Elegant design elevates…

…the humble utility knife

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

I was carving up an old Oriental carpet, trying to salvage some of the design elements (a fruitless endeavor, it turned out) when I became very frustrated with the utility knife I was using.

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Not the utility knife of my dreams!

Specifically, with changing the blade. First I couldn’t get the knife apart. Then I couldn’t get it back together. The blade seemed to be designed to go in backwards. I couldn’t use the button that would make the blade slide further out or further in. I should add that I’ve had this problem with a lot of utility knives recently. It seemed to me they used to be easier to use. I was reduced to discarding the handle and just cutting with the blade. It’s a wonder I still have all my fingers.

As I often do when I’m annoyed with a tool or a handy-woman chore, I commented — okay, whined–to my friend Mike.

“Why is it,” I emailed, “that what should be the simplest tool is the biggest pain to use?”

Seems I had hit on one of his own pet peeves.

“Now, I hate to wax poetic about the humble utility knife, but I have strong opinions about it,” he wrote.

“The kind with the retractable blades? Almost always fall apart (literally and figuratively) under heavy use. Even the clunky ones where you have to unscrew the two halves often continue the seam right over the top of the blade and, once the blade jumps its cradle, the thing will never be the same.

“I lost my favorite utility knife. I don’t know who made it and, since I have others, I’ve never felt a need to replace it. It was a lovely design: had a big yellow plug at the back end that kept the two halves in line. Depress that and the thing would open like a pair of scissors. You could lift the used blade out and take a spare from the handle in seconds, with no tools. Had my required overlap on the blade end too, so no matter how much abuse you gave it, the worst that would happen is you’d break the blade.

“I think they’ve mandated difficulty in changing the blades since 9-11,” he concluded.

Essays on the value of good design don’t get much better than that. Simple and succinct, gets the job done economically and elegantly.

Which are also the elements of great design.

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Eames Lounge and Ottoman for Herman Miller

“Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose,” said Charles Eames, St. Louis native and half of a renowned husband-and-wife team responsible for icons of Modern furniture design, including the Eames lounge and ottoman.

“What works good is better than what looks good,” said the team’s other half, Ray Eames. “Because what works good, lasts.”

Good design adds value, according to designers. Steve Jobs elevated that rule-of-thumb to a mantra, and created a company and products that came to embody that approach.

With the exception of companies like Apple, the value added by good design has often been considered only aesthetic, not monetary. Even when the design is acknowledged as part of a product’s value, it hasn’t been easy to quantify the financial impact of good design. But now Fast Company has reported on the results of a study by the Design Management Institute that finds good design is good for business–very good, indeed.

In fact, the Design Management Institute concludes that design-driven businesses have outperformed Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market index by 228% over the past 10 years.

Besides Apple, stand-out design companies include Coca-Cola, Ford, Herman Miller, IBM, Intuit, Newell Rubbermaid, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks, Starwood, Steelcase, Target, Walt Disney and Whirlpool. These companies invest in user-friendly design, innovative advertising and distinctive branding–and they reap the rewards, according to the DMI study.

The Boston-based non-profit created the DMI Design Value Index of companies that met six design management criteria, according to the Fast Company report. The criteria indicated a senior-level commitment to using design as a resource for innovation and a force for positive change. Only 15 of the 75 publicly traded U.S. companies surveyed by DMI met the criteria. The financial returns of those 15  were compared to those of other publicly traded companies, revealing the 228 percent advantage of the design-led companies.

I mentioned Mike’s thoughts on the utility knife to my friend Laurie, as well as the DMI study results. I said I would be willing to pay double for a well-designed utility knife–or almost any object. She agreed, saying she’s always looking for a easy-to-use hand-held recorder for interviews. So far, no luck finding one.

“I want one that not only works well,” she added, “but is a pleasure to use.”

An artful life relies on simple, well-designed tools that function beautifully and are a pleasure to use.

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