Good design does not need to be expensive

It is understandable that most of us have correlated good design with high prices. After all, design leaders like as Apple, Leica and Bang & Olufsen all boast hefty price tags.

While these companies undeniably produce well designed and beautiful products, there is another type of design achievement that often goes unacknowledged. I am talking about products that are so well optimized for the use case that they are addressing, that there does not seem to be another way that the product could exist at that price.

It is easy to overlook these products since their beauty does not stem from great polish, but rather from how they fulfil a multitude of requirements at minimal cost. Like a judo master who takes down his opponent using smallest possible movements, these products achieve a lot with little.

The BIC Crystal Pen

BIC ballpoint pen

The BIC ballpoint pen is a perfect example of this type of product. It is easily overlooked because of its ubiquitousness, yet it is a great piece of design. To illustrate how much thought lies behind the BIC pen I will go through some of the considerations that went into its design. The list is by no means complete as I am sure the original designers took many more considerations into account.

Minimal number of parts

The whole product is made up of five parts– six if you count the ball in the tip. This is remarkably low and helps keep the cost down, as well as decrease the number of possible failure points.

BIC pen exploded

Automated manufacturing

The manufacturing of the pen is completely automated, making human labour costs nearly non-existent. This allows the pen to be made closer to the consumer, even if they happen to live in a region with high labour costs. For example the pen I used in the photos was made in France and bought in Spain.

Visible ink level

BIC pen housing

The housing has been made out of polystyrene, one of the cheapest polymers that exist. Thanks to its transparency the user can quickly gage the ink level of the pen.

Roll-preventing shape

In order to stop the pen from rolling when placed on a flat surface the housing has a hexagonal shape. This shape also provides a comfortable grip for the user.

Regulated air pressure

If you look closely you will see that there is a small hole in the housing. This hole has been put there to regulate air pressure. If you have ever flown in an airplane and tried using an ink pen without pressure regulation you might have noticed that the ink almost poured out. This will not be the case with the BIC pen.

Perfect ink viscosity

Getting the ink viscosity right is not an easy task. If it is too high then the ink will pour out of the cartridge, if it is too low then the ball’s movement in the tip will be restrained. We can imagine that they went through hundreds of tests before landing on the perfect balance.

Pocket clip

The attachment of the cap is done through a so called annular snap-fit. This is an extremely affordable method of attachment as it can be added directly into existing parts without increasing their cost any significant amount.

Annular Snap-fit
Annular snap-fit

The nature of this attachment method requires there to be some flexibility in the material. However the pocket clip-on that is moulded into the cap requires rigidity. In other words, selecting a plastic for the cap is a balancing act between two competing constraints.

BIC pen housing

A trick that the designers implemented to make the clip more rigid without decreasing the flexibility required for the snap-fit, was to make the clip’s profile slightly curved. You will notice that this geometry is much more difficult to bend than a flat one.

Beauty Everywhere

Having listed these design considerations I hope the BIC Crystal pen seems just a bit more remarkable than it did before.

It is easy to forget just have much thought has gone into the built world around us. As you are reading this just imagine how many designers have worked to make every aspect of this moment more comfortable– the chair you sit in, the screen that is displaying the text, the air conditioner that regulates the temperature etc.

I believe reflecting on these things helps us be more grateful, and in turn more happy.