Objects exist for many reasons, but most of them are created for the use to which they can be put. They are a means to an end. They are our tools. Our contemporary tools serve our contemporary lives: cell phones, tablets and laptops, flat screens. When the use is frequent and the outcome critical, we appraise our tools the most carefully.
This is very evident in the building trades, for instance. When you make your living by your screw-gun driver, you will want the best combination of torque, long battery life, low weight, balance and grip that a non-extortionist price will buy. If you only drive a drywall screw now and then, you will probably make your purchasing decision differently.
For those that have a ‘special interest’, the same scrutiny of objects takes place. If you are a fly-fisherman, for instance, you will know a great deal about lines and lures and rods (I don’t). You may even claim that you don’t know anything about design, but given even a small chance, you can hold forth at length on the minutiae of your tackle.
“Professionals” is one way we define or differentiate those that make their living from their specific set of tools (and skills). Chefs, as another example, will care more about the balance of their knives, their weight, their ability to hold an edge and so on, than most of us do. Marketers know this, and there are often ‘professional’ lines of products to complement the regular offerings.
But there are reasons to be cautious here, for tricks can be played. Most of us can be gullible, at least at times. I know I can be, but I’ve learned some things along the way. One early lesson came to me in design school, when a prominent manufacturer of tools came for a show-and-tell. One model of hammer was much more expensive than the others. I asked why, anticipating that it had been made from a better quality of steel. But no, it came from the same forging as all the others. It had just received the most polishing. It was brighter and dearer, but not really better. The benefit to its maker was that it returned the highest profit margin, from those dazzled by shiny things.
Only the people that use tools critically are really able to appraise them. To my mind, one of the biggest problems of design and one of its greatest challenges, is that the people who design (those professionals like me) usually are not really familiar with the tools that they may be called on to design. It’s easy to be arrogant and to think that your (our) specialized training singularly equips us to see and understand. But it may not. Another lesson from my design school involved the design of the handle for a backsaw. I did my research, ergonomic studies, clay models, prototypes etc., just as I had been trained to do, but when I showed the sleek and polished final model to our wood workshop technician, I got my real critique. He, being polite, said gracious things about my efforts, but then said that as far as he was concerned, the rather mundane handle of his old backsaw was hard to improve on (the very handle we had been challenged to improve). He noted that my version, which fit me perfectly, was the wrong size for his much bigger hands. As well, he showed me how he used his saw: like this and like that. The round handle allowed him to adjust his hands position without compromise. The ridges on the turning gave him just the right amount of grip. He used the tool and knew what it should be, in a way that I, as a designer, had little insight into.
I’m often reminded of this lesson when I review the results of industrial design competitions. There are often new designs for tools. It turns out that I may have spent quite a bit of time on the working end of some types of tools and this allows me to make considered judgments on them. There are often deficiencies and anomalies to spot and I suspect that in the categories where I lack experience, the same truths apply. Only the people who really use tools know what is crucial to them. Internet research doesn’t do it.
I think that it would look well on designers to adopt a bit more humility when it comes to tools and to do their research ‘in the field’. There is more to making a good tool than to improving its polish.
Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University in Toronto, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.