Shortly after I started collecting axes, my wife travelled to Norway. She wasn’t prepared to pack a Scandinavian axe in her suitcase as a present on her return, so instead she brought me a Brusletto knife direct from the factory in Geilo. When I received that knife I instantly got the idea that someday I would make my own knives.
I recently expanded my knife collection with Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish examples from Helle, Mora, and Laapin Puuko. All of the knives from each of these manufacturers is a high-quality product. The quality and finish varies depending on the amount of handwork that went into each knife (the more handmade, the better). There are a few other brands that I would like to purchase knives from (for example, Roselli of Finland), but for now I decided to make a few knives of my own.
At my wife’s recommendation I recently started reading the Thorgal saga fantasy comic series. (Yes, I have the coolest wife ever.) I took the two main characters, Thorgal and Aaricia, as the thematic inspiration for my first two knives. For both knives I used 4 1/4″ Mora laminated steel blade blanks purchased from Lee Valley. Each knife then takes visual queues from its namesake: Thorgal — hand-shaped African Rosewood handle, polished aluminum bolster, and dark-brown handmade leather sheath with contrasting thread and nickel rivets for the belt loop; Aaricia — hand-shaped maple handle finished with linseed and tung oil, brass bolster, and dark yellow handmade leather sheath with contrasting stitching and brass rivets for the belt loop. Each sheath features a hand-carved cedar blade guard insert.
Each knife is a slightly different shape and incorporates features I’ve seen in various other Scandinavian knife designs. I quite enjoyed the process of shaping the handles (and it was a good excuse to get a new desktop belt/disc sander). Since the knives took shape in my hands, they feel very natural to hold and use. As nice as the commercial knives in my collection are, they were not custom made for my hand and therefore are a bit of a compromise in terms of fit, balance, and dexterity.
This project was also a good excuse to do some leatherwork. I am very happy with the sheaths for each knife. Each is as good or better quality than any of the sheaths that came with my commercial knives.
I have a few more Mora blade blanks that I will be using to make a more knives. Just looking for my inspiration right now. In the future, I would like to get a small forge set-up to make my own blades. I also want to make a crooked knife for carving canoe paddles — another project I have on the go right now.
I spent several days this week at the cabin collecting logs and hewing timber for a wood shed. I did most of the hewing by hand, though I used a chain saw on one very large timber for the first step. The process of creating a square beam from a round log, by hand, is quite simple though labour intensive. As my technique improved, the work got easier. But after three days in the forest, my body knew it had done some work.
Quite often when I am working on a project I think, “Oh, this will be a good opportunity to document the process with a series of photographs.” Inevitably though, I get so involved in the work that I forget to take pictures. This week was different. The work was hard and I had to stop every hour or so for a break, drink some tea, and enjoy the surroundings. And take some pictures. So here you go, a step-by-step guide to hewing wood, if you are ever so inclined.
I’ll assume you’ve already selected a straight clear log to work on. Green wood is easier to shape than dry wood. Steady the log on a raised platform using wedges of log dogs.
Take your time and enjoy the work. As Dick Proenneke said about building his cabin in Alaska, “you can’t rush it.”
1. Layout the beam dimensions
On one end of the log, layout the beam dimensions. You want the beam end centred on the tree rings. Start by marking one face plane with a level, then measure out the remainder of the faces. Repeat at the other end of the log, also making sure you start with a level reference line. Use a chalk line to mark a line from one end of the log to the other. This line shows you how much material to remove, and will be your reference in the next steps.
In the following photo, the blue chalk line is marking the plane of the right hand face of the beam. The material to the right of the line will be removed.
2. Score the log along one face, loosening or removing most of the waste
You will flatten each face of the beam in two steps: bulk material removal, and then fine shaping. For the bulk material removal you can use several methods.
The first method is to use a large axe and chop down to within about 1/8 of an inch your chalk line. You start at the larger end of the log and, making strokes angled forty-five degrees towards the smaller end, cut a series of notches 2 to 4 inches apart. In reality, you may need to make several passes to get the depth required. You can do the scoring while standing on the log, the face you are working perpendicular to the ground, or you can do the scoring while standing on the ground, the face you are working parallel to the ground and pointing up. The former method is less work (the axe swing is longer), but the latter method requires less balance.
The second scoring method is to use a chainsaw for the first pass. Again, make a series of cuts to almost the depth of your chalk like every 2 to 4 inches down the length of the log. After scoring with the chainsaw, chop out the material between the saw kerfs using an axe, starting at the large end of the log.
I used the chainsaw-method on this 18 inch diameter log. I did not want accidental chainsaw marks on the finished beam so I was conservative in the depth I cut, and made a second pass with the axe method once the majority of the material was removed. (Click on the pictures to see larger versions. The chalk line is visible in the larger versions).
You may notice that I broke of one corner of the beam by accident. This is not a problem as the raw beam has some extra length. I did find however, that the corners are the fragile part, both in bulk removal step and in the next step, so take a little extra care when working these areas.
3. Finish the face with a broad axe
A broad axe is a large faced, short handled, single bevel axe. The handle should be angled towards the bevel (to the right if you are right handed) to provide clearance for your knuckles. The thumb of your forward hand should be held along the top of the handle (not wrapped around) for added clearance.
For this step, you want the face you are working on perpendicular to the ground. Ideally the log should be positioned at about waist height. (In the forest it was hard to raise the logs this high, so I worked sitting on the log and had to position the face at a slight angle as a result, as seen in the next photo.) Stand beside the log and look down the face. Start at the smaller end of the log. Use the broad axe to shave the face down to the depth of the chalk line. Keep the portion you have already smoothed in front of you, using it as a reference as you progress backwards along the log. Occasionally step back and check alignment of the face using the chalk line and end dimension marks as sighting guides.
If the scoring in step two was down to a reasonable depth, it will be quite easy to remove the remaining waste. Knots will give you the most trouble. I had to chop out a few larger ones with a felling axe.
4. Move on to the next face
Once you have one face complete, make the chalk line for the next face and repeat until you your round log is a rectangular beam.
Once the beam is complete, you can further smooth the surface with an adze. This will give you a gently undulating surface and remove the majority of the axe marks. For an even smoother finish, you can plane all the faces that will be visible in your final project.
After the first snow my wife and I went out to the cabin. When we pulled into the driveway I saw something laying on the front sidewalk, near the front door. Even from a distance I could tell that it was a large bird of some sort. It was dead. My initial hypothesis was that it hit one of the windows, fell to the ground, and roll a few centimetres. Walking about 20 meters away from the house I could see that the large two storey front entry windows reflected the brightly lit forest perfectly. The bird, flying at full speed, did not see the glass. It only saw the reflected forest. It likely died instantly.
On subsequent visits I heard birds striking the windows, but have not witnessed further casualties.
I often see bird silhouette stickers placed on large windows to prevent birds from flying into them. I thought that this might be something we should install at the cabin, but wanted something a little more aesthetically pleasing than the standard bird-scare stickers.
I made several distinctive bird owl, hawk, and harrier, silhouettes from 6 ounce leather dyed black. I only used a single coat of dye and let some of the leather show through so the shapes are not pure black. For fun/education, I stamped the species name of each bird into the leather using 1/4 inch high block letters.
I will try installing the bird silhouettes on the inside of the windows using suction cup hooks. If the bird silhouette don’t work inside the windows I will move them outside and may have to hang them from string.
We really enjoy all the birds that frequent the cabin. I’m not trying to to scare them all away. I’m just trying to keep them from hitting the windows.
My sister and brother-in-law have been asking me for a while to make a sheath for their axe. The family was getting together yesterday for dinner to celebrate my sister’s birthday so I told my brother-in-law to bring over his axe so I could take a look at it.
The axe in question is a 3 1/2 pound hardware store model with a 36 inch handle. One look and I could tell that the butt had been abused (apparently by striking it with a hammer). However, the eye was not distorted so it was not a total loss. I gave my siblings a few wood chopping hints so they can avoid damaging the head when trying to get through the large, knotted logs we tend to get in local campgrounds. The grain in the handle is far from ideal, running perpendicular to the orientation of the bit. Well, we can fit a new handle some other time.
I happened to be at Tandy Leather Factory yesterday morning and acquired a few new leather crafting tools and supplies. I decided to use my new 3D deer head stamp and oxblood-coloured dye on this sheath. A light gel antique coat over the dye really brings out the grain of the leather and the detail of the stamp.
While the sheath was drying, I took some time to clean up the axe. I peeled the ugly manufacturer’s sticker* off the handle, cleaned off the sticky residue, filed off the mushrooming edges of the butt, and sharpened the bit. Normally, when doing a full restoration, I like to strip all the paint off the head and sand down the handle, replacing any lacquer finish with linseed oil and beeswax. However, I know my siblings will appreciate something a little lower maintenance, so in this case I opted to simply re-paint the head matte black.
All-in-all the axe looks a lot better now than when it came into my shop. I hope my sister and brother-in-law are pleased with it when they see it.
My wife thought the sheath looked pretty good, but she did ask a funny question when I showed it to her, “Is’t that the axe that Marcus cut his finger with and then had to go to the hospital to get a bunch of stitches?” Yes, indeed.
* I was just ranting to my wife the other day about one of my pet peeves: stickers on products. To me, the worst thing a maker of things can do after spending precious resources designing and manufacturing a product is slap a nigh unremovable sticker on the thing before shipping to the consumer. At best, stickers slapped on the finished product are an annoyance to your customer, and what company would purposefully want to annoy its customers? At worst, a crappy sticker symbolizes the lack of pride the maker has in the product they produce and a total lack of respect for me as a consumer and human being. Even if I’m buying a plastic tub from Ikea, I want to think that the people who made it had the goal of creating the best damn tub in the world. If they slap a sticker on it, and I have to scrub, and scratch the surface to get the sticker off, then I think the manufacturer doesn’t care about the product or the fact that I have to live with it everyday.
The title of this post is not meant as a euphimism. Quite by accident I have started a collection of old backpacks. For Christmas, my father gave me one of his old canvas and leather backpacks (with felt shoulder strap padding!). I decided to document some of my vintage backpacks here.
MEC Klettersack 40th Anniversary Edition
Okay, this is not actually an old bag. It’s a new bag in a retro design celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Canada’s member-owned outdoor equipment cooperative — Mountain Equipment Coop. I have fond memories of visiting MEC’s second Calgary location as a young child with my father. By the time I was in junior high I was riding my mountain bike downtown the MEC’s third-location when I wasn’t yet old enough to own my own member share and had to use my mom’s member number. I still have the MEC backpacks I used in junior high and high school (the latter is ’90s stylish in green and purple with fluorescent yellow 3M reflective stripes I added myself). For their 40th anniversary, MEC created this retro-styled Klettersack complete with leather attachment points. I love the simplicity of this bag. No bells and whistles.
This is the bag my father gave me for Christmas. He says he got it in the early ’70s but’s materials and styling make me think more of the early ’60s. It is in mint condition. It is not for sale. If you have something similar, I’d love to hear more about it.
Dad, maybe next year you can give me your light blue canvas backpack (the one with the rubber bottom that we used to take cragging at Wasootch Slabs). I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.
Great Pacific Iron Works Ultima Thule Backpack
Great Pacific Iron Works was a spin-off Yvonne Chouinard’s Chouinard Equipment, the proginator of Black Diamond Equipment, and later, Patagonia. I’m not sure of the provinence of this particular frameless backpack. I found it last summer, laying in the alley behind my home. Other than a small tear it is in great shape, though it has taken on that wonderful vintage polyurethane smell (which is nice if you are into that sort of thing). I found a photo of it in a 1975 Great Pacific Iron Works catalog. I’m not sure how long the GPIW brand was in existence, but I’d say this pack can’t me much newer than that. In other words, it is only slightly younger than I am.
I’d previously written about my growing axe collection. I recently re-hung a couple of older axes and acquired two more Gränsfors Bruks axes. I’ve been meaning to document the collection and now seemed like a good time, even though I still anxiously await the arrival of my Base Camp X Artemis. (The Base Camp X Artemis has arrived and been appended to the end of the article. I guess the article title technically is “Nine Axes And A Knife” now.)
The axes (and knife) are presented in chronological order of acquisition. Click the pictures to see larger versions.
Man’s Axe (26″)
This is the first axe I ever acquire. I bought it at Canadian Tire when I was in university and doing a lot of car camping. From the beginning the head was annoyingly loose, though not dangerously so. Last week I finally got fed up and decided to either fix the handle or hang a new one. I drilled out the old wedge (which I think was bottoming out and not providing a tight fit). I managed to knock the handle out of the head. I sanded the black paint from the head and removed the lacquer finish from the handle. I affixed a new wedge and soaked the eye-portion of the handle in boiled linseed oil overnight. Then I covered the rest of the handle in boiled linseed oil and, finally, gave it a wax finish. I filed some nicks out of the bit and honed it to a razor-sharp edge. I haven’t had a chance to split any large pieces of wood with the restored axe yet. Time will tell if the new hang will remain solid.
I used to refer to this axe as a hardware-store special. I recently discovered the convention of marketing 24″+ axes as a Man’s axe versus shorter axes, usually in the 18″ range, which have been marketed as Boy’s axes. Though a bit hokey, I like the sound of these labels. Presumably, I’ll someday be giving my son (or daughter) their first Boy’s axe (or Girl’s axe), and they will know when they’ve come of age when they graduate to the Man’s axe (or Woman’s axe).
Gränfors Bruks Swedish Carving Axe
My first serious axe and the beginning of an obsession. This single-bevel (right-handed) cuts through knots like butter. Choking up on the handle provides amazing control and thus held this axe can be used much like a knife.
Iltis (Ox Head) Felling Axe (35″)
Time for some serious tree dropping power. The thin bit profile cuts through trunks and limbs like butter. Hasn’t seen too much action, as the wind does most of the felling for me at the cabin.
Oeyo Liten Viking Øks
This little axe, measuring in at just 10.5 inches long, is a replica of a Viking axe and was a gift to me from my wife after a recent visit to Geilo, Norway. Honestly, I haven’t used it yet. It’s just too cute and may never touch wood, which would be a shame because it is wonderfully balanced and sharp as heck.
Brusletto of Norway
My wife also brought back this awesome knife from Norway. Amazing steel. Amazing handle. Amazing sheath. This is a great utility knife which I have used mostly for carving.
Gränfors Bruks Hatchet
A few years ago I a bought no-name fiberglass handled hatchet. It works, but it ain’t pretty and the oversized plastic grip is not very comfortable. I didn’t really need this Gränsfors Bruks hatchet, but I wanted it. It sits by the fireplace and cuts all my kindling. It’s also so light it would be a great choice for a backpacking trip.
Gränfors Bruks Forest Axe
This is one of my two most recent axe acquisitions. My frustration with hardware store axes led me to this all-purpose tool. I really debated whether or not to get it (okay, I didn’t debate that hard). It kind of duplicates the Artemis that is on its way, but has a totally different aesthetic. The grain of the handle is practically perfect. Someday I’ll own every one of Gränfors Bruks’ axe models (see next entry).
Gränfors Bruks Splitting Maul
This is the second of my two most recent axe acquisitions. A splitting maul is not a delicate instrument. It uses mass and an aggressive wedge to rip wood fibres apart, violently. We have a fibreglass handled splitting maul at the cabin. It works, but lacks in the aesthetics department, and, shockingly, the epoxy in the eye is cracking and the head is a bit loose.
I debated over the maul and one of Gränfors Bruks’ smaller splitting axes, which are about $50 to $70 cheaper. In the end I decided if you split 12″ diameter logs by hand, you want all the weight you can get. We do have a hydraulic splitter at the cabin, and that’s fine for when we have the whole family out working, fire-line-style, and want to fill the entire wood shed, but we run the hydraulics off the tractor which takes a few minutes to hook up, is loud, and, well, no one likes the smell of diesel exhaust. When I am out alone I can split a couple of days worth of wood faster with the axe.
Man’s Axe (28″)
This axe belonged to my brother. It lives out at the cabin. He used to just leave it outside on the deck all year-round. It was always within reach when you wanted to split a bit of wood from the stack by the house, but it was also exposed to the elements more than it should have been. The head was horribly loose, and was affixed with a manky, undersized wedge that looked like it might be too small for a carpenter’s hammer. The handle’s lacquer finish was half gone and the handle was starting to split in a few places. The bit was starting to rust. The only thing the axe had going for it was that it was sharp. I decided to show it some love and get it back into shape.
Before heading to the industrial supply shop for a new handle I took a rubbing of the eye for reference. After I took the rubbing I realized how terribly distorted the eye was. The poll had obviously been used to hammer (or been hammered by) something very hard, like a maul. An axe’s poll should never be used to strike hard objects. The poll will start to mushroom (like this one had), steel chips may break loose at high velocity, and eventually, the eye will fail. I debated whether or not the axe was already too far gone, but decided to fix it up anyway, even if only for sentimental reasons. Honestly, I think the head still has quite a few good years left in it.
One whack on the knob of the handle and the wedge fell on the floor. A few whacks with a piece of wood were all that were required to drive the old handle out of the eye. I sanded the rust off the head, and touched up the bit edge (it didn’t need too much work). It took quite a while to shape the handle with a rasp to fit in the distorted eye. Eventually I got it right and hammered the handle home and fixed the wedge. Again, I soaked the handle in boiled linseed oil up to the shoulder over night to swell the wood and get a nice tight fit. The result is practically unrecognizable compared to where it started.
Base Camp X Pioneer Artemis
What’s the saying? A dollar short and a day late. Well this axe came a day after I originally posted this article. Other than that I have no complaints.
The Base Camp X Pioneer is a substantial axe, with a 3.5 pound head and 30 inch handle. The handle is full-bodied. The knob is large and offers great control. The finish of the head is very nice, though the edge could have seen a little more care in honing. The black paint on the top and bottom of the head is a nice touch. I like the fact that the rest of the head is not painted. Let steel be steel. The finish on the handle is immaculate, from the metallic knob to the brand and wet-look lacquer clear-coat. A portion of the proceeds from the pink Artemis edition of the Pioneer is being donated to breast cancer research. Kudos to Graeme for a great idea.
I have a growing collection of other log building tools (broad axe, adze, draw knives, log dogs, etc.) that I didn’t feel needed to be documented here, but which may be the subject of a separate post in the future.
This week I discovered a new axe company (in the way that Columbus “discovered” the New World, but that’s another story). Base Camp X produces handmade axes with wonderful contemporary designs. They are Canadian. And, right now, they are selling a version of their Pioneer axe and giving $100 for each axe sold to Breast Cancer Research. You heard that right — an axe that is helping to find a cure. Like Gransfors Brüks axes, Base Camp X axes are not cheap. But considering how much they are passing on to a good cause, you can think of your purchase of the lovely pink-handled Artemis as a donation of sorts. At least that’s how you can justify it to your loved one. Right, sweetie?
This will be my first Base Camp X axe. If the quality is what I expect, I imagine I will be ordering more. The Pathfinder and Cruiser axes look divine.
I’ve always considered myself a bit of an asocial eccentric. I hate crowds. I like being alone in the woods. And I like objects that are utilitarian but well made: wooden canoe paddles, axes, and now pipes.
We don’t have too many lakes in Alberta (where I live). The canoeing in this part of the country consists primarily of whitewater river playing, running, and tripping. As such, the paddles I and my compatriots use most have to be powerful and indestructible, like the Werner Bandit. Beautiful in their own way, Werner paddles do lack something: the simplicity and warmth of wood.
At least once a summer my wife and I try to venture farther afield for an extended canoe trip. The lakes and gentler rivers of Northern Saskatchewan are a common destination. On a lake, nothing beats the feel of a wood paddle. With a pleasing shape, appropriate flex, and a thin profile, a good wood paddle is silent and nearly effortless in use. A graceful engine for a graceful craft.
Mountain Equipment Co-op carries several paddles from Redtail Paddle of Hastings, Ontario. I have several custom laminated Redtails in the “ottertail” shape. The grip of the most recent addition highlights the handcrafted nature of these paddles and the rough hewn surface rests beautifully in my hand.
I recently acquire a Grey Owl Voyageur 7″ (also available at MEC). While they lack some of the handcrafted sophistication of Redtails, Grey Owl paddles also lack some of the price. I intend the Voyageur to be a trusty lightweight spare for lake trips. It will usually only come out in shallower water, or on short river sections between lakes. On our recent 10 days on the MacLennan Lake Big Circle route the Voyageur got lucky and was used every kilometre — I loaned it to a fellow tripper rather than have them suffer the institutional plastic and aluminium rental they’d been stuck with.
Last year, I bought a guide to making wooden paddles. I didn’t get around to making my own paddle(s) last winter and my spokeshaves still long to shape raw wood into beautiful objects. This winter, I swear.
For many years I’ve had to keep myself from buying a pipe. I have strong memories of the smell of my fathers pipe tobacco and smoke. I remember visiting the tobacconist with him as a child and watching the proprietor make a custom blend. And when I’m in the wilds on a trip, on warm calm evenings, or watching leaves turn colour and fall, I always think the world would be a better place if I had a pipe in hand. A pipe, in theory, is a simple object. But with skill and imagination, pipemakers create pipes of near infinite variety.
So, last week, I bought my first pipe. I did a bit of research on-line before hand. I knew the style of pipe I wanted: a curved briar with a rough finish in or around the $50 mark. At Epicure (formerly Cavendish in Moore), the shopkeeper showed me several pipes of this style from Brigham, a Canadian pipemaker based in Toronto. The style I chose is called the Voyageur 136 (appropriate, as the aforementioned recent canoe trip in Northern Saskatchewan help me make up my mind to finally purchase a pipe). (Coincidentally, the Grey Owl Voyageur paddle is exactly $50 dollars too.) I’m still in the process of breaking in my pipe and resolve to use it only occasionally (less than once a month, and preferably on trips).
The appeal of pipe-smoking is that it is a personal affair — a unique form of expression. As a video blogger on YouTube put it, “It’s your pipe — smoke it how you want.” What will my pipe taste like on a dark winter’s eve, with large snowflakes falling and the crisp sound of snow crunching underfoot? Probably just fine.
I’ll wager not too many city-folk give much thought to axes as aesthetic objects. Even people living in the country, or in the bush, likely think of axes simply as utilitarian devices made for a rough purpose: chopping wood. They are, but to me that makes them beautiful works of art as well. Like a canoe, the more stripped down an axe is in form and material, the better it does its job and the greater joy it brings the user.
Unfortunately, axes have fallen on hard times in this modern world. Most axes are mass produced eyesores that don’t really do their job (effortless cut wood). Lee Valley hardware carries a line of axes produced by the Swedish firm Gransfors Bruks. Gransfors Bruks specialize in creating hand-forged heirloom axes in traditional shapes and sizes. Heads receive no cosmetic treatment after being shaped by the forging hammers. Slight imperfections do not detract form their utility and are evidence of the skill of the maker. In fact, each smith stamps his or her initials in every axe head as a commitment to quality. The axe heads are mated to rough hewn handles soaked in linseed oil. These are not mass-produced, anonymous factory axes. Gransfors Bruks axes are infused with the soul and art of the individual craftspersons involved in their production, and are a joy to hold and use.
I recently added several more axes to my growing collection. As August draws to a close, and my mind starts to sense the not-too-distant cooling of autumn and the changing colours of the leaves, my intuition tells me that I should go into the woods to chop firewood. The ring of the axe, the sweat on my brow, the straining of muscles: precursors to the cold snows of winter and the chill of night fended off with a crackling flame in the fireplace.
Gransfors Bruks axes are supplied with handsome covers made of quality leather, but most hardware store axes come with no cover, or worse (because of the wasted material) a poor quality cover that provides no real protection (to axe or user) or which wears out after a season. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point-of-view), axes come in a myriad of shapes and sizes and it is nearly impossible to find a mass-produced axe cover that will work with your axe.
Needing to upgrade several of my axe covers, I recently manufactured my own. In the process I discovered Tandy Leather Factory. There are a lot of ways to work, shape, assemble, and use leather and this shop supports a lot of weird sub-cultures: bikers, cowboys, hippies, crafty moms, and self-styled lumberjacks.
In the coarse of several days, as many trips to the shop, and hours spent researching leathercraft on-line, I got hooked. My first axe cover turned out better than expected. But the desire to improve at the craft required learning new skills, and acquiring more specialized tools. Cutting, dyeing, and riveting, led to stamping, tooling, edging, and stitching.
In a short time I’ve time acquired the skills and tools necessary to make just about anything I could desire (anything made from leather anyway). A second axe cover led to a wonderfully simple and effective tobacco pouch and pipe case. (Remember the pipe? And yes, that is a cat smoking a pipe stamped on the pipe case.) After the pipe case I made a nifty case for attaching a pen and pencil to my Moleskine notebook (another brand imbued with utility, simplicity, and purpose). I’ve got a long list of leather projects to undertake. Some I’ll save for those cold winter nights, cooped up by the fire.
I had to do some shopping this week. I needed antiperspirant (deodorant, pit-stick — choose your synonym). Mundane, I know. Yet, the process of buying antiperspirant sparked an idea in me.
When I left the house I noted the brand and version of antiperspirant that I had been using (Right Guard Sport Regular, if you must know). A stick of antiperspirant lasts a while, so I don’t always have the particulars in my head. That, and I am a bit OCD — a creature of habit who is not likely to try something new just for the sake of it.
Standing in the personal hygiene aisle at the grocery store, I couldn’t find an antiperspirant package that looked like mine. Apparently antiperspirant is a fast paced industry, with new products coming out every six months or so. I sniffed a few alternates, but was unimpressed. Finally, I found a Right Guard Sport Regular stick that DID NOT look like mine and had the words “New 3D Odour Defense” written on it in big orange letters. This imposter stick smelled like mine, so I figured marketers had just been busy messing with a good thing.
Every time an app sells on iTunes an antiperspirant product designer cries
I’ve written recently about the nature of innovation. This episode with the antiperspirant got me thinking about the nature of product design.
Design pundits have argued that design is the driving factor behind all relevant companies today. Apple for instance, owes it’s existence, and its dominance to it’s design-driven philosophies.
Yet, anyone can make a stick of antiperspirant, or a smartphone, or an HTML5 website. What separates highly innovative products from merely functional ones? (I’ll ignore badly designed products for the moment.)
These days, good products are ones that take advantage of innovative new ways of formulating experience (e.g., Flipboard app, or Netflix). Really great products, the game changers, are those that are the genesis for shifts in behaviour and progenitors of vast product ecosystems (iPhone and the App Store, Facebook, the internet).
According to Bill Buxton, in his book Sketching User Experience, design is not about the “product,” but our responses to it.
Some academics, such as Hummels, Djajadiningrat, and Overbeeke (2001), go so far as to say that what we are creating is less a product than a “context for experience”. Another way of saying this is that it is not the physical entity or what is in the box (the material product) that is the true outcome of design. Rather it is the behavioural, experiential, and emotional responses that come about as a result of its existence and its use in the real world.
Another way of categorizing designs is by differentiating between products and tools. Products can be used. Tools change how we do things. Designing a stick of antiperspirant is a very different process from creating an ecosystem.
With this realization, I started to think about my own work in the microstock photography industry. Am I creating products, or an ecosystem for visual communication and commerce?
Design is a conscious process
Great design doesn’t happen by accident. You have to know what you are building and how it will be used. But, just as importantly, you have to leave some ambiguity and open ended-ness in your design, so that the tool can be extended and used as flexibly as possible.
Based on what I know about Steve Jobs’ design philosophies and emphasis on a closed loop system, I doubt the iPhone design brief stated “just make a slightly better smartphone.” Because Apple’s introduction of the iPhone really said “here is a handheld, powerful computer, which is mobile, wirelessly networked, motion-, light-, and sound-sensing and emitting, with an easy to use development environment and central distribution platform — go ahead and create software and experiences around it. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we bet it will change a lot of things.”
Mark Zuckerburg, in his onstage interview at the November 2010 Web 2.0 Summit, was pretty clear about his design philosophy as far as Facebook is concerned: Facebook is a platform for social experiences. He will keep extending the platform into new verticals as long as it helps people share (photos, messaging, etc.) Facebook know they can’t do everything themselves and are very open to other people and companies building on-top of the platform (gaming for example).
Both Apple and Facebook are prime examples of the age old design adage, “the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.” Creating designs and thinking about usage in its totality results in a better overall physical, intellectual, and emotional experience for the user. [pullthis id=”harmony”]As in a Japanese garden, aesthetic and experiential beauty are found in harmony, rather than in singularity.[/pullthis]
And what about my antiperspirant. How does it fit into this über-product, experiential design paradigm? Well, [pullthis id=”smell”]I smell good, and I guess that counts for something[/pullthis].
According to MacRumors, “the obvious interpretation is that Apple may be looking to offer a location-based friend-finding service like Loopt and Google Latitude.”
When I read this news I thought “that’s cool.”
When I told my wife about it she said, “that’s scary.”
Okay. So we don’t agree on absolutely everything. What couple does.
Her reaction made me consider the impact innovation has on our lives. We each have a vision of the future. Perhaps its a future with farms growing on the sides of skyscrapers. Perhaps its a future where we can travel to distant planets in the blink of an eye. But no matter what your vision of the future is, there is only one way to get there — one step at a time.
Beam me up, Scotty*
Every innovation that has happened in the past 100 years has been predicted by science fiction. (This is my theory anyway.)
My ideal future looks like Star Trek. Well, kind of. I see us evolving in that direction IF we don’t self-destruct first. The only way we will develop future technologies like transporters, sub-space communicators, time machines, and personnel locators is if we make baby-steps today to create and adopt new technologies that take us in that direction.
Figuratively transport yourself to early 1973, prior to the invention of the internet. Pretend you have a computer (probably a very big computer that doesn’t do much). Imagine someone says that they have a technology that can link all computers on the planet together so you can access all digital information everywhere, so you will always be connected to everyone, and that you will be constantly bombarded by communication in dozens of forms form hundreds or thousands of people — many of them you don’t even know. Does this sound scary? Does this sound like it could be abused by big brother? Does it sound overwhelming? Would you want your computer connected with this technology?
Find My Friend may sound scary. It may have the potential to be abused. It may be boring or useless. Or it might profoundly change the way we communicate and relate with others. We won’t know how people will use it until we have it. We won’t know how it will change our lives until we are changed — until we are the future.
* According to Wikipedia, this phrase was never uttered in any of the Star Trek television episodes or movies.