Last week Lee Moreau, a principal at Continuum, a global design and innovation consultancy, retweeted the photograph of a foldable sneaker design: 

As it happens, this foldable, compressible sneaker--potentially capable of shipping flat, as Moreau points out in his tweet--fits a pattern of design emerging in other consumer-product categories. 

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For instance, the Morpher bicycle helmet, a smash hit on Indiegogo, folds in half when it's not on your head. It can fit inside a laptop bag. Even startups in the e-commerce mattress space design their products so they can be compressed or folded to fit inside shipping boxes used by UPS and FedEx. Talk about a logistics miracle.

As you can imagine, this compression or foldability is crucial to the startups' business models; indeed, the core principle of most e-commerce business models is that it's cheaper to ship things directly than it is to pay rent for commercial retail space.

Compression challenges

Of course, some products are more cumbersome to ship than others. For both Casper and Tuft & Needle, to pick two prominent online mattress startups who sell more than $1 million worth of mattresses each month, an ongoing effort is finding new efficiencies in the shipping process. "It's a very involved process, and it's a lot harder than people realize," says Tuft & Needle's head of operations, Evan Maridou. 

For example, one key to a foam mattress's comfort is the density of the foam. But when something is dense, "it can only be compressed so much" in the shipping process before the product is compromised, Maridou explains. 

What follows for the e-commerce mattress makers is something of a twofold design challenge. First and foremost is the already complex task of designing a comfortable mattress. Secondarily, but also a must have is designing a way to make the mattress eminently shippable. Otherwise, you have no business.

Tuft & Needle's mattress boxes used to be 44 x 19 x 19. Now they are 44 x 16 x 16. The company aims to reach 40 x 16 x 16. Tuft and Needle has also changed the way it fits the mattresses inside the boxes. The Phoenix-based startup, founded in 2013, used to fold its mattresses. Now it performs what Maridou calls "a horizontal lateral compression," which amounts to squishing the mattress evenly and rolling it up.  

Of course, the history of consumer goods is filled with examples of companies who've gained an advantage by designing products for convenient shipping. "Isaac Singer's first sewing machines came in wooden crates," notes Matthew Bird, a professor at RISD who is an authority on the history of industrial design. 

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One century later, IKEA's flat-packed tables came along, ushering in an era of of products "that take up little space till you get them," says Bird.

As a historian in this field, Bird has a knack for finding fresh and surprising examples of folding and compression in the design of consumer products. One of his favorites is Barbie's New Dream House, designed for Mattel by Gordon Shireman in 1964. It folded up into a suitcase you could carry with a handle. When you unfolded it, it became a colorful, multi-room ranch house with furniture and a terrace. 

Self-assembly, the next great frontier

For Moreau, the designer who retweeted the self-folding sneaker, the intrigue in products like this is not only the folding or compressing, but the way they fit in with what designers call the process of self-assembly. 

He saw the self-folding sneaker at a conference sponsored by MIT's Self-Assembly Lab, which defines self-assembly like this: 

Self-Assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction. In self-assembling systems, individual parts move towards a final state, whereas in self-organizing systems, components move between multiple states, oscillate and may never come to rest in a final configuration.

Self-assembly is, to a degree, what happens when your compressed or folded mattress arrives and you remove it from the box. The mattresses inflate to full size and usability within minutes. What ensues is an a-ha moment, where customers marvel at the product's ability to self-assemble. Customers of both Casper and Tuft & Needle have recorded these unboxings on YouTube, where they make convincing product testimonials--even though the customers have not yet slept on their new mattresses. 

Moreau points out that--by the truest definition--the process of self-assembly does not end once a consumer unboxes an item. In an ideal system of self-assembly, a product and its constituent materials continue to adapt and shape-shift based on interactions in their local environment. 

In other words: Imagine a future where a sneaker--rather than experiencing wear and tear over time--actually morphs and evolves to benefit the user based on the way she wears it and interacts with it. "It would create a greater and closer relationship to the user if we could embed adaptability of a product into the material," Moreau explains.

"We talk about this adaptability in digital design all the time," he adds. "But can we apply it to clothing and footwear? Now that's exciting."