On knife design and the virtue of usability

Discuss Spyderco's products and history.
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zuludelta
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On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby zuludelta » Sat Nov 07, 2020 1:53 am

Much of the current conversation about folding knives revolves around materials, particularly the blade steel. That this is the case makes absolute sense, of course: a knife is a cutting tool, and the blade's ability to hold an edge, resist corrosion, and maintain general structural integrity are absolutely salient characteristics for it to continue performing as such.

That said, how well the knife can be integrated into the user's body mechanics and work task processes—what I call its "usability"—is just as important for the knife's functioning as an effective implement. The problem, of course, is that usability is very much an idiosyncratic and personal thing—what is usable for one person may not be so for another.

It might help to think of the usability of a knife in the same way as one considers the usability of a software app or operating system. An app or operating system may have a wealth of advanced features, but if those features are buried behind a clumsy, inscrutable user interface, then those features may as well not exist. By a similar token, the longest-wearing, most rustproof, and toughest blade steel in the world is wasted if it is implemented in a folding knife that is awkward to use.

This sounds like common sense (because it is!), but I occasionally lose sight of this principle, especially when the hype for the latest and greatest steel or an in vogue designer or even some new YouTube cutting test result is at a fever pitch.

I was recently reminded of the importance of usability when I visited a local military surplus store to look at, handle, and possibly buy, a non-Spyderco folding knife (potentially my first non-Spyderco folder purchase in over four years). I handled knives from a selection of popular brands, including a model that I was particularly keen on purchasing based on how it performed in an edge retention test on a well-regarded YouTube channel.

Holding it in my hand and manipulating it in a way that approximated how I would wield it were I using it at work, however, I realised that it just wasn't a good fit for me, and perhaps, for other people who do similar work with their knives. I ended up not buying it.

It wasn't just my unfamiliarity with the design. It was the accumulation of little things that were not flaws in and of themselves, but taken together resulted in a knife that—while I'm sure could cut very well in an isolated, stereotyped testing condition—would take me perhaps a second or two longer to draw from my pocket, a second or two longer to close safely one-handed (or alternatively, would require two hands to close safely), and a second or two longer to put back in my pocket in actual, real-world workplace practice.

A knife is my primary tool at work, and those seconds would all add up over the course of a shift that sees me draw, use, close, and re-pocket a folding knife one-handed, hundreds of times a day (I work in a high-throughput warehouse).

Just as the accumulation of inefficiencies of that particular knife model was not readily apparent without thoughtful, actual handling, so too are the assets of Spyderco's most successful designs.

Take the humble Delica 4, for example. A stalwart of Spyderco's product line for the last three decades, the Delica has been rendered somewhat unremarkable due to its sheer ubiquity (a "problem"—if it can be called that—other knife manufacturers would love to have).
20201106_232859.jpg


While part of the Delica's sales success can be attributed to Spyderco's preexisting bulletproof reputation for quality, a model does not go into four iterative design generations and stay in constant production for thirty years on the strength of branding alone.

Everything in the bog-standard Delica 4, from the blade shape and grind, to the distance of the Trademark Opening Hole in relation to the pivot and the lockbar access cutout, to its weight and balance, to the texture and contours of the handle, to the location of and tension in the pocket clip, add up to a preeminently usable knife.

The Delica 4 is not a perfect knife by any means, and I know there are those for whom it isn't a particularly good fit. The Delica 4 isn't even my favourite Spyderco folder—it's currently a toss-up between the Li'l Temperance 3 and the Yojimbo 2. But what makes Spyderco's product catalogue so great is the depth and breadth of its design vocabulary: There is almost certainly a production Spyderco folder design that will meet the folding knife needs of just about anyone out there.

Perhaps the greatest praise I can give Spyderco in terms of the usability of their production designs is this: As someone who uses a knife as his primary work tool, accidental self-inflicted knife injuries are inevitable—it's just the law of averages. I have been more careful and luckier than most, but I've still had one knife injury that required that I work modified duties while I recuperated. I have never seriously cut myself with one of my Spyderco work knives, however (my Spyderco work knife rotation currently consists of the Yojimbo 2, Li'l Temperance 3, Delica 4 Wharncliffe, Native 5 Lightweight, Para Military 2, and most recently, the RockJumper).
20201106_232932.jpg
When I use one of my work Spydercos, I always know where the edge and tip are in relation to my body and the environment because of various tactile design cues, and closing the knife one-handed is a safe, near-automatic, and swift process, regardless of the lock type.

In many ways, we are in what one might call a boom period for folding knives. We are spoiled for choice in blade steels: virtually rustproof steels, extremely tough steels, extremely long-wearing steels, affordable steels that can outperform the premium steels of 20 years ago; there is a steel for every need and desire, for every budget. Sprints, retailer exclusives, and fashionable boutique knife manufacturers abound, creating—for better and for worse—a speculation-driven micro-economy. And the stigma surrounding the everyday carry of folding knives in public has been somewhat mitigated by the intentional and incidental advocacy of various popular YouTube personalities (though much ground still has to be made in this regard).

I contend that this boom is due to a significant extent to the advances in usability that Spyderco pioneered over the years. Knives had to get into more people's hands and pockets before this could all happen. Warehouse, port, and construction workers had to realise that a properly-designed folding knife could work just as well as a utility boxcutter for their cutting tasks. Outdoors enthusiasts had to learn that a folding knife did not have to be a compromise solution in their efforts to shave weight in their gear loadouts. First responders and military personnel had to have confidence in the reliability of their folders when lives were on the line.

Wikipedia defines a tool as "an object used to extend the ability of an individual to modify features of the surrounding environment." The knife is one of humanity's oldest tools, a legacy from our ancient Paleolithic ancestors that unites us across geography and time. So much of today's knife hobbyist market, though, seems to be driven by prestige of ownership and materials exclusivity ("I have something other people don't") which, to me, is antithetical to the knife's foundational motivation of function and utility. Knives as "pocket jewelry" is nice and all, but I think we would be best served in the hobby if we stayed aware of our species' original relationship with the knife as a tool. Fashion comes and goes, but our need for effective "matter separators" (to borrow Sal Glesser's term) is constant.

John Steinbeck once wrote that "we value virtue, but do not discuss it." I've been very much heartened, however, by the recent (if somewhat belated) enthusiasm the online Spyderco community has greeted the release of the RockJumper. Usability is a virtue, and that a Seki City-made knife with a basic VG-10 blade, a standard mid-backlock mechanism, and plain old FRN handle scales would garner the level of interest it has largely on the merits of its ergonomics tells me that usability remains at the forefront of our forum's shared priorities.
Last edited by zuludelta on Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:29 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby Sonorum » Sat Nov 07, 2020 2:15 am

Very interesting and well written, I really enjoyed reading this piece. I think Spyderco nailed it from the start with their supremely useable knives. I remember reading that Sal designs knives from the edge out and I think that is apparent in their longevity and success.
Few knives outside of Spydercos lineup feels like I can use them blindfolded. When working, there is something great about the slow and safe opening of a back lock, you can open it without seeing it and you just know where it is all of the time.

Thank you for writing this, as with any good piece of writing, it made me start thinking.
/ David

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby zuludelta » Sat Nov 07, 2020 2:33 am

Sonorum wrote:
Sat Nov 07, 2020 2:15 am
Thank you for writing this, as with any good piece of writing, it made me start thinking.
You're welcome, and thank you for reading and commenting :)

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby Doc Dan » Sat Nov 07, 2020 8:04 am

I think you are on to something with that essay. For me Spyderco fits. I was ambiguous towards Spyderco when they first started showing up in stores in the early 90's, I think it was. However, all of that changed less than ten years later...especially, for me, with the Caly3 and the Delica 4. The earlier Delica was nice but it was the 4 that really got me. The Caly3 became my dress pants folder, replacing other models completely. The ergos on these knives and the useability are without peer.
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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby sal » Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:17 am

Hi Zuludelta,

Very well done. Thanx much.

sal

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby James Y » Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:27 am

Great post, zuludelta (as always)!

Have you ever thought about writing a book on knives and knife usage? I’m being serious. I feel that if you wanted to, you could put together a heck of a good one.

Perhaps even a new Spyderco book? :)

Jim

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby The Mastiff » Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:32 am

Over the decades the VG 10 Endura has become the reference standard I use for knives. Now I have boxes of knives in different steels and designs other than trying out a new knife/steel combo I always end up hurrying back to an Endura model. It's all about ergonomics and now very much familiarity.

For another knife to displace my Enduras it has to work as well in my now arthritic hands. That's a tall order.

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby zuludelta » Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:53 am

Doc Dan wrote:
Sat Nov 07, 2020 8:04 am
The earlier Delica was nice but it was the 4 that really got me. The Caly3 became my dress pants folder, replacing other models completely. The ergos on these knives and the useability are without peer.
The Caly 3 is nice, I remember handling one a couple of years back and really, really liking it. I think it (or the Caly 3.5) is due to make a comeback as a Golden or Taichung model, although the timeline has probably been pushed back because of the pandemic.
sal wrote:
Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:17 am
Very well done. Thanx much.

sal
Thank you Sal :)


James Y wrote:
Sat Nov 07, 2020 10:27 am
Great post, zuludelta (as always)!

Have you ever thought about writing a book on knives and knife usage? I’m being serious. I feel that if you wanted to, you could put together a heck of a good one.

Perhaps even a new Spyderco book? :)

Jim
Aw, thanks, man. The thought's never really crossed my mind, but now that you've mentioned it... well, it's something I can dream about now :)
The Mastiff wrote: Over the decades the VG 10 Endura has become the reference standard I use for knives. Now I have boxes of knives in different steels and designs other than trying out a new knife/steel combo I always end up hurrying back to an Endura model. It's all about ergonomics and now very much familiarity.
I am pretty much the same way. I am always interested in trying new designs and new steels, but I keep coming back to the same 4 or 5 Spydercos when it comes to actually doing work.

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby Bill1170 » Sat Nov 07, 2020 2:30 pm

The Delica 4 was my first Spyderco knife. I have many D4’s now, all in FRN. it is an amazingly well balanced tool, the product of deep thought and iteration.

Thanks to Zuludelta for that well-written post.

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby Ngati Pom » Sat Nov 07, 2020 3:26 pm

Thanks for this considered piece. Very well written. Thanks.
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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby standy99 » Sat Nov 07, 2020 11:42 pm

Every knife will cut something so they are all useable. Spyderco makes some great knives with great designs but they also star in the just a knife stakes with the Delica, Endura, Salts an the new Rock Jumper.

Looking at knives nowadays it’s either a new release that comes from Battlestar Galactic prop department or designed by a 12 year old 200 years in the future.

Give me a Delica or a PM2 any time.
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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby tonijedi » Sun Nov 08, 2020 10:33 am

Thank you for this topic.
The Delica 4 was my first Spyderco and right now there's an old ZDP Saber Ground Delica in my pocket. You can't go wrong with a Delica!

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby zuludelta » Mon Nov 09, 2020 2:00 pm

Bill1170 wrote:
Sat Nov 07, 2020 2:30 pm
The Delica 4 was my first Spyderco knife. I have many D4’s now, all in FRN. it is an amazingly well balanced tool, the product of deep thought and iteration.

Thanks to Zuludelta for that well-written post.
tonijedi wrote:
Sun Nov 08, 2020 10:33 am
Thank you for this topic.
The Delica 4 was my first Spyderco and right now there's an old ZDP Saber Ground Delica in my pocket. You can't go wrong with a Delica!
You're welcome! The Delica 4 is indeed a well-balanced design. Even though there are perhaps two or three other Spyderco models that I prefer over it (mostly for rather subjective reasons), the Delica 4 (or alternatively, the Native 5 Lightweight) is the knife I reach for when I am heading into a situation where I am not entirely sure what knife is best suited to carry (in terms of practicality or social convention). Both have a decent amount of blade length and are robustly built and ergonomically shaped whilst remaining very light, compact & discreet—they handle very well for being such (relatively) small knives. And the standard model (for either design) is corrosion-resistant enough for most situations that do not involve extended immersion in saltwater.
Ngati Pom wrote:
Sat Nov 07, 2020 3:26 pm
Thanks for this considered piece. Very well written. Thanks.
You're welcome!

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby Cycletroll » Mon Nov 09, 2020 6:15 pm

Nice essay Zulu!
Totally agree that end usability is hardly discussed while people obsess about steel, scale material, etc.
Thanks for the remarkable start to a neccessary subject of discussion :)

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby zuludelta » Mon Nov 09, 2020 10:13 pm

Cycletroll wrote:
Mon Nov 09, 2020 6:15 pm
Nice essay Zulu!
Totally agree that end usability is hardly discussed while people obsess about steel, scale material, etc.
Thanks!

I guess part of the reason so much of the discussion is weighted more towards materials rather than usability is because use cases can vary widely between individuals, whereas it's a lot easier to find common ground for discourse when talking about steel composition & steel attributes. Which is understandable.

But as someone who uses a knife at work a lot—I cut through anywhere from 80 feet to 200 feet of 200 lbs.-rated, single walled cardboard (often damp cardboard at that) a day depending on how busy it is at the warehouse, and at least dozen polyprop pallet straps—I find that the knives that serve me best are the ones that have ergos that fit my hand & body mechanics, that I can easily orient in space, and draw, open, & close rapidly but safely. And I've found in my case that I'm alright with most any blade steel as long as it is, at minimum, on the level of VG-10 in terms of edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance.

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby DSH007 » Tue Nov 10, 2020 8:46 am

I finally got around to reading your dissertation here zulu! ;)

By and large, I share your philosophies regarding "usability." I have accumulated a lot of knives over the years and the ones that spend the most time in my pocket are those that are most comfortable for me in use. They may not be the fanciest, or the most expensive in my collection.. but normally the most utilitarian knives are the ones I find myself drawn to carry. And it just so happens that a majority of those are Spydercos! I'll admit to being bitten by the steel bug a time or two, but I will usually only try the fancy steels in a platform that I know works for me (usually Native 5). At this point in my knife "career," I know what I like and am not so easily tempted by the newest, shiniest thing being peddled on the youtube. In the past year or so, it's become the designs that get me interested in a knife more than anything. More specifically.. designs that lend themselves to the usability you speak of. The Rockjumper was the knife that I was most excited to buy in the last half of 2020. It hasn't disappointed!

Anyways.. thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here. As always, I enjoy reading your posts! :)
Rick H.

..well, that escalated quickly..

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby zuludelta » Wed Nov 11, 2020 2:37 pm

DSH007 wrote:
Tue Nov 10, 2020 8:46 am
I'll admit to being bitten by the steel bug a time or two, but I will usually only try the fancy steels in a platform that I know works for me (usually Native 5). At this point in my knife "career," I know what I like and am not so easily tempted by the newest, shiniest thing being peddled on the youtube. In the past year or so, it's become the designs that get me interested in a knife more than anything. More specifically.. designs that lend themselves to the usability you speak of.
I've been bitten by the steel bug a lot of times myself (and paid for it, LOL). But as the years have gone on, I find that my interest in blade steel is more on the theoretical side. I love learning about cutlery steels of all sorts (shout out to our own Larrin Thomas for making the science of metallurgy more accessible to the knife community), but in actual everyday practice (and I have spent more hours working with folding knives than probably 95% of the knife community), only the grossest of differences in cutlery steel chemistry seem to bear out in practical performance. VG-10 and S30V, for example, perform quite differently (I go about twice as long between touch-ups with the latter, given similar edge geometries).

But even with all my experience using folding knives at work, I can't really tell the difference in performance between, say, CPM-S30V, CPM-S35VN, and CTS-XHP, as far as practical toughness and edge retention go (assuming similar Rockwell hardness, of course). I mean, I'm sure if I make a really serious effort to tabulate the amount of cardboard & pallet straps I can cut with each blade steel before it gets unusably dull, distinctions will become apparent. But they all perform equally well, by and large, within my system which basically boils down to this:
  • Use knife at work until the drag from the dulling starts interfering with my work flow.
  • Touch-up/sharpen the knife.
  • Use knife at work until the drag from the dulling starts interfering with my work flow :D.
By contrast, stuff like the opening mechanism type (i.e., opening hole, thumb stud, nail nick, flipper tab, etc.), the spatial relationship between the pivot and the opening mechanism, accessibility of the unlocking mechanism, handle shape & texture, blade shape and blade grind, and even something as seemingly minor as the amount of spring in the pocket clip, can have a very perceptible impact on how well I can use a folding knife at work.

EDITED TO ADD: Just to clarify, please don't take what I'm saying in this thread to mean that I think people who enjoy knives primarily for their compositional/material differences or as functional jewelry are "doing it wrong". We all find joy in knives in different, equally valid ways.

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby DSH007 » Fri Nov 13, 2020 5:25 pm

zuludelta wrote:
Wed Nov 11, 2020 2:37 pm
DSH007 wrote:
Tue Nov 10, 2020 8:46 am
I'll admit to being bitten by the steel bug a time or two, but I will usually only try the fancy steels in a platform that I know works for me (usually Native 5). At this point in my knife "career," I know what I like and am not so easily tempted by the newest, shiniest thing being peddled on the youtube. In the past year or so, it's become the designs that get me interested in a knife more than anything. More specifically.. designs that lend themselves to the usability you speak of.
I've been bitten by the steel bug a lot of times myself (and paid for it, LOL). But as the years have gone on, I find that my interest in blade steel is more on the theoretical side. I love learning about cutlery steels of all sorts (shout out to our own Larrin Thomas for making the science of metallurgy more accessible to the knife community), but in actual everyday practice (and I have spent more hours working with folding knives than probably 95% of the knife community), only the grossest of differences in cutlery steel chemistry seem to bear out in practical performance. VG-10 and S30V, for example, perform quite differently (I go about twice as long between touch-ups with the latter, given similar edge geometries).

But even with all my experience using folding knives at work, I can't really tell the difference in performance between, say, CPM-S30V, CPM-S35VN, and CTS-XHP, as far as practical toughness and edge retention go (assuming similar Rockwell hardness, of course). I mean, I'm sure if I make a really serious effort to tabulate the amount of cardboard & pallet straps I can cut with each blade steel before it gets unusably dull, distinctions will become apparent. But they all perform equally well, by and large, within my system which basically boils down to this:
  • Use knife at work until the drag from the dulling starts interfering with my work flow.
  • Touch-up/sharpen the knife.
  • Use knife at work until the drag from the dulling starts interfering with my work flow :D.


By contrast, stuff like the opening mechanism type (i.e., opening hole, thumb stud, nail nick, flipper tab, etc.), the spatial relationship between the pivot and the opening mechanism, accessibility of the unlocking mechanism, handle shape & texture, blade shape and blade grind, and even something as seemingly minor as the amount of spring in the pocket clip, can have a very perceptible impact on how well I can use a folding knife at work.

EDITED TO ADD: Just to clarify, please don't take what I'm saying in this thread to mean that I think people who enjoy knives primarily for their compositional/material differences or as functional jewelry are "doing it wrong". We all find joy in knives in different, equally valid ways.
I wholeheartedly agree with the highlighted and your post in general.. except, I probably need to sharpen my knives a whoooole lot less than you do haha! I think for most people, for most uses, most of the steels that Spyderco offers are absolutely "good enough".. I know this is true for me, which is why my focus and enjoyment lies more with trying out different models lately..
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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby Abyss_Fish » Sat Nov 14, 2020 1:02 am

What a spectacular post. My career in “oh man I have to actually read today?” forum posts may be over :D

I agree wholeheartedly with pretty much everything here. Although, I’d like to know your feelings on a few things:

For many (or maybe just me) steel attributes are extremely important. At work I need a steel that can be dropped onto ceramic tiles, dunked in caustic chemicals, left wet, left dirty, and keep going. Which is why I refuse to bring anything not in lc200n to work anymore. I agree that steel isn’t everything, putting a fancy steel on a terrible knife is like putting lipstick on a pig, or as I’ve mentioned a few times, like a pac salt 2 1095 sprint. But sometimes material attributes are of extreme importance, is what I’m trying to say. Everything in a knife should point (eh? Get it?) towards its goal, which is why I’ll always be against “standardized steels”.

And also, don’t you think there’s room for a little fun? I know you said pocket jewelry is fine, but haven’t you ever picked a knife for the day just because it suited your outfit, or because you like how it feels, or because you enjoy playing with it? I’m torn between absolute functionality and style in my knife world. Since my job requires absolute reliability through tough conditions, and in my day to day I really just need a good slicer. Like for example, I’ve been looking at getting my first custom knife recently. And I’ve been having second thoughts since the design (not the maker mind you) takes itself too seriously. I don’t really want a murder weapon in my pocket I want a knife. My Watu embodies this idea of functionality and style together perfectly. I’ve tricked it out to make it fit my personality, and yet it’s without a doubt the best slicer in my collection (barring maybe some of my kitchen knives...). What I’m really getting at is, yes knives are tools, but they can be more. And you don’t really have to sacrifice your functionality to have a little fun, especially with spydercos. Unless you’re carrying a traditional, but do you really need one handed split second deployment at a wedding reception?

I’m also not saying you necessarily disagree or agree with any of these, it just seems like we think alike in our knife use and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for the well written post.
Patiently waiting for the smallfly 2.

Current spydie collection: Watu, Rhino, Kapara DLT sprint 20cv, Manix lw “mystic” sprint 20cv, Siren, Waterway, Ladybug k390, Caribbean
Current favorite steels: sg2/R2, lc200n/Z-FiNit, 3v, s90v, 20cv/m390/204p, cts-xhp

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Re: On knife design and the virtue of usability

Postby zuludelta » Sat Nov 14, 2020 3:37 am

Abyss_Fish wrote:
Sat Nov 14, 2020 1:02 am
For many (or maybe just me) steel attributes are extremely important...
Oh, I'm not saying that steel attributes aren't important. What I'm saying is that at least in my experience, the differences between many steels are practically negligible within a user context.
Abyss_Fish wrote:
Sat Nov 14, 2020 1:02 am
And also, don’t you think there’s room for a little fun? I know you said pocket jewelry is fine, but haven’t you ever picked a knife for the day just because it suited your outfit, or because you like how it feels, or because you enjoy playing with it?
I absolutely think there's room for fun :)—I wouldn't be in the knife hobby if I didn't think knives are valuable beyond their utility. I think knives (folding knives, especially) reside in the intersection between art, engineering, industrial design, materials science, and cultural history, and I appreciate all these aspects of the knife. Beyond the physical knives, I also just enjoy learning about new cutlery steels.

I guess my main qualm with the emphasis so many influential voices in the knife community place on material differences, specifically on material differences that probably have more to do with implied prestige and/or supposed practical improvements that turn out not to be so, is that it can feed into FOMO. So much of the inadequacy & dissatisfaction we feel in the age of social media stems from FOMO, and the marketing apparatus and social media personalities are keen to exploit that.

I am sure I am not the only person in this forum who has felt pangs of discontent and disappointment with his otherwise effective work tools after watching some YouTube tabletop reviewer rave about the newest and shiniest thing. It's not a very good feeling, and in past times this has led to purchases that I ultimately ended up regretting, which can lead to even more negativity (the "why the hell did I buy this?" phenomenon).

Granted, "design" can also be weaponised in this sense, but it's a bit harder to do, and users are more likely to see through the BS.
Abyss_Fish wrote:
Sat Nov 14, 2020 1:02 am
Thanks again for the well written post.
And thank you for taking the time to read and respond :) I really appreciate it.
Last edited by zuludelta on Sat Nov 14, 2020 2:01 pm, edited 2 times in total.


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