A short history of the BIC
In the beginning there was a verb. There was light as well. Then the BIC lighter came to enlighten us.
How many times do we use the lighter a day? Thousands let’s say. BIC says that they sell 5 million pieces a day (http://bicworld.com/ ). It is not surprising I have to say. The number of pieces produced per year is around 1.5 billion. It is such a small invention that changed our life and that represents the modernity.
The lighter appeared in the high-class apartments and boudoir at the beginning of the XIX century, invented by Dobereiner, but it wasn’t that user friendly. Shortly it became a status symbol of the rich class, and after its grand entrée, it started to be used by the middle and low classes, reinvented for a more pret à porter audience. It shows that there are things that are extremely important in our everyday life, and yet are not considered design in the sense of great design and aesthetic values creators according to the idea of design of the XXI century. However, they make our surroundings.
Norman describes those anonymous objects in his famous book “The Design of Everyday Things”. In a world that is based on high rate of production and consumption is interesting to have a closer look to the ordinary design, which makes design and the designer profession.
Marcel Bich produced the BIC for the first time in 1973. The success was extreme, and after more than 40 years, it is still the most sold lighter all over the world. The huge success of BIC is significant of a specific life style, it is easy to handle, it can be carried around, it is always there and its mechanisms are so simple to be used by everybody. BIC adapted during the years, becoming children-safe thanks to the introduction of a simple blocking system of the little wheel that causes the sparks. It is available in every possible colours and it is highly sustainable because it can be recharged and used endless time (if recharged). We can make up to 5000 flames with one lighter before we have to recharge it or before we have to throw it away (which is the most unsustainable things to do).
But how does it work? It has two main parts, a body that is made out of plastic and it is the container of the petrol; and the upper part that makes the lighting system. Super simple. Super normal. The BIC is part of what Fukasawa and Morrison describes as supernormal design (http://www.supernormal.co.uk/). It is what Norman describes as the design of everyday things. Those objects are without time and space, they do not depend on époques or contexts, and they simply exist for us to use them in our daily life. Those objects are like myths, they always tell the same story that is adaptable to every changing context. Designers that design for the everyday might not achieve huge success in terms of fame or artistic recognition. In fact, history had shown that the elite decides the typologies of things which are representative of their social codes. However, the supernormal designers are the ones contributing the most to create our surroundings. And we are not aware of it.
Roland Barthes, father of the semiotic science, was one of the first that looked at things with a critic eye, paying more attention to the meaning behind the objects. We can say that the lighter represents the myth of modernity. Started in the 70’s and still alive nowadays, BIC lighters are easy to use, simply manufactured and highly consumed by everybody. They got to be primary goods in less than 50 years, they shaped the pocket of our jeans, they wiped away the matches (or almost) and they move from being an eclectic object in the boudoirs of the well-off up to being in every rooms of our houses, apartments and studios. We should be able to identify the criteria basing on which such objects are created, and what do they stand for.
The normal look is what we, as designers, should consider as primary creative source when designing. The supernormal design is at the foundation of the bricks that build the entire ecosystem in which we live. A small mechanism and a plastic body made one of the most successful object that was The Lighter for the past 50 years. This goes together with the post-it, the staples, the matches (to go against what I told you about the lighter), the filters of the sinks, up to the most complex objects. We only need to look around and we will find the next successful BIC story. But we need to pay a little more attention in the way of looking.
Author: Luca Baldini