In Praise of Good Design

I mentioned that there were no personal injuries resulting from The Big Dig (see Fellowship). But there was one casualty—my reciprocating saw. The shaft that drives the blade snapped. I have had this saw for ten years or so, and while I haven’t put a large number of hours on it, those hours were hard, root cutting ones. For a near-bottom-of-the-line homeowner special, it has served me well.

Repair or replace? I find a parts list and diagram online, set out to tear it down, and hit a conundrum. All the screws I need to access are underneath the rubber boot that encloses the lower end of the saw, and to remove the boot requires getting to those same screws. In other words, to remove the boot, I first need to remove the boot.

I have been a critic of much industrial design. All too often, I pick up a consumer product, try to use it, and conclude that the designers did not take the obvious step of trying to use their own product. How else could we end up with garden carts that tip while being loaded, and whose undercarriages bang ankles unless the user limits his/her movement to all but the most mincing steps? Or vacuum cleaners whose accessories will not stay on their designated mounts? Children’s toys that do not work? What is the excuse for dishwashers that claim to hold a service for twelve, but have no place for cereal bowls, serving dishes, or leftovers containers? No one I know serves dinners for twelve; everyone I know has leftovers. Who are these dishwashers designed for?

HP-35, Remote, and iPod
HP-35, Remote, and iPod

Consequently, when I find a well-designed product, I want to sing its praises. In a drawer of my writing desk are three such products: one of the early click-wheel iPods (Apple); a remote control for a laptop computer (Apple); and a 1972-vintage HP-35, “the world’s first scientific pocket calculator” (Hewlett-Packard). My HP-35 still works off the charger, though the battery pack is long defunct. I don’t have much need for trig functions or exponentials these days, and if I did, would likely turn to my computer before digging the HP out of the drawer. But because I am still a fan of Reverse Polish Notation, and because this calculator brings back fond memories of my first professional job, I keep it. How many devices do you have from 1972 that still work?

My iPod no longer works—hard drive failure. I keep it in part for nostalgia but mostly because it is still a beautiful instrument. The click-wheel was a clever interface whose misfortune was to have been quickly overtaken by an even better technology, the touch-screen. And the case, with its curved corners and edges, begs to be held.

Back of Remote with Battery Door
Back of Remote with Battery Door

I am frankly baffled by the concept of a remote control for a laptop. I never used mine. But the device is a visual delight and an engineering masterpiece. The case is a single bar of aluminum. No screws, no seams. “How did they put it together?” I wondered. The answer is that all the internals are inserted through the battery door. The same could be asked of the iPod: “How did they put it together?” In that instance, a flawlessly executed friction fit.

Which brings me back to my broken saw. How did they put it together? Amazingly, I have been unable to find a YouTube video or other answer to that question. Our best guess is that it involves heating and stretching the rubber boot, which is what Nancy and I did to get inside. She had to start with a palette knife, to make a place to insert a screwdriver blade and begin pulling the rubber back. Then gripping with pliers and turning the boot inside out as I held onto the saw body, we pulled. Hard tugging and pulling, the kind of effort that prompts you to check behind you for a soft place to fall if it gives suddenly. Tugging and pulling punctuated by our laughter at the absurdity. Uncovering the first pair of screws, we recheck the diagram. Two more pairs of screws to go! By the time we are through, the boot is a tangled mess, but has not torn.

Saw Rotor and Stator
Saw Rotor and Stator

The three visibly damaged parts would cost half of the price of a replacement saw. Is something else on the verge of failure? Would we be able to re-stretch the boot back into place? I have decided to replace, not repair. But the whole exercise of dismantling that tool has given me a respect for its designers. In its clean lines, its performance, its ergonomic feel, and its mysteriously hidden methods of assembly, it reminds me of the aforementioned Apple products. Even on the inside, where few would ever see, the components are cleanly designed and executed. No rough edges. The rotor and the frame for the stator windings are minor works of art. Well done, Ryobi!

Post Script—Friends Mike and Roni recently introduced me to the writings of humorist Michael Perry, and I was reading his book, Truck, during the above events. In a nice bit of synchronicity, while I was thinking about design, good and bad, Perry’s book introduced me to industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Check him out. Check out Perry too. Celebrate good design and good writing.

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Good Design”

  1. Well said Brent. We think Lowey and Steve Jobs (who was obsessed with elegant, functional design) would agree. Our latest addition to the list would be George Pocock a master designer-craftsman-engineer-philosopher boat builder who was instrumental in the University of Washington winning gold in rowing at the 1936 Berlin olympics. This remarkable story is well told in “The Boys in the Boat”. We would also include Michael Perry as a master crafter of word and story.

  2. I have a use for laptop remotes. In our previous small apartments I used our laptop to watch movies while I ran on the treadmill. The remote came in pretty handy for pressing play/skipping/pausing while running!

  3. Ah, the HP Handheld reminds me of seeing in one year the disappearance of slide rules on the Univ of Tennessee campus. My education in high school had already been sunset by a new technology; a phenomenon that would continue to this day. My Dad said that he got in a little bit of management hot water when instead of clinging to the old Wang terminals at his engineering group he made the decision to purchase everyone a handheld HP. He said that since they would periodically move offices, this would allow a simple sliding of the calculating machine into your pocket and a simple walk down the hall or to another building. The tethered terminals required the time and expense of work orders.

  4. Your championing of ReversePolish is understandable, but you overlook a later but even more extraordinary hand calculator, the HP-13C. Inverse hyperbolic cosines, factorials, etc. – an amazing device.

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