Plastics have become major design materials of the 21st century and they are increasingly shaping the objects we use and rely on every day. Compared to the long established technologies of wood, metal, glass and ceramics, the plastics industry is a late arrival, but it now enjoys a well-documented history and design in plastics has evolved its own distinctive industrial aesthetic. Traditionally associated with shiny, rounded shapes and gaudy colours, objects made of plastic now have more refined forms, sharper edges and softer, friendlier finishes.

The first major plastic materials arrived as welcome alternatives to fashionable natural materials such as ivory, horn and tortoiseshell which were suffering from over-demand in the late 19th and early 20th century. But they also opened up a world of design possibilities, offering colours and patterns never previously available, together with the ability to be shaped into a multitude of useful products. Over the past 150 years plastics have enabled designers to create innovatory products – from nylon tights and contact lenses to airtight lids and bubble wrap – and have initiated entirely new industries such as recorded sound, film and photography. Where once synthetic materials were considered inferior, plastic is now the preferred material for many of the products which have become essential to modern living.

In the 1930s and 1940s a relatively basic selection of plastics was available. Today, the range of plastics is vast and offers different grades and formulations possessing a wide variety of properties. Designers can choose from soft and rubbery gels to bullet-proof, fire-proof fabrics. The versatility of these materials now allows the designer a freedom never before experienced, but he must also balance this with an increased awareness of the environmental impact of his work. He must consider sustainability through the careful use of resources and the final, or ‘end-of-life’ use of the product, which should include materials recycling.

Good design is a combination of a well-conceived idea, suitable materials and appropriate manufacturing processes. A brilliant idea can fail if it is too costly to manufacture, transport and distribute. And of course it must work. Examples of designs in plastics which are successful for a variety of different reasons include: the shatter-proof fizzy drinks bottle, the rechargeable insulin syringe, the Velcro fastening system, the smart card, the CD-ROM, the automotive fuel tank and, for enjoyment value, the vinyl record.