The oldest profession?

Design and design consultancy seem like modern day occupations and something our ancestors would not have had any time for, but I think design can claim to be one of the oldest professions and is also one of the abilities that make us human.

In room 2 on the ground floor of the British Museum in London stands a glass case containing a lump of rock. This is of course no ordinary lump of rock; it is an Olduvai stone chopping tool, it is 1.8 million years old and it is the oldest object in the British Museum. It looks unremarkable, but this lump of rock could be the oldest piece of human design in existence. But does it really qualify as design?

Dieter Rams’ principles for good design state that good design is innovative, useful, understandable, unobtrusive, honest and long lasting.


The Olduvai tool comfortably ticks all of these boxes. This object was revolutionary, it broke the mould for early man and allowed him to chop bones, plants, and wood and out-compete other animals for food and territory.

Design and use of objects is one of the things that separates humans from the birds and the beasts. Upgraded models of hand axes were developed and there is evidence that our ancestors never went anywhere without one; it was a prehistoric essential. Even after 1.8 million years it was obvious to the archaeologists who found it, what it was and how it was used (no instructions necessary). People who have been lucky enough to hold it, describe how well it fits in the hand and how powerful the cutting stroke feels. This truly is a piece of design and it is 1.8 million years old.

Design has come a long way in 1.8 million years but the core principles haven’t changed and I take a certain amount of pride from working in such an ancient profession and one that helps define us as humans. My ancestors would be very proud if they could see me today.

» Learn more on the British Museum website

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