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Everyday objects of elegant design

    The Hacker’s Dictionary -- a.k.a. The Jargon File -- gives this definition of Elegance:
elegant: adj.

[common; from mathematical usage] Combining simplicity, power, and a certain ineffable grace of design. Higher praise than ‘clever’, ‘winning’, or even ‘cuspy’.
    The French aviator, adventurer, and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, probably best known for his classic children's book The Little Prince, was also an aircraft designer. He gave us perhaps the best definition of engineering elegance when he said “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

    You don’t have to be a hacker (or an aviator) to appreciate this attribute in an object: it strikes you instantly with the intense excellence of its design. Unfortunately, objects of truly elegant design are all too rare around us; but sometimes you serendipitously bump into one. So, here is a medley of some everyday objects I’ve acquired over the years, because they attracted my attention at some store or flea market -- for no reason other than having that aura of austerely graceful design. They all meet Saint-Exupéry’s criterion: none of them has more than two component parts.


    This simple item leaves anyone who sees it (and grasps its function) at a loss for words. A fairly accurate office or kitchen scale consisting of two parts (count them, two!), without springs, hinges, pointers… just a plastic container for ordinary water and an inner container floating in it. Put the sugar, letter, or whatever you’re weighing in or on the floating piece; the rest is taken care of by the physical laws of the universe -- specifically, Archimedes’s law. Awesome!

You can see how this works below, where we weigh a Danish Troll doll.

Archimedes scale - component parts
Troll waiting to be weighed  Troll weighed on Archimedes scale
Left: water level at zero mark. Right: water at 30 grams, the troll's weight.

Beauty in a toy marble

    We’ve all seen a toy kaleidoscope: a cardboard tube, a few fragile mirrors glued inside it, a rotating chamber with a translucent end, a bunch of colorful scraps tumbling inside it… a rather complex agglomeration of multiple bits and pieces that can be manipulated to provide beautiful patterns.

    So, here is a kaleidoscope that does the same job with only two solid parts!

    The red plastic tube has a hexagonal inner cavity, whose shiny surfaces give the reflections; the glass marble snaps into the loops at the end and, when rotated in them, provides the changing pattern. As you can see in the sample images below, the patterns achieved are varied and interesting (forgive the imperfect reproduction -- it isn't easy to point a simple digital camera into an optical instrument and get acceptable results).
    The image quality is not very high, because the plastic surfaces reflect less light than a glass mirror would. But its sheer simplicity, and the non-standard application of standard (and interchangeable) glass marbles, give this toy a well-deserved place on this list.
Kaleidoscope detail
Kaleidoscope images

One less aggravation in life

    In “The sound of music” Julie Andrews sang the praise of “Brown paper packages tied up with strings”. This was back when unwrapping a gift still involved untying a dainty knot. Today we have shrink wrapped CD’s, and unwrapping them is sure to be on most anyone’s list of “least favorite things”. Is there anything more annoying than clawing and tearing at clinging plastic and useless stickers?
    Enter EZ-CD. This ingenious product is dirt cheap and simple, and solves the problem of CD unwrapping completely. The guide groove at the bottom contains a short blade that slices the infernal cellophane just so, and you’re ready to enjoy the music!

EZ-CD disc case opener  EZ-CD disc case opener in use

Magic and Safety

    The “Safety Magic Cutter” is nothing much to look at: just a flat piece of plastic. If you look very closely you can barely see the tiny blade sticking from its bottom edge, perhaps a tenth of a millimeter long (visible in the photo at right as a silvery dot). You draw the cutter across a sheet of paper, and the blade will slice the sheet -- sparing the one under it: the blade is as long as the thickness of a single sheet. It spares fingers and children too, hence the “Safety”. Simple, clean, useful. Safety Magic Cutter
    And to the right you can see this little marvel in use, cutting just the top sheet of the pad.

    Incidentally, the original Magic Cutter (mine is evidently a knockoff) was invented in 1977 by the late Carlton DiCarlo, and is still sold by his company.

Safety Magic Cutter in use


    Multi-purpose, all-in-one pocket tools are widely available, and are often variants of either the Swiss army knife or the Leatherman tool. Either has many moving parts which can fold or lock in position. Here, then, is the exact opposite: a multi-purpose tool that can fit in your wallet -- and that has no, absolutely no, moving parts.
    This tool packs seven functions into a flat piece of steel just a bit smaller than a credit card. It’s in no way as elaborate (or, let’s face it, as useful) as a SAK, and is nowhere near as prestigious (or expensive) as a Leatherman.
But its utmost simplicity, and its wallet compatibility, deserve our respect.
Multi-Handy tool in its case
Multi-Handy tool  Multi-Handy tool instruction sheet


    Q: What is the easiest way to re-fold a map? A: Differently!
    But not when you have a Pop-out map. These are fairly common in the major tourist targets, and I never cease to marvel at their convenience. Where the standard maps have to be unfolded, re-folded and mis-folded, these wonders of practical Origami pop up flat when you open the cardboard cover, and fold right back in when you close it again. In fact, the entire exercise can be done with a flick of the fingers of one hand... as seen in the photo sequence below.
Pop-out map
Pop-out map unfolding  Pop-out map unfolding  Pop-out map unfolding
Click a photo to enlarge

Stand, paper! Stand!

    Ending the list, the world’s most ingenious paper holder. The problem of holding up a sheet of paper when you need your hands free to type has been addressed by countless products that stick out from your monitor, or hang from the end of various hinged arms; but none can hold a candle (or a sheet of paper) to the Page'Up.

Page'Up paper sheet holder  Page'Up paper sheet holder in use
Click photo to enlarge

A small plastic blob with a groove shaped just right, it bends the page so it stays upright. And absent the paper, it’s so small as to never intrude. Neat!

For more on Everyday Product Design, visit my "Commonsense Design" blog!


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