Posted by jenlocati
The other day I was thinking about Kickstarter and all the great (or at least interesting and clever) products that have been created through Kickstarter campaigns- though my faith in crowdsourced funding was recently shaken with the wild success of The Coolest. $13 million raised to fund a cooler with a blender and a spot for your iPhone… uh, okay.
Anyway, I was thinking about product design and whether similar to ecological systems, where we have the concept of “apex predators”, are there apex inventions? Apex predators are defined as predators with no natural predators of their own, and they are a pretty badass list of creatures- Killer whales (we in the Northwest prefer to call them Orcas), tigers, wolves, and saltwater crocodiles, to name a few. Unless you are an MMA fighter, you do not want to meet any of these creatures bare-handed. Even then, the odds are probably against you.
In the world of design, what could occupy this top spot? A product so dominant that the closest competitor quails with fear. Could the deceptively humble zipper be one of these rare creatures?
Before you scoff at the notion of the zipper as the top of the proverbial design food chain, let’s take a step back and admire its design and longevity. The zipper has few (or no, depending on how you define it) moving parts. It’s durable, easy to operate, incredibly effective, versatile, and ubiquitous. Zippers are on everything from clothing, to shoes, suitcases, and furniture. There are billions of zippers out there. I challenge you to go through a single day- heck, a single hour, without coming into contact with a zipper or something using a zipper.
Buttons. Snaps. Hooks. Velcro. Laces. Some of these challengers came before, some after. But none have the power, the bang for the buck, if you will, of the zipper. It reigns supreme.
I love this gif of how a zipper works. It’s oddly mesmerizing. So simple. So good at its job. I found myself wanting to work as well as a zipper. When you think about this simple mechanism coming together so perfectly- it’s a little bit amazing that evolution hasn’t provided us with a natural equivalent- though the formation of scar to close a wound does have some of the same properties.
Even more incredible and a testament to its enduring design is the fact that it hasn’t been significantly improved upon in nearly 100 years. In the years surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair, there was a flurry of innovation and design among those working on fasteners, but once Whitcomb Judson (usually credited as the inventor, though he did not make a commercially successful device out of it) and then Gideon Sundback got a hold of it, progress moved quickly to essentially the current design. Yes, zippers can now be bi-directional, but the fundamental shape- the teeth, the slider, and the little tab you grasp would be instantly recognizable to the inventors.
Zippers are everywhere and I contend, will continue to be. If you pause to imagine what clothing might look like in 100 years, it’s likely- whatever fabrics have been invented and whatever style is in fashion- the zipper is going to be involved. From curve hugging red carpet dresses, to rugged fire fighter jackets- zippers keep the goods in and the elements out better than anything else.
But, Velcro, you say! Sure, velcro is important and it’s a nice addition to a zipper on the front of a jacket, but there aren’t any clothes that require serious holding power that employ velcro alone. It’s adjustability and flexibility is part of its downfall when it comes to the top spot on the product hierarchy. Notwithstanding that brief period in the 80’s when Velcro dominated the shoe scene, now it’s been relegated to a punchline in Macklemore’s Wing$.
Much of a zipper’s genius comes from that engineering axiom, KISS. Keep it Simple, Stupid. The fewer parts involved, the easier to build, maintain, and use. The concept of Design for Assembly was developed in the late ’70’s at the University of Massachusetts, with aim to make products easy to assemble and although the process applied to much more complex products like Swatch watches and the Sony Walkman, I can imagine the zipper as the grandaddy of this concept.
Most know some version of the phrase, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” (Thanks Ralph Waldo Emerson!) and no one loves innovation more than I do, but what if there are truly apex products? Surely, the zipper should be allowed to hang it’s jersey in the Invention Hall of Fame.
Few products have the same staying power, the same relevance nearly 100 years after their debut without significant improvement. What else deserves a top spot? The wheel? Ballbearings? Airfoil wings? There aren’t a lot of fundamental designs that can compete with zipper for ubiquity, functionality, and durability.
The next time you slide on your favorite pair of jeans, ask yourself, “Is this as good as it gets?”
Why yes, yes it is.
I’d love your thoughts. Thanks for reading and sharing.