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.


  1. Thumbs up man! Great of you to show the entire process going on inside and outside of your head as the designer.

  2. I enjoyed all of your commentary. I could have used even more of the tech involved in the manufacture. I was entertained, keep up the good work and this has encouraged me to own at least one of these

  3. Just pre-ordered an hour ago. Looks like a solid product. Can't wait. Thanks for the interesting background info.

  4. This is so cool! I'd love to be able to sketch like that! Great post!