When Pentagram partner Daniel Weil first became a father in the 1980s, things were different. “When my first daughter was born, we didn’t have half the tools we do today,” he tells me. “When my third was born in the ’90s, there were prams that could transform with the child up until it was old enough to walk. Something happened–a shift.”
Weil was hired by Mothercare to redesign its baby feeding collection–bottles, nipples, and sterilization equipment–in 2009. He’s spent the last three years researching parenting culture, developing a remarkably in-depth study of how product design has changed along with childrearing since the 1950s. “I always want to know as much as my client, or more than my client,” he explains. “It’s a dream when you’re hired to do the thinking as well as designing.”
You might not expect the design history of baby bottles to be particularly riveting–but it is. Weil traces his research for me by explaining how bottles have mirrored consumer culture at large: In the 1960s, the most popular bottle was the same dimension as a Coke bottle. Later, they adopted the shape of an aluminum Coke can, and in the 1980s, the wide neck of a peanut butter jar. The only problem was that the wider the bottle got, the more you had to incline it to nurse the baby without feeding them colic-causing air bubbles. It became harder to maintain eye contact with the baby, which Weil calls “the most fundamental thing.” Feeding was getting healthier–but at the expense of the parent/child bond.
Weil’s Innosense feeding range makes two major changes to the conventional bottle. First, he redesigned the tip, doing away with the large, symmetrical silicon caps that allegedly mimic the shape of a real nipple. “Those are totally unrealistic,” he says. “When the baby feeds, it distorts the shape of the nipple.” Instead, he opted for a smaller, amorphous tip better suited to an infant’s mouth. He also changed its placement on the bottle. “I took the teat–which has always been centered because it’s easier to manufacture that way–and put it on the edge, so there’s very little chance of feeding air,” he explains. “But it also allows you to keep eye contact with the child at a more natural angle.” The bottles come in three sizes, delicately curved like a coffee mug. In fact, Weil compares the bottle to a cappuccino cup–it’s designed to feel perfect in the hand of an adult.
Which brings us back to that “shift” Weil mentioned earlier. During the two decades between his first and third children, a new pattern of parenting was emerging. People began having babies later, which tends to correlate to more disposable income. It also became far more common to live independently of a traditional familial network, which meant that advice was more likely to come from books and midwives than grandparents. “Parents who are in their 30s had a lifestyle before they had children,” he explains. “They had life experiences, choices; mothers worked, traveled. Suddenly you see the style of the products following the social behaviors of the parents. Bugaboo strollers begin to look like high-performance cycling equipment.” Parenting today is as much a social and cultural activity as it is a biological instinct. “In a way,” he adds, “parenting is becoming part of an aspirational lifestyle.”
[H/t Design Week]