Anders Warming doesn’t like the word “retro.” Ever since taking over as Mini’s chief of design in 2010, Warming has had to wrestle with the term’s meaning and its application to his company’s cars. Because it stems from “retrospective,” says the Danish designer, “it means you’re looking in the wrong direction.” He prefers to think of heritage instead, a concept that simultaneously acknowledges where a design comes from and looks to where it needs to be going.

Lenovo’s Arimasa Naitoh thinks along similar lines. He has led the ThinkPad laptop team ever since its inception in 1992 and remains conscious of the need for “commonality and consistency” between models, so that familiarity with one ThinkPad would make people comfortable with the company’s entire line. That’s why ThinkPads are always black and will, as long as Naitoh is around, continue to punctuate their keyboards with the signature red TrackPoint nub.

Whether explicitly hearkening back to a bygone era or simply maintaining an unaltered design for so long that it gets classified as retro, Warming and Naitoh face a similar challenge: how do you evolve a classic design? The same qualities that make a particular product compelling — whether it evokes a sense of nostalgia or offers superior usability — are the ones that militate against changing it. Lenovo and Mini are hardly alone in that respect, either, with everyone from sports shoe manufacturers to camera makers coming up against the ghost of achievements past.