Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that examines the lessons behind disruptive products through the lens of design.

Like many great inventions, Post-it Notes came into being by mistake--the result of a failed attempt at creating a different product altogether. 

Scientist Spencer Silver was trying to develop super-strong adhesives for 3M Laboratories in 1968 when he accidentally created a weak adhesive that stuck to surfaces without bonding tightly to them. Though Silver didn't immediately see a use for his invention, a scientist at 3M named Art Fry did.

"I thought, what we have here isn't just a bookmark. It's a whole new way to communicate," Fry once said. 

Still, the 1977 launch of the Post-it's percursor, named Press 'n Peel, didn't immediately stick. Once people realized how useful the sticky notes were, however, they spread "like a virus," according to Fry. "It was always a self-advertising product, because customers would put the notes on documents they sent to others, arousing the recipient's curiosity."  

In 1980, 3M distributed Post-it Notes nationwide, and today, the average working professional receives 11 messages via Post-it per day, according to the company.

So how did Post-it Notes become such an iconic office product?

Here are three design elements that helped make the Post-it a must have for practically every office-supply closet in America.

1. Solve a problem.

Though Silver didn't realize there was value in the new type of adhesive he had created, Fry immediately saw Post-it Notes as a solution to a different problem. A weekly churchgoer, Fry's paper bookmarks he used to find hymns were always falling out of hymnals between practice on Wednesday and church service on Sunday. Post-it Notes solved this by sticking to the paper but importantly not damaging the pages.

2. Keep it simple.

The beauty of Post-it Notes is how easy they are to use. The adhesive doesn't require licking, like envelopes, nor does it need a special peel-away wax paper to remain sticky. They're lightweight, small, compact, and inexpensive. With 100 Post-its per pad, each note costs consumers roughly 1 cent.

3. Reusability is key.

The unique quality of the adhesive Silver created was the "removability characteristic" that was both high in tack, or stickiness, but low in peel adhesion, referring to the ease in which the adhesive separates from surfaces. This combination of attributes allow Post-it Notes to be reused countless times before losing their stick.

Today, Post-it notes are available in more that 150 countries, and the famous Post-it adhesive is used on many Post-it brand products, including its Super Sticky notes that adhere to vertical and non-smooth surfaces. But none of this would have been possible without Silver's original (but accidental) Post-it design. 

Published on: Sep 19, 2014