I have two little boys. Suffice to say we like dinosaurs.
We, of course, have a large collection of “Dinosaur Encyclopedia” type books all with flashy pictures and almost instantly outdated information, but my kids’ love of dinos has forced me, as all good Dads do, to dig deeper. I want to be able to give them not just factoids, but real insights into dinos. So I started reading stuff like the great SV-POW (Sauropod Vertebrae Picture of the Week) blog and we purchased the scientifically-oriented Thomas Holtz’s book, Dinosaurs. My two boys are more likely to think of Gregory Paul’s anatomical illustrations than they are to rely on the look and positioning of their dino toys. One of our favorite games is to pick out mistakes and impossibilities on their Schleich and Papo dinos (“Ha! This Allosaurus has spines...if they had any skin coverings it was feathers not spines, right Dad?”).
After Holtz and Paul were purchased for them (and for me), we came to a most controversial book in the series of accessible yet scientifically-informed dinosaur books—All Yesterdays. In All Yesterdays two scientists and two illustrators tackle depictions of dinosaurs from a strictly scientific point of view, but with a creative eye towards filing our gaps in knowledge. They correctly point out that we don’t have a lot of remains of dinosaurs and that bones alone don’t tell us much about how animals look when they are alive. The sleek, muscular, scaly dinosaurs of our youth (and Jurassic Park) are likely grossly incorrect. After all, they point out, the bones of a hippo would lead people to believe that it was a buff apex predator, while those of us that have seen a hippo know that it is a potato with legs and a mouth full of frightening teeth that don’t slice up prey but show off to and fight with other males. Fat and tissue and coverings, not bones and muscles usually provide us with identifying features of creatures (think: the elephant’s trunk).
What does this have to do with gear you ask? All Yesterdays’ focus is on animals as lived creatures. And in making that their focus they wash away a huge amount of prior “received knowledge.” As they correctly point out, much of what we assume is foundationally true about dinosaurs is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of living creatures and how dinosaurs were depicted years ago by artists. T-Rex had feathers even if artists want to portray him as a ravaging, scaly beast.
And so it is with gear too. We are all too often held captive not by what works but what designers and makers assume we must have because of the common, inherited wisdom regarding knives. Our knife designs, and in many ways all our gear designs, are based on trends and a compulsive need for companies to put out products that fill out their bulletpoint checklist instead of being designed for how they are used. If All Yesterdays rethought dinosaurs based on portrayals of “as-lived” creatures, we need a similar rethinking of gear in terms of “as-used” features.
The most prominent example I can think of is our current fixation with tube-style flashlights. Companies over the past two years have emphatically proven that you can build a flashlight without the need to resort to replaceable batteries. In fact, having used some of the more recent such torches like the Rovy Von A2 and the Surefire Stiletto, I’d trade rechargeability with Mini USB for a replaceable battery any day. That trade becomes even easier to make when you see how nice the Stiletto feels in hand. This is a flashlight built for a human to carry, not one constructed in accordance to the dictates of its battery format. Tubes have inherent problems. They have a tendency to roll away. There is not “space saving” orientation. They make it hard to attach a pocket clip (not that hard, but as the glut of friction fit clips show hard enough to dissuade most companies from doing it). Non-tube style designs have none of these problems. If we apply the “as-used” test here, our preference for tube-style flashlights is a lot like our belief that T-Rex didn’t have feathers—its a myth based on the fact that we didn’t know any better and refused to really rethink the problem.
That’s not the only example. To me, the most obvious flaw revealed by the “as-used” perspective is the lanyard hole. There are dozens of great knife designs absolutely ruined by the feeling on the part of knife makers that they “must” include a lanyard hole. There are three prominent exhibits in this argument: the old Strider SNG, the Spyderco Leafstorm, and the Spyderco Brouwer.
For those that don’t remember, old SNG’s used to place the lanyard in the blade path when closing the knife. You might have a lanyard to start out with, but after a few open-close cycles, the laynard had been guillotined straight through. This is, perhaps, the greatest and most obvious design flaw on a consumer product that I can think of, easily worthy of inclusion in the Design of Everyday Things along with the misplaced gas tank cap.
The Leafstorm/Brouwer sin against the “as-used” approach is only bit less egregious. These are tiny knives and in order to accomodate the Spydiehole, the framelock, the clip, and the lanyard hole, Spyderco was forced to make a bunch of weird placement and clip decisions. The placement of the clip on the Leafstorm had, at best, a slapped on feel. The Brouwer’s clip was even worse. It wasn’t just oddly placed, it was HUGE, comparatively speaking. And all of this design gymnastics was simply to check the feature bulletpoint for “lanyard hole.”
Here are a few other sins against the “as-used” philosophy:
Mirror finished blades
Edge-side retention straps on fixed blade sheathes (see: Bark River Bravo sheath)
Thumb studs in the cutting path
Folders that are larger than small fixed blades
Show side chisel grinds on right handed knives
Pens without a clip or antiroll feature
Flashlights with complicated UIs (see: Zebralight)
Thumb studs in line with the pivot screw
Framelocks and liner locks with inaccessible lock bars
Zirconium on handles (have you seen how easy it is to mar Zirc...there is a reason makers are handling these knives with gloves on when showing them off on IG)
This list could go on and on, but in the end, tools are meant to be used. Designs that fail to consider that are as strange as dinosaurs that we know have feathers pictured nude because its cool and its what our historical-informed view of paleo-art tells us. In evaluating gear and considering what to purchase, it helps to relentlessly focus on how something will be used, unless, of course, your in the gear game for collectibility reasons. At that point, chase those 4 1/2 inch, mirror finished, Zirc handled, framelocks that are hard to unlock until your heart’s content. For all of its impracticality, a mirror finished blade, like on my Sawby Swift, is a thing to behold.
And if you are a Dad or Mom looking to up your dino game, here is a link to All Yesterdays.