The ten worst design sins for gear

   07.30.13

I have always been interested in good design.  Part of it is my rampant and incurable gadgetitis.  The other part of it is my passion for woodworking, which, invariably, requires me to design stuff (no, I don’t use plans… designing the furniture is my favorite part, especially new and specialized joinery).  I did a lot of reading when I was in college and grad school, and I was fortunate enough to be in the same city as Walter Gropius’s most famous American school.  Research into Bauhaus design and architecture in general led me to Dieter Rams and his landmark work, 10 Principles of Good Design.

Nowadays I’m definitely not along in my interest in design. Since Apple made design cool, everyone and their brother seems to be an amateur designer. Everyone, that is, except for folks making gear.  Well, not all gear makers, just some of them.  Since we learn better by negative reinforcement, I thought I would lay out the 10 Worst Design Sins for Gear.  Here we go. Sorry if this is a little rant-y, but it has been pent up after two and half years of gear reviews.

10.  Tip-up pocket clips on flashlights 

There is this “debate” among knife people about whether tip up or tip down positioning on pocket clips matters.  The reality is that this is so close to being preference or worse inconsequential that I’ll just say, do whatever you want.  But on flashlights, there are good, fundamental design reasons why all pocket clips should be “tip down”, aka “lens down”.  The lens, while very durable, is probably the most fragile part of a flashlight.  I don’t mean that it will break, because most won’t under even the most extreme use, but lenses do collect dust, dirt, scratches, and fingerprints like crazy.  Clips that put lenses facing up in your pocket do nothing but speed up the dirt and scratch collection process.  Furthermore, this positioning generally places the larger diameter piece in the opening to your pocket, making access to you pocket more difficult.

Yes, I like the new two-way clips on Surefires that allow for “ballcap mounting”, like here:

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But if I had to chose, it would always been lens down.

9.  Pin construction for knife handles

“See, well, we don’t trust you.  You’re the moron that got dirt inside your knife in the first place.  Why the hell would we trust you opening it up after you did that?”

Essentially that is what knife companies are telling you when use pin constructed handles.  The reality is that pin construction is faster and cheaper, but it makes user maintenance impossible.  I would always choose screw construction, even though I think I have disassembled my knives like once or twice.  Options are always good.

8. Black, black, black, black, and more black. Plus some black.

I get it.  Black is tactical.  Black goes with everything.  Black is slimming.  Oh wait, what the… Seriously though, enough with the black.  Especially crappy black, like the “coating” on Cold Steel knives.  I have never owned one of their knives and not had the black “coating” flake off.

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I don’t need a black blade.  I actually think that Cold Steel’s AUS8 formulation is plenty corrosion resistant.  And if you are going to do a coating do a good one.  But then there are the approximately 1,000,000 black-handled folding knives.  1% of knife owners need black for security reasons.  The rest of us don’t.

How about a white handled FRN knife so we can dye it the color we want?  Oh wait, Spyderco did that (though I don’t think it was to allow us to dye the handle scales).  Seriously though what if that was the package?  White scales with dye and, yes, screw construction?  That would rock.

7. Tacticool flashlight bezels

Do you REALLY want to put this in your pocket next to the boys? If you are in that 1% that need black blades, then fine get a strike bezel.  For the rest of us, SKIP.  How about, instead of a fixed bezel, a screw-down one so the end user can swap bezels?  Again, options are better.

6. Knife blades with recurves

Are you a seafaring, hairy-armed, anchor tattoo wearing fella that cuts lots of mooring?  Oh, you’re not?  Okay then, all that a recurve blade does is make your knife hard to sharpen.  I guess they look cool, but I’d much rather have a knife I can sharpen and use than one I can admire but not use.

Want to know the single reason why I got rid of my ZT350, one of my most favorite blades of all time?

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Sharpening a recurve blade in S30V was a real bitch.

5. Battery cages in flashlights

It just went dark because my flashlight ran out of batteries.  Fumbling around, I find the end of the light and unscrew it.  I then tip the light up and the battery and battery cage slide out.  They somehow become separated.  Still in the dark, I fumble around some more, working my way across the room like caver without a headlamp, to find some new batteries.  When I return I feel around and what the F#$%! the battery cage is missing.

Why make this more complicated than it needs to be?  This is the one time you really don’t want to be fussing with fragile small parts.  Battery cages are very common on cheap 3xAAA lights, and lights that try to run both 2xCR123a and 18650s.  Flashlight makers have figured out work-arounds, but some companies are just too cheap to implement them.

4. Multitools with no outside accessible tools

The most used tool on all mutlitools is a knife, therefore it should also be the most accessible tool, and not buried in the handle of the tool’s pliers.  I am convinced that this is about 90% of the reason why folks that carry a knife carry a knife instead of a multitool.  Since Leatherman figured this out, quite a few makers have taken up this model.  Those that haven’t need to go back to Gear Design Kindergarten.

3. Weirdo Shapes for pocket clips

What the hell is this?

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That thing is so weird, so snaggy, it drove me crazy during the Zing review.  That is one hell of a knife with a POS pocket clip. (Kershaw has since changed out the clip).  I just don’t understand why clips have to be so complex.  We have ones that work really well.  Just use them.

We don’t want this:

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or this:

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We want this:

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Is that really all that hard?

2.Complex flashlight UIs

Okay, who thinks this makes sense?

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It is either: a) a decision tree created by Cold War game theorists to figure out what to do when both China and the USSR launched nukes at the same time; or b) the UI chart for the Liteflux LF3XT.

The one thing a light must do without fail is produce…wait for it…light.  With the LF3XT that didn’t always happen.  Sometimes the light dropps into some weird mode and I get nothing.  Or I get strobe.  Or SOS.  If there is any place where design should be reduced to bumper sticker slogans it is flashlight UI:  KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID.

1.  Proprietary fasteners for anything

Who do you think you are?  Do you really think your piece of gear is so amazing, so great, that mudane Phillips head or Torx head drivers aren’t good enough?  Seriously?  Here is the history of another propriety fastener.  Disaster.

So, Strider, no more weird-ass pivot screws please.

Yes Microtech, I, too, think it’s cool you can make fasteners look like that, but I have no desire to actually buy a knife with such things on it.

Screws are functional pieces.  Make them functional.  You want to throw a little (unnecessary) design flourish in there?  First, don’t.  But if you can’t overcome that impulse, then stamp your logo on the pocket clip or put it on the spine of the knife. And if you still can’t control yourself and you absolutely must use proprietary fasteners, you better damn well give me a tool I can use with them.  Gear with proprietary screws but no tool is like a car without an engine.  Okay maybe not an engine, more like a windshield.  Really, really ANNOYING.

There is a corollary to this rule: use as few types of fasteners as you can.  I had a Boker that had a proprietary pivot, torx on the handle scales, and Phillips on the pocket clip.  Ugh.  I don’t expect everyone to use one fastener type and size throughout like Chris Reeve does on the Sebenza (yet another sign of the knife’s truly superior design), but it would be nice to strive towards that model.

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