Why things are strong, light, simple and reliable

Man, I feel like moving. It’s the Forearm Forklift that did it. It’s not that I’m unhappy where I am. My house is neither falling down especially fast nor haunted, except by the ghost of bad renovations past, like the ghostly word “Up” next to the arrow pointing down on the old bathroom cup-holder. And the rowdiest thing my neighbours do is celebrate “Talk Like A Pirate” day (Sept. 19) in style.

No, I feel like moving because I recently rented a vehicle for a mundane in-town chore and they had such cool accessories I wanted some. Forget Magic Marker. We’re talking colour-coded strapping tape with names of various rooms printed on it, plus olde-tyme “Ugly Moving Tape” in the standard dirty yellow for traditionalists. And “Forearm Forklift,” which turns out to be orange fabric straps you wrap around your forearms to lift stubborn chests of drawers and awkward chairs without bending down, heaving, and getting Ugly Moving Back.

Also, they had not just generic “organizer bags” but computer plastic bag kits, chair bags, comforter bags, mattress bags (in every size) and rug storage bags, plus rolls of mover’s wrap in two sizes, custom hitches, furniture pads, tarps, locks and straps.

It’s like when you go into a tool store and they have such great stuff that you’re about to put a router in the cart when it hits you that you don’t know what a router even is.

Being a nerd, I left instead with a lesson about the free market. I’ve moved a few times and always appreciated the ready availability of complex, durable, no-frills, affordable rental vehicles. But my goodness, the accessories have improved. It’s part of a consumer-goods revolution based partly on design and partly on materials, and while man does not live by bread alone, the variety and flavour certainly do enhance our existence.

I’m keen on design. I even admire a hotel tap that’s easy to use. The technical term for a control device whose operation is intuitively obvious is an “affordance,” and we need more of them.

I admire anything that does what it does well, is easy to use, and works elegantly. Years ago when I disgraced the rock-climbing fraternity with my feeble antics, I remember how cool the outdoor gear had become while I was indoors doing a PhD. Gone were the gruesome canvas knapsacks and tents of yore; things had instead become strong, light, simple and reliable.

I’ve since been impressed by how the same imaginative design with new materials migrated to golf courses, then offices. My current briefcase could climb Mount Everest (without me). It’s light, strong, rugged, washable, with straps and carabiners and water-bottle-holder and pockets and pouches and webbing. And those little straps through zipper heads that started outdoors, because they’re easy to grasp in cold fingers, then people thought hey, why shouldn’t all zippers be easy to grasp?

Plus the zipper straps on my briefcase are rubber, and if you pull too hard they slip out of the metal bit so that something more expensive or awkward doesn’t break. That’s called a “physical fuse,” and we need more of those too.

Still, while the staggering amount of bad design that still exists makes me treasure good design and beg for more, the great thing is I don’t have to beg. It is said that if you invent a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. Actually entrepreneurs will, so it only happens in market economies.

We take it for granted that products and product selection will keep improving. But it wasn’t just outdoorspeople and designers who created the marvels we now enjoy. It was merchants, including ostensibly anticapitalist co-ops. Soviet machinery was not both lousy and hard to operate because their engineers were dumb, but because crucial market feedback mechanisms didn’t exist.

Let me bore you with Nalgene water bottles. Early models had caps that screwed off and fell down the cliff. The next generation had caps with straps round the neck of the bottle but cap and strap were one piece, so the strap got twisted every time you took the lid off, and quickly broke. On the third generation the strap was a separate piece that rotated freely over a knob on the cap.

This process of refinement didn’t just happen because campers had a problem that designers could solve, but because some clever, motivated third party took the news of the problem from customer to designer and news of the solution from designer to customer. It’s the miracle of markets.

We take it for granted, but we’d sure miss it if it weren’t there. We’d be queuing for Ladas instead of buying briefcases more rugged than Daniel Boone, baby strollers with coffee-cup holders and, down at the old truck rental, Forearm Forklift.

I tell you, it was a moving experience.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson