Designing the INK

I often get asked how I go about designing something from scratch. Where do the ideas come from? How do you figure it all out? It's kind of hard to explain. My brain is always churning, running through the same question, "What if?" That is actually the perfect summary to explain my design process. What if? Anytime I set out to design an object, I wonder what it would be like if this or that was different. I will walk you through some of the thoughts I had while designing the INK.

First thing I do is look into any other similar products and the users of those products. Some people write it down and categorize it, create spreadsheets and graphs, and quantify every detail. I have done this, and, it works, but it makes my head want to explode. Right out of school I worked on a project about office supplies that had this unbelievably gigantic Microsoft Excel file that we would fill out after gathering information through interviews and surveys. The project was cancelled and the information was unused. Hours and hours of research for nothing, quite literally. Luckily, I get to mostly choose my own path, so I do research how I feel comfortable. My research method can be described as "empathetic immersion". This is a phrase I came up with to describe what I do. Others may do the same thing, but the phrase is my own. Basically it means I put myself into the world of the user I want to design for. In this case, it was pens. Luckily for me I live in the age of the internet and I can sit down and absorb all the banter and visual stimulation associated with any subject without leaving my chair. I am able to get excited about what they get excited about. I am able to think the way they think. It could be camping equipment, it could be furniture, it doesn't matter. I become just like them. I really enjoy it, and I learn a lot in the process. I start to make decisions on what my ideal product would be. I let all of this information brew in my brain and then I put pen to paper.

I always got in trouble in design school because I was lousy at showing the process of how I arrived at a certain conclusion. If you are getting paid by a client/boss they want to see how you think. It doesn't matter if you know how you got there, they want you to lead them there with you. I have a hard time doing this because I am always at the next step and don't want to wait for them to catch up. I already asked "what if" about a half a million times.

So, I start sketching.
This is the first thought that went down on paper. I knew the mechanics behind fitting the nib into the body and the cap over that would just be math to be sorted out later. I needed to figure out how it would look. I had already decided that it needed to be machined aluminum, not because I work in a machine shop and we make machined objects, but because there are next to no (if any) machined aluminum pens in the price range and style that I wanted to shoot for. My research told me this. So I knew how I was going to make it, what to make it from, I just needed to know how I was going to make it different. How I was going to make it mine.

I kept sketching.
I had two two details I wanted to work out. First, the ends of the pen. I wanted it to be sleek and clean, but wasn't sure if I could add detail and have it look like I wanted. None of these made the cut. Not for any reason except I didn't like the way they look. The dimpled one on the bottom right was my favorite, but it didn't work with my clip design, so I abandoned it. (Pro-tip: designers will often spend a little more time on an aspect of a design they like so when it is shown to the client, their favorite stands out a little more and will hopefully be picked as an option to move forward with) I ended up just doing a flat end with a 45 degree chamfer on the pen. Not because it was easier, but because I liked the way it looked best.

Then the clip.
I started with ideas similar to ones used on pens in the past. Nope. So I began playing with how the clip should attach. I wanted the visual contrast of exposed hardware with a smooth cap and body. No knurling here.

Not quite there.
Maybe hidden hardware would look more elegant. I thought I could screw on a cover and hide it all. Nope. Looks just like other designs I had already seen.

So, I moved on.
I still couldn't decide how I wanted to attach the clip. The design on the upper left used a single stainless steel fastener to affix the entire clip assembly from one end. It would look like a badge or inlay. I wasn't quite there. Bottom center is a variation on the clips I had already used for our other pens. Nope. Upper right got me thinking. What if there was a slot in the cap and the cap was very one dimensional and used countersunk hardware? I wanted more clip showing. I wanted visual contrast...

That's it! Time to start 3D Modeling.

3D Modeling -
As soon as I find a design that I like well enough, I move into 3D to see if it will work. I started with a nib assembly I obtained and started designing around that. I made sure everything fit in the virtual world. I talked to the guys in the shop. We discussed thread pitch, diameters, and finally got it sorted. So I produced a design that could then be prototyped.
Oh, and I wanted to see if it could be adapted to fit a roller ball too. Yup. Looks good. So now I have a pen that can be configured two different ways to accommodate either a fountain pen assembly or for a rollerball refill. Even better.  But, was I happy with the clip? I asked myself "What if?"
I actually designed around 7 different variations on my original clip idea. We prototyped these 5 designs from stainless steel and had them polished so we could decide which one would ultimately be used on the pen. I say "we" because it isn't always good to design in a vacuum. I will take examples out and show other people to get their opinion. I even took photos and texted them to other pen enthusiasts. All of that input helped me decide. Also, when I put the different clips on physical examples of the pen, I found that ideas that I liked on paper, I didn't like in real life. Nothing beats actually holding something in your hand. Now I had the clip I wanted and a physical prototype, but I wanted a little more...

The prototype looked good. What about adding some other materials to the mix? I don't want to make the pen too heavy, what if I just vary the materials for the grip section? What would that look like? Much to the chagrin of the shop guys, they made me some additional grip sections in various materials, copper and brass to be exact. And...

That, as it turns out, looked really, really good, and didn't make the pens too heavy. This was a win all the way around. But, could we also anodize the bodies and caps, allowing the clip and hardware to pop, and showcase the grip sections? Would this look weird?
How would it look in multiple colors? Let's send some to the anodizer to find out. This also turned out to be a very good idea.

Most of the hard lifting for the design work is at the beginning, once the project gets rolling, the goal is easier to focus on. A lot less "what if" happens and ideas become fewer and more directed. The choice to add rollerball functionality, copper and brass grip sections and even offering all the colors kind of naturally fell into place after all of the other decisions were made. This is obviously a complete and total simplification of the entire process, but it gets the idea across. In the end, you hopefully get something close to what you were originally aiming for. Sometimes you get something better.

Scout Books Mega DIY Notebooks- Review

After my previous, two-part review of Scout Books Sketch Keeper notebooks (here and here), the fine folks at Scout books were kind enough to send me some of their Mega DIY notebooks to try out. I was really excited when I received them in the mail, but have failed to give them a proper review on the site (sorry Scout Books). Some of what I discussed previously still applies, but there are some differences that I found really great.

 Here are a few of the basic stats:
Dimensions- 5in x 7in (12.7cm x 17.78cm)

Page Count- 48 Pages

Paper- Cover: 100% Recycled Chipboard, 18pt. Kraft, Interior: 100% Recycled Text, 70# White

Printing & Ink- High Quality Offset Printing with Vegetable-Based Inks

Binding- Saddle Stitched (two wire stitches)

Corner Rounding- Two Rounded Corners: .25in Radius

While they seem very similar to their other notebooks, the Mega series has some definite differences. Even though they contain the same amount of Awesome (100%), the Mega notebooks come with more pages than the standard Scout Book notebooks, 48 instead of 32. This particular example has a dot grid printed on all of the interior pages, but they are also available in lined, grid, and blank configurations.  That's all fine and good but you may be asking yourself,  "What's a dot grid?" That's a very good question. I have noticed a trend in notebooks these days to include an offering that isn't the standard, lined paper alternative to appeal to those who use their notebooks differently than, say, a diary or journal. This lets users customize their notebook experience without having to be tied to a specific method of inscription while filling their notebooks with information. If I had to rank the popularity of text alignment artifacting* in notebooks, I would probably list them in this order: lined, grid, dot grid, and blank. In my experience, this is from most constrained to least constrained in terms of use of the space on the page. Lined paper makes me think of "coloring inside the lines" when I was young. I don't do much writing these days, except for writing notes or call outs on sketches, so lined paper seems strange to use. This may be because I do a lot of design work and we are trained to NOT draw on lined paper in case we need to scan and use the sketches at a later point, but I digress. *(I made this phrase up as I was writing and wanted readers to think it was important, so I made this footnote to make it feel more grand than it actually is)

Let's get down to why I really, really prefer the Mega series of Scout Books to the standard version... Size and branding. I have mentioned before that I have issues when it comes to sketchbooks. I have this strange desire for everything that fills my sketchbooks to be perfect. As a result, I hesitate to actually *draw* in my sketchbooks. Ugh. I feel like I am wasting some precious resource when I just doodle or take notes in a standard sketchbook. Wait, it's because I am wasting something... Money. Sketchbooks are freaking expensive, don't usually lay flat and are either too small or gigantic. These Mega DIY notebooks are none of these things. I sketch fairly large when I draw. Even my "thumbnail" sketches are more like a palm size. This makes the smaller notebooks less convenient to draw in. I like them for jotting notes, but when it comes to sketching, I'm sold on the Mega series.
I come from the "less is more" school of design. So, when I opened my package from Scout Books and found that my new notebooks only had a small logo on the back cover, I was stoked. All that blank space to doodle or just to enjoy the simplicity of the cover is just right. Perfect. Good job on that one Scout Books. I am actually more likely to tell others about this product for this reason alone.

I will probably be buying a few more of these in the blank configuration just to have around because they are perfect for sketching. They have great paper, are inexpensive, and you won't feel bad if you lose one. Hopefully they will offer them in a box set like the standard notebooks so that the designer/illustrator/artist types can collect and store them in an organized manner. Either way, go their site and check them out!

To summarize:
These notebooks are very well made and are a very good value (2 for $10 with free shipping!). Heavy, bright paper takes ink well and resists curling.
Plain overall appearance makes customizing easy.
Larger size is ideal for sketching and drawing.
Made in the USA!

Doesn't come in the larger box sets like the standard notebooks (not much of a con, really).

(I want to thank Scout Books for sending me these notebooks. I received them at no cost and they just sent them to be nice. Thanks!)

Palomino Blackwing Pearl

Woodcase pencils rarely get more legendary than the Blackwing 602. Despite having developed a cult following for how well the pencil performed, the Blackwing brand was finally discontinued by Faber-Castel in 1998 after a specialized machine used in its manufacture was broken (more on that later). Fast forward to 2010, where the Blackwing brand was resurrected by the Cal Cedar Pencil Company. Many comparisons were made between the original Blackwing 602 and the newly released Palomino Blackwing 602. Some complained the newly-spawned reincarnation wasn't good enough, while others were glad to have options without resorting to insane Ebay prices for the originals. Regardless of how one feels about it, the Blackwing 602 is back and, presumably, here to stay.

After the re-release of the Blackwing 602, two other versions of the pencil were introduced under the Blackwing brand. One of those versions is the Blackwing Pearl, and thanks to Brad over at Pen Addict, I have been lucky enough to have an example to play with. Enough about the history, let's get down to the nitty gritty.

Let's start by talking about the most obvious features of the pencil, the eraser. Ironically, the most distinct design element of the entire Blackwing line was also the cause of its original demise. From what I understand, the originally manufacturer of the Blackwing 602, Eberhard Faber was purchased by Faber-Castel in the mid 90's. Production of the 602 required a specialized machine to manufacture the unique ferrules and that machine was now broken. Faber-Castel didn't wish to repair or replace the specialized machine because they felt the market for the Blackwing 602 wasn't strong enough to justify spending the capital to repair/replace the machinery. Fortunately, there were enough parts already on hand to continue making the 602 until 1998, when it was officially discontinued. Lovers of the Blackwing 602 began to hoard any existing examples and it wasn't unheard of for single pencils to sell for over $20 on sites like Ebay. When Cal Cedar stepped up and purchased the trademark for the Blackwing, they also tooled up to make the iconic ferrule assembly a reality once again. It must have been a great expense to do so, as they could have reintroduced the Blackwing line with a regular ferrule and eraser and saved on manufacturing costs. But, I would guess, someone at Cal Cedar "gets it" and knows that a faithful recreation will endure over a rebranding of a classic. Remember Crystal Pepsi?

So at this point, we now have three options for the Blackwing brand and I am going to talk specifially about the Blackwing Pearl. The Blackwing Pearl is described on the website as featuring "...a pearl white finish, black imprint and eraser, and a balanced and smooth graphite core that is softer than the graphite found in the Palomino Blackwing 602, but firmer than the graphite found in the Palomino Blackwing." Now, only being familiar with the Blackwing 602 until this point, I was unsure what to think about this new addition to the Blackwing brand. The Blackwing 602 is designed to hold a point for a long time and to provide a smooth writing experience, while the Blackwing (no 602, just Blackwing) is designed for artists and musicians with a softer lead. The Blackwing Pearl is supposed to fall in between these other two versions, but I found myself questioning why? The other two versions of the Blackwing have very targeted user groups mentioned in the descriptions of the pencils, but the Pearl does not. So why even bother? I have a theory.

I was looking the website and noticed that they are introducing other non-pencil items under the Blackwing umbrella. These include luxury journals, sketchbooks, and folios. Because the Pearl is mostly differentiated by it's pearl white finish, and not by its graphitic (is that even a word?) performance, I would bet the push is to establish a "luxury" version of the blackwing to appeal to those not interested in the matte black or grey colorways of the Blackwing and Blackwing 602, but wish to still be in the Blackwing owners club. Or, they just want a way to visually separate the three versions of the pencil. Arguments could be made on both sides, I am sure.

 As compelled by my artistic background, I did a quick sketch test to evaluate the graphite in the Pearl. I found that the pencil took a nice point very easily and didn't seem to dull down very quickly. This was nice. The cedar in the pencil is very aromatic when sharpened and brings back instant nostalgia when inhaled. Although not apparent in the above photo, the lead isn't really that dark. I attempted to get a very saturated black, but the lead didn't want to cooperate. While it went down on the paper very smooth, it wouldn't cover completely, even after several passes. Controlling the density in a gradation was difficult, like with a very hard composition of graphite, all the while being very, smudgy. You can usually take a soft graphite and blend it out with your finger for midtone coverage, but the lead in the Pearl almost seemed waxy and didn't want to work that way. It erases very easily, even with the supplied eraser. I wasn't impressed with the eraser, but they apparently make several versions and colors (black, white, pink, green, blue, and orange!) that tend to work better, so that isn't so much an issue. But, don't expect to make really dark, heavy marks and expect the stock black eraser to last very long. Normal writing and line-making gets erased just fine, with no extraordinary effort.

So, in summary, the Blackwing pearl is stuck in between it's two siblings, not quite an artist, but not quite a writer. Don't misunderstand my criticisms, the Pearl is a very capable pencil. The fit and finish of it's manufacturing is perfect. Everything looks as it should and it performs just as well as any other premium woodcase pencil. I just don't know quite what to do with it as I don't feel I fit into it's targeted audience, whatever that may be. I do know, that I now really would like to try out one (or both) of the other models in the Blackwing line. Because, if they look and feel, and perform as they say, I should be very satisfied. Color me curious.

 PS-(A great deal of information about the Blackwing brand can be found in a Wikipedia article here).

How A Sheaffer Jr. Warms My Heart

 It's an odd title for a post, I know, but let me explain. The Sheaffer Jr. mechanical pencil pictured in the photo above once resided in the desk of a man I love and respect very much- my grandfather, John.

 It feels weird to refer to "Grandpa" as my grandfather because it seems too formal. The photo on the left is exactly as I remember him (minus the fish, those were only around for special occasions). This may as well have been his retirement uniform, as he wore something similar every day. During his working years, he was a fireman and carpenter as well as a devoted family man. He retired before I was born and spent his time volunteering for the local fire department, gardening, and spending time outdoors hunting and fishing. No matter what he was doing he always had a mischievous grin on his face and love in his heart. To say that as a child I was highly energetic would be a gross understatement, but Grandpa John would always let me "help" him with some project he was doing around the house or garden. He was constantly working with his hands, whether it was saving lives as a fireman, working with wood as a carpenter, or growing food for his family in his large garden. One Summer, he taught me how to make my very own "flipper" (slingshot) from a scrub oak branch, some surgical tubing and scrap leather. I still have it and I hope to teach my kids how to do it some day.

While I'm sure he helped other grandkids make their own "flippers", one thing that he and I alone shared was collecting coins. Grandpa started collecting coins in his downtime at the firehouse. They would exchange coins with other firemen all over the world (at least this is how I remember it) as something to do when not out on a call. He had books, and boxes, and containers of coins all stashed away in a big, gray, steel desk at his house. I would pour over his collection every time I went to visit and eventually started a collection of my own. He would bring me coins when they would come to visit and I would run off to put them in a protective sleeve in my room. He would just chuckle because he was just carrying them in his pocket with his keys and I treated them like a precious jewel.

Years went by and I became a teenager and other thoughts filled my head besides coins and "flippers". I would still pull out his collection occasionally when I would go visit, but it happened much less often. As time continued, the inevitable happened, my grandparents both passed away.

Our family still owns my grandparents' home and we spend time there regularly, both to get away for a short time and to feel close to them. One of the many trips to their home, I found myself sitting at my grandpa's desk. It's big and grey with a rubber top for writing. I looked down at the big file drawer on the right side where the coin collection had once resided (it now has been passed to the family). I pulled the handle and the once heavy drawer opened easily and showed me it's emptiness. It made me miss my grandpa terribly. I shut the big file drawer and started looking through the rest of the desk. I pulled open the long, thin center drawer. It was filled with common items one would expect to find in a desk. I found a wooden, triangular ruler, pencil leads in a metal container, scissors, and a staple remover, among many other items. I started setting these more interesting items aside as I went, thinking about my grandpa using them and I felt better.

 I eventually came across this pencil. I didn't notice it as anything special at first, but after reexamination, the variegated green material shown iridescent when the light hit it. It was a Shaeffer Jr. mechanical pencil. I have no idea where my grandpa got this pencil. It was among old, dried-up ballpoints given away by the local lumberyard, not in a special case or spot in a drawer. I would guess that he either found it or it was given to him by someone in passing. It didn't matter to me either way because it was his. This pencil sat next to him as he drew up plans for furniture, did taxes and paid bills. It waited silently as I spent many childhood hours pouring through boxes of coins just inches away. When I held this pencil, I felt like it connected me to Grandpa John, even if just a small, imagined way.

I now keep this pencil in my desk drawer in my office. Anytime I open the drawer where I keep it, I notice it sitting there. Very often, I will stop what I am doing and will hold it in my hands and think about Grandpa and all that he taught me.

I love you Grandpa John. Happy Father's Day.

Scout Books Brand Notebooks- Part 2

Now that I have had the chance to play to play with my Scout Books notebooks, I think it would be a good time to finish my review. The notebooks themselves seem very well made. The paper is thick and smooth. I was finally able to get all the information I was looking for after poking around on their website. Here are the stats straight from the Scout Books website:

Dimensions- 3.5in x 5in (8.9cm x 12.7cm)

Page Count- 32 Pages

Paper- Cover: 100% Recycled Chipboard, 18pt. Kraft, Interior: 100% Recycled Text, 70# White

Printing & Ink- High Quality Offset Printing with Vegetable-Based Inks

Binding- Saddle Stitched (two wire stitches)

Corner Rounding- Two Rounded Corners: .25in Radius

 So, naturally, I broke out the tools I am most comfortable sketching with and went to work. From the top down we have a Sharpie fine point, a Pilot Fineliner, a Pilot Razor Point, and a Papermate medium ballpoint. These are all black and have a good range of size and saturation. I am using the phrase "saturation" to refer how quickly the ink or color can leave the pen and on/into the paper. I would call this a squiggle test. I start out drawing two parallel lines and then filling the space with a graduated squiggly line, heavy overlap on the left to none on the right. The paper took all of the pens well, with no smudging or bleed out. Even the Sharpie looks pretty crisp. The Papermate smudged a little, but this is the fault of the ink and not the notebook. On the backside of the page, some spotting can be seen from start/stop points. Mostly from the Sharpie, but that kind of saturation is typical. I was most pleased with how well the paper took ballpoint pen. Cheaper paper can indent and curl with heavy ballpoint use, but the heavy, 70# paper used in the Scout Books held up like a pro.

So, the next obvious test for me was to draw something in it and see how it performs. This was a quick 10 minute sketch (or less, I didn't time it) like something I would do while waiting around. I started with a quick ballpoint outline and eventually used the Razor Point to thicken linework and add other details. Some people tend to move more quickly while drawing, as I do, while some are more deliberate, very slowly and carefully moving the pen over the page. I tend to be pretty light with my pen pressure while using felt tip pens so as to not over saturate the paper or damage the delicate tips on the pens. Why am I telling you this?
This is why. Even though my initial tests showed very little saturation or bleed through, when I actually sat down to draw, I got a different result. Only a couple of these spots actually made it through to the next page, but it did happen. I figure it was when I was thinking about what to do next with the sketch and paused with the tip of the Razor on the page. This may be a very short pause, but enough to let the ink saturate through the page. Not a big deal for me, but some may not care for it.

These small notebooks are very well made and are a very good value (3 for $10 with free shipping!). Heavy, bright paper takes ink well and resists curling.
Plain overall appearance makes customizing easy.

Doesn't play well with felt tips or Sharpies if you are heavy handed.
Small size isn't ideal for sketching anything but a doodle.

UPDATE- Apparently, I am blind because I didn't notice the Mega DIY notebooks on the Scout Books website. They are a much larger 5x7 inch and have 48 pages each. I will have to pick up some of these for a future review. They look great!

Scout Books Brand Notebooks- Part 1

I've been shopping around trying to find a pocket notebook that fits my needs. Something that isn't too small, expensive, and most important of all, has blank pages. I don't believe I use notebooks like most people use notebooks. Being a designer, I draw on everything, all the time. And, if there is a chance that I create something cool, I don't want a grid/lines/dots to spoil my sketch (I may want to Instagram that stuff, lines are for suckas!). That is mostly so I can scan the artwork and either use it as an underlay for a larger or more detailed drawing. This disqualifies most "standard" types of notebooks for me so I tend to purchase "sketchbooks". Most of these are expensive, have bindings that don't let the (note)book lay flat, and just the thought of tearing a page out to scan just makes me want to cry. This is where notebooks like the ones from Scout Books come into play.

Scout Books is based out of Portland,Oregon and makes these pocket notebooks from 100% recycled materials. This is most obvious in the cardstock used for the covers, you can see flecks and fibers of the paper that hint at a previous life. I obviously chose the blank version, or sketch keeper, but they have a very large assortment of versions to choose from. They even have books printed with short stories so you can read on the go, or send them out with your kids without fear of them being lost or destroyed. Very cool stuff. They even collaborate with designers to create special editions. When you get a chance, be sure to poke around a bit to see what's new.

Each notebook has 32 pages, which seemed kind of random to me until I found out that in the publishing world, 16 pages are called "signatures" and books are built using these units, so these are 2 signatures thick, I think. (Thanks Jake Parker) They also contain 100% awesome, which I'm pretty sure isn't regulated by the FDA, so take that at face value. The notebooks come packaged in groups of three with a paper band holding them together. They also are all shrink wrapped when they arrive, but it looked weird in photos so I removed it. The paper is nice and thick, but I will get into that later, but I was impressed.

I know some of you are thinking to yourselves, "Hey, these sound just like Field Notes, something is fishy here!" I originally thought that too, but there are noticeable differences. First, the branding is different. Scout Books puts their branding on the back and a blank box on the front, while Field Notes places theirs on the front. Second, Scout Books notebooks are 3.5" x 5" while Field Notes are 3.5" x 5.5", respectively. Third, Scout Books notebooks are 32 pages thick while Field Notes are 48 pages thick. 16 page groupings remember? The paper in the Scout Books notebook is noticeably thicker. I am not sure what the difference in poundage is, but it seems significant. And lastly, the Scout Books are bound with two staples while the Field Notes use 3 staples. One thing they do share is that they both are made in the USA.

I plan on putting these through their paces to see how they perform and will post part 2 when that's done. As a side note, that Field Notes "National Crop" edition notebook is currently being used, as is the rest of the set, for mundane lists and doodles. My apologies to those who may suffer significant mental anguish at the thought of this act of heresy.

To be continued... Part 2 here