Fantastic Industrial Design Student Work: "How Long Should Objects Last?"

This incredibly ambitious and thoroughly-executed project is by Charlie Humble-Thomas, done while pursuing his Masters in the Design Products program at the RCA. Called Conditional Longevity, it asks the question: “How long should objects last?”

Seeking the answer, Humble-Thomas tackles an oft-discarded object, the umbrella, and designs three variants: Recyclable, repairable, and durable. By evaluating each design and its manufacturing processes side-by-side, he wades into the all-important complexity that most manufacturers would like to avoid: The inevitable trade-offs inherent in each approach.

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“I’m someone who gets a lot of joy from the histories of objects and the future of production,” Humble-Thomas writes. (It’s worth nothing that at the time of this project, Humble-Thomas was already an industrial designer with practical experience, having gained his Bachelor’s six years previous.)

“My nostalgia around designers of the past, is matched by a curiosity in emergent materials and techniques. I’ve spent much of my time at the RCA investigating the industrial use of Hemp fibre & bioresins. The burning question has always been whether these solutions will solve more problems than they create. Prioritising methods which minimise harm to the ecology, create less emissions or promote biodiversity is not easy.”

“My recent research has been looking into the issue of longevity and how long objects in our material world should last. I want to understand our disposable consumer culture better, but also try to define what techniques and materials suit which application. ‘Conditional Longevity’ is a project that maps out the gains and losses of strategies that designers use to extend or shorten the life of the physical items that furnish our lives. In equal parts, research into this longevity is both reassuring and bewildering. It proves that solutions to our problems are diverse and imperfect. Every object we bring into the world has a contextual backdrop, and every design decision is a compromise. The challenge is finding which compromises are the best to make.”

Conditional Longevity

The objects we interact with daily all have a life expectancy that we often overlook.

People are regularly slipping into clichés with the ‘right way’ to make things because we have so few well demonstrated examples.

Mapping of Objects in terms of User Bond vs Physical Longevity helped identify some objects to explore:

Editor’s note: This chart is worth examining. To see a larger, more legible version, click here.

Early candidates to evaluate longevity included a stool, a modular computer and a reusable coffee cup:


Challenging the root concept of an umbrella gave some interesting new angles on how to extend or shorten longevity.

Conditional Longevity asks the question, ‘How long should objects last?’ through the medium of umbrellas. If we hope to move towards a truly circular economy and rethink traditional consumerism, a better understanding of the consequences of the choices designers make is crucial. Each umbrella explores a unique take on approaching longevity, and users are presented with the impact data, downsides and benefits of each. The aim is to open up the debate on which strategies in product design are truly ‘best’ suited to our needs.

Every day we encounter objects with different life expectancies. We innocently use purchase or design items which if left unprocessed would sit on the face of the earth for 10 times the length of our lives. An example is a coffee lid, sometimes it’s active use is less than six seconds, but it’s ‘actual’ life may be over a thousand years.

The material, the manufacturing processes and the design of an object is just the tip of the iceberg. Our lived experience or relationship with an object is of equal, if not more importance in determining how long something ‘lasts’. An example would be a simple teddy bear, a soft toy that many children build attachment to as a source of comfort, a possession that is treated as precious for years until we mature and let go.

Understanding how attachments are made through cultural norms, but also how we can build products that are more appropriate for their task, should help us develop a healthier relationship with our material world.

Conditional Longevity: Recyclable Umbrella

A broken umbrella is often a landfilled umbrella.

From the outset, the aim was to celebrate the potential of plastic using snap fit connections and to celebrate ribbing supports.

Left: Models helped demonstrate flexibility of PP. Right: a central hub made using additive manufacturing.

The working umbrella retains a purity & simplicity from using only undyed polymer throughout.

Components for the Recyclable Umbrella. Total weight of assembled Umbrella is 460g.

Many of the objects we use daily are made from mixed materials, ones are often difficult to separate. This cost can outweigh the value of the materials, so these objects are very likely to end up in Landfill. Of course, mixing materials offers functional benefits such as combinations of soft & hard structures, and nowhere else is this more true with Umbrellas. The Recyclable Umbrella is a reappraisal of the potential for plastic, a material which if properly managed offers carbon savings and excellent recyclability when compared with many organic alternatives.

After testing and research, Polypropylene was chosen as the material, with a natural flex, the ability to make non-woven fabric for the canopy, and an ever increasing recycling rate. The construction pushes the material to it’s limits with a clip on canopy, snap fit arm pivots, a stay mechanism and heat welded canopy sections.

Being made from a pure material means recycling can happen with far fewer operations, and leaving the polymer undyed makes it much more valuable at the end of life stage. The ribbed sections across the umbrella then serve as a celebration of the material saving potential of plastic whilst also reinforcing the structure’s stiffness.

Conditional Longevity: The Repairable Umbrella

An umbrella is a complex object to repair, so would pose a challenge for users.

A numbering system would simplify assembly & ordering of replacement parts.

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Images showing the prototyping and assembly of the repairable umbrella:

The final umbrella with the removable canopy included:

Subassemblies of components for the Repairable Umbrella. Total weight of the assembled umbrella is 1.11kg.

The right to repair. Nostalgia over the fix it culture. Big corporations are in many cases now being forced to allow users to repair through legislation. Less glue and permanent fixings, with the hope less objects will end up in landfill. All of this in essence is a positive sentiment, but what does it mean in practice for Umbrellas?

Umbrellas are often riveted, press fitted or bonded together, and components are rarely off the shelf. This means when they break, repair becomes difficult and landfill becomes much more likely. By using familiar components at reasonable sizes, and making sure every part is replaceable, the aim was to create a truly ‘Lego’ like umbrella that could be assembled by the user and fixed whenever needed.

Reparability also shifts responsibility on the user rather than brands to maintain products. The mixing of components also creates issues as plastics, fabrics and metal fasteners would need to be mechanically separated for recycling. These non-permanent fixtures also create their own complexity in production and delivery of products. Assembled products then also naturally contain weak points when compared with those permanently fixed together.

Conditional Longevity: The Durable Umbrella

Made to last objects are often energy & resource hungry in production and the Durable umbrella is designed to reflect this.

The construction is purposefully over specified for its function, just like many of the products we know and love.

Functional prototypes of the mechanism & the handle:

Scan the QR code to see how the system would work.

The canopy structure is supported by carbon fibre struts which are highly energy intensive yet very strong and light.

CNC milling was used to create the stainless steel parts. Total weight of assembled umbrella: 1.71kg.

Long lasting, or lifetime guarantees are often hailed as being the key to reducing waste and saving energy in the long run. However, the assumption of ‘less but better’ being a superior approach to product design is rarely practically evaluated.

The third umbrella in the series takes durability to an almost cartoon-like level, by using ultra high performance materials such as carbon fibre and stainless steel. The character of the object is intended to emulate military grade construction but for use by a civilian, a trend that appears to be growing in our material culture.

With parts CNC milled and fixed or bonded together, and extra reinforcement given to weak areas identified through testing, the Umbrella in theory should last a lifetime. To encourage longer term care, the owners surname is engraved onto the handle alongside a QR code which can help tracing the umbrella if lost.

Conditional Longevity: The Conversation

Visualising the impact data of each umbrella.

Looking at ‘number of uses’ and comparing how many times one must be used to equal the other.

Draft of a data & description based ‘Impact summaries’ for objects.

Surveying people’s beliefs around longevity highlighted contradictions between behaviours and environmental beliefs.

This project looks to start a richer conversation around our problematic relationship with the material world and the objects we own. It’s about challenging our preconceptions, and unpicking our beliefs around what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. At the moment, we have a limited set of objects through which we evaluate materials, for example, the shopping bag debate. Here despite disposable plastic bags being demonised recently, on closer inspection, the cotton bag alternative had to be used dozens if not hundreds of times to be worth it in terms of carbon emissions. Energy and carbon is also just one element of this story, with waste and recycling adding more layers of complexity.

The data for each umbrella tells us the weight, energy use and carbon emissions and allows a clear cut comparison between options. The practical impact of each umbrella is then decided based on how many uses an umbrella gets; if you used the Recyclable umbrella four times, you would need to use the Ultra durable umbrella twenty-five times to make the energy needed to produce it to be equal.

The most profound conclusion this project has given is that we must begin to assess how proportionate the objects we use are to their intended use. Their impact can be expressed as a ratio expressed below:

Object Impact Profile:

Resources & energy consumed to produce, use and recycle an object in its lifetime [benchmarked against an average of competitor products on the market]


Divided by


Useful Life:

Projected number of uses & likelihood of loss, reuse & recycling [benchmarked against an average of competitor products on the market]

I was very kindly supported in my final project by the Robin & Lucienne Day Foundation, to whom I am extremely grateful. Their ongoing support of students at the RCA and beyond is an asset to the industry.

This project was completed in 2021. Today Humble-Thomas, who is based in London, works as a freelance industrial designer.

Source: core77

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