Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Not just Things

Maurice Hensdiek
Sep 30, 2020 · 7 min read

The tools that surround us should be more than just things. We need to spend more time choosing them and restore our sense of quality.

Recently I purchased a dozen Blackwing pencils for 30€ (2,50€ per pencil). A great pencil, probably the best you can wish for. But when I bought them, all my folks struggled to understand why I spent so much money on a pencil. “It’s just a pencil”. It made me think because in a way, they are right. If I was looking for “just a pencil,” I could easily have bought a dozen pencils for a fraction of the price. I could have spent the remaining money on something else. But I wasn’t looking for just anything that would do the job — I wanted the best available quality because I truly appreciate it. I love the touch, I love using them, I love owning them. I did not want something else.

But why is it that I feel like a minority here? Why do I feel like I have to defend that choice? The great Adam Savage said the Blackwing is an indicator for a Pencil-Nerd. And he is right. But why is it that so seemingly few people pick quality over quantity? Why don’t people understand that quality is sometimes worth the sacrifice? Why is the best quality product a niche product for nerds whereas bad quality products seem to be a self-runner and are more widely accepted?

I thought about this a lot because it seems to be that I am the one with the strange behaviour here. In the following I want to talk about why I think a tool is more than just a thing and why I believe we have to restore a sense for quality for good. Also I want to explain why things have high costs whereas high-quality tools pay you back over time like an investment.

As you might have already noticed, for the sake of the argument and in lack of better words, I defined:

Things = Meaningless, poorly designed products of low quality and price.

Tools = Meaningful, well-designed products of high quality and price.

(same applies for digital products or services)

It’s not just a thing

It is sometimes hard for us “enlightened” folks to admit that tools, at least certain tools, truly can have souls. In fact, when we conceive a physical, haptical object as our own, we enter a complex relationship even with the most obviously inanimate objects. This process of building emotional relationships with tools starts very early in life. Do you remember your first cuddly toy? In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is well-understood. The toy, sometimes only a small blanket, serves as a “transitional object” — the presence of this special object helps to endure separation from and establish a kind of independence to the so-called “primary objects,” i.e. our parents. We learn to soothe ourselves with the help of the object and often animate it symbolically in our play. It is often thought that, when we grow up, we dismiss such transitional objects entirely without compensation, but a closer look reveals that this is not true at all. In his 1999 study about such “Beloved Objects,” psychoanalyst Tilman Habermas describes the mechanisms through which objects play a persistent role in adulthood. They serve as foundations of personal identity, create a stable and familiar physical environment and even support our memory function. When elderly people move into retirement homes, a sudden decline of their memory function has often been observed, mitigated often to the extent they could bring lots of personal objects with them. So, tools are not just things, for sure. They carry emotional weight and their presence in our lives has tremendous, often ignored psychological effects. No wonder popular clear-out coach Marie Kondo recommends throwing everything out that doesn’t “spark joy”. But the personal level is not all there is to tools. The meaning of tools goes much further than that. It doesn’t only affect you, but much more people on the planet. Think of materials, aesthetics, health, pollution … The list is long.

Things cost and tools pay back

It is hard to calculate the cost of an uncomfortable shoe in monetary terms — one that gives you painful blisters, when you want to dance on a wedding; or an unhealthy chair that causes daily back pain resulting in a serious injury; or the subtle frustration of a erratic writing pen just in the middle of signing an important contract. In all of such cases, the product may have been cheap, but there surely is a price you pay in terms of overall reduced life-quality and stress.

Now compare to this the concrete, perceptible value you get out of sitting in your favorite chair reading a good book . Such values are hard to quantify in everyday life. But the value adds up every single time you sit in it. Likewise, it is impossible to quantify the peace of mind you receive by looking at a miraculously suggesting, carefully composed oil painting, or the satisfying joy of frictionless simple yet masterfully round designed everyday objects like a robust, well-made pencil. As a tool they add value everytime you interact.

Fill tools with soul — not trash cans with things

The swiss watch you got from your grandpa after he died. Is that just a watch? Or is it more? I believe that this tool has been filled with your grandpa’s soul in all the years he had it on his wrist. It contains everything your grandpa went through and represents his appreciation for exactly that piece.

My grandpa owns a high quality swiss watch. He wears it when he sleeps, even when he showers. Always, for more than 40 years by now. When the watch stops working, he will repair it. Not one second he thinks of buying a new one. He has many stories to tell about this watch. He knows exactly where and when he bought it. And I know exactly that this is HIS watch. I would not know it if he had 20 watches and would frequently change them. I see his soul in that watch and I appreciate it even though it’s not my watch. What tool in your house is truly YOURS?

To be able to pass your beloved tools to a next generation there is a very practical barrier right from the start. From the moment you buy it. That tool needs to live longer than you do. For that a certain quality is indispensable and you should be able to repair it when necessary. Also you should appreciate it enough to take this journey with you. The design, the feel of it, the sound it makes, the emotion you have wearing it and the sacrifices you made getting it. How many things in your house can do that?

Buy tools you can fill with your soul and pass on to your grandchildren. Right now your grandpa’s watch is more likely to be inherited again to the next generation than the 5€ thing you got from Amazon last week. Simply because it lasts longer, it has a soul, a history, a story to tell and most important your appreciation.

Maybe you lose the need of buying another watch when you finally buy the watch you always wanted. The watch that is YOURS.

Some tools are companions, some are not

Some tools last long and can be a true companion throughout life. Like the swiss watch I was talking about. But there are some tools that use up and won’t last forever, like a pencil. That’s ok. They are not less meaningful and you should choose them just as carefully.

Tools can elevate the work you do. They lift you up. If you look back in 20 years it was also the toolset you used that brought you there. So in a way they are companions even if they change or use up. Can you achieve the same with poorly designed things? I don’t think so. Choose your tools wisely even if they use up over time.

I believe that a good pencil can make you a better writer. Even if it is only a little. It clearly makes you a more happy writer.

Tools are for rich only

Another argument I always hear is that “normal people” cannot afford it and that tools are for rich people. And for some tools this is hard to refute (like cars, boats, house, …). But for most everyday tools I disagree. More than that. I believe you can not afford buying things when your not rich.

But why is it so hard?

A choice is always the destruction of all the other possibilities. That’s why it is so hard to settle with one. There is always the risk that there could have been a better possibility in the future. All deep commitment requires a certain level of maturity. But our society encourages delaying important life choices just as much as it denies the finiteness of all life and suggests that we can be everything at one and forever young. Obviously, this is not true. When choosing, you define who you will be. This also holds for the act of buying. Impulsively buying things may trigger the reward-center in your brain for a short time-span, whereas buying a tool is a conscious and often emotionally draining choice. But it pays out.

Do not follow your impulses and step back for a second. It takes time to make a choice, it takes time to save the money, but it is pure anticipation. Enjoy it.

We live in a world of abundance where we own everything and nothing. Because our lives are filled with tons of things that mean nothing to us. We lost the relationship to the things we own. We should fill our lives with tools that mean something and reflect ourselves. We should spend money on tools that accompany us for years and decats not on things that break within weeks. And to get exactly that we have to make sacrifices and spend more. We should own more tools and less things. You will end up owning less and it will be a liberation.

And as a designer I appeal to my colleagues:

But your power and wisdom in creating great tools not things because I fear they might be hard to find in the future otherwise.

Thx to my Co-Author Selina Schuler