the Scott Paper company, which would invent the paper tissue to keep people from wiping their noses on cloth towels in public bathrooms and accidentally spreading germs. The company also created paper towels for much the same reason.
  • Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel invented the barcode concept in the 1950s when a store owner, tired of tracking inventory and product prices, wanted a way to reduce his work load.

All these people put their stamp on culture, industry, society, or a mix. None of them were official designers. What they did was examine a real problem and provide a solution. The problem may have been directly theirs or someone else's that they knew. But in any case, the problem was real as was the need for a solution.

Ultimately, that is the basis of great design -- something that provides functions that a group of people need. It isn't necessarily something particularly slick looking. For example, designer Jonas Downey points out that messy interfaces, like Craigslist or Adobe Photoshop, can be popular, even if cluttered or ugly, because they solve the problems of their users.

Sometimes the unintentional designers are the people with the problem. Sometimes they are trying to solve someone else's problem. But design that really changes the world is that which helps people do what they wanted or needed to do but couldn't before. That's when you have a shot at changing the world.

Published on: May 10, 2016