Simple Designs that sold Millions

Every day we use simple designs that have become an entrenched part of our life. Think of the toilet roll, the lock and key, the drawer, the step, the fork, the straw, the pen, the plug. Some were dreamt up in an instant, and some no doubt took a considerable amount of thought, time and effort. But once they floated fully imagined in the mind they needed skilled design and engineering processes to bring them to life; engineering that would streamline and simplify, ensuring accessibility and workability – bringing the quirky wonders of inventive minds to life.

Getting rich from simple designs is surely possible. Is it quick? Sometimes. But some hapless inventors have ended up penniless. Inventing a saleable product takes time, determination and often the right connections; it can take time for your brand to gain recognition and trust from the market.

The light bulb

Probably the most enlightening invention in history, the light bulb changed the world and the way we live. It was invented by Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan in the late 1800s. It is said that Edison tried hundreds of different methods before he lit on the right one. It operates on a fairly simple principle: an electrical current flows through the filament, heating it up until it glows, which in turn produces light inside a vacuum (the bulb) so that the glow lasts. Once this miracle was captured in its glass design (so perfectly compact and simple, it has hardly changed through the decades) Edison’s name, fame and fortune was made.

The Magic 8 Ball

This completely useless invention’s popularity lay in its apparent ability to tell you your fortune. It comprised an alcohol and dye-filled ball with 20 sides each printed with various answers. Originally developed in the 1950s, it was manufactured by Mattel, and was a huge commercial success, making millions in sales even until today, and certainly making a fortune for the manufacturer. Thinking it up must have taken some time, an engineering input of some skill with regard to complexity of design and simplicity of use.

The Bendy Straw

While the straw itself was a brilliant, simple invention that sold millions, the bendy straw became equally successful for the inventor, Joseph Friedman. A simple adjustment that made the straw adjustable, made him a fortune. While watching his daughter trying to drink a milkshake at a parlour in the 1930s, he had the idea that if the straw could bend without breaking, it would be very serviceable to many: children, the elderly, the sickly or physically disabled.

He began by making ridges in the straw by inserting a screw into the top and winding dental floss tightly around it. When he removed the screw, the straw had those signature ridges and could bend. He founded the Flex-Straw Company in 1939 and made his first sale in the 1940s to a hospital. His tinkery design was set to make him a multi-millionaire.

The Slinky Toy

Sometimes one just needs imagination, and a nose for what will fascinate children for hours. Richard James, a naval engineer, came up with the idea for this entertaining toy by accident. He was working with tension springs when he dropped one and noticed how it bounced. He convinced a department store in Philadelphia to carry 400 Slinky’s (now brightly coloured) for Christmas in 1945, and they sold out within two hours at a dollar a piece. To date, the Slinky has sold over 300 million units and can be found in most homes with children.

The Tangle Teezer

This simple yet unique invention was laughed out of the UKs Dragon Den show. It consists of a brush with flexible plastic teeth that detangles and unknots hair with ease. But after having his idea soundly mocked, Hairdresser Shaun Pulfrey remained confident that he had a winner, and went on to sell millions of his invention, selling to the UK Boots chain before going global in 2009. Now a household name, Pulfrey is a very rich inventor, thanks to the engineering design skills that helped bring his idea to life.

The Dyson Vacuum Cleaner

Probably one of the most loved inventions ever, the bagless vacuum cleaner was dreamed up by James Dyson in 1978, drawing inspiration from the industrial cyclone separators used in sawmills. James was an industrial designer whose elegant inventions would come to elevate engineering and technical innovation to high esteem in Britain. While he was able to fully develop his design by the 80s, he couldn’t find a UK company willing to produce it.

So he turned to the Japanese and was finally able to bring his invention to market in 1986. He set up his own firm in the UK in 1993 but wasn’t able to crack the market thoroughly until the early 2000s’s. But since then, his product has become the fastest selling vacuum cleaner in the UK, and a leader in the US market by 2005. So it was quite journey, and while his invention now sells in the millions, Dyson is a reminder that determination, resilience and unwavering belief in your product, are still the fundamentals of success.

Space for the flyover

Was this a simple exercise? No, but the idea was superbly and intelligently simple. In 2014, the Chinese government astonished the engineering world when they constructed a 17,000-ton, 250-metre, six-lane flyover in Wuhan City. The catch? It had to be done without stopping a high-speed railway which was to be situated under the flyover and was part of the largest network in the world. Traditional construction methods were hardly possible.

So instead, the Chinese engineers built the flyover section along a piece of land parallel to the rails. Then, once it was ready, they lifted it 15 metres, rotated it slowly 106 degrees, and connected it to the highway on either side of the rail tracks. They did this in 90 minutes. The problem was complex, but the solution was simple – and saved the government a considerable amount of time and money.

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