Show Me Something Well-made

Tools at Museum of MakingThis weekend at the Museum of Making I was part of the presentation by Leadership Calgary on Technology, Innovation, and the Human Spirit. There we met the curator, Ian MacGreagor, an extraordinary engineer and human being. He shared with us his love of acquiring tools that are well-used because “they have a memory and it shows that they were well-made.”

This was deeply inspiring to me.

These days it’s difficult to find objects that are well-made and built to last. Part of the story is that we as a society expect disposable objects. Upgrade your phone every year. Buy bigger and better TVs every three. And upgrade the house every five. I know because I’ve lived it!

But is this really the way we want to live?

What about quality? What about thoughtfully designed products? What about thoughtful people?

Disposable has its utility for say hospitals and other emergency situations, but “disposability” as a character trait for civilization is deadly. It isn’t just that turning natural resources into waste is brutally unsustainable. It’s that disposable products create a population of disposable thinkers.

Disposable thinkers are happy to be fed consumer products with low prices that tout innumerable amounts of “time-saving” features that boast more than they deliver. And if it breaks down or fails to deliver, oh well, it can be thrown away.

If I sound annoyed, it’s because as a pack rat, I see my closets littered with poorly thought-out choices. Before I get anything, I’d like to ask myself: what is my return on earth investment? will it help me live a more fulfilling life? is it made with quality? will it become like an old friend that I can rely on time and time again? am I willing to invest in the relationship?

We don’t often think of having a relationship with an object. Consider the hammer which not only allows us to pound in a nail, but it also allows to imagine about what else can be built. Every tool or object unlocks new possibilities and thoughts. So I speculate that being surrounded by too many things of low quality and low functionality constrains our imagination and thoughts.

So I invite you to join me a quest for living a life of quality. It won’t be easy in this consumer culture, but with enough people we’ll turn it around.

5 Replies to “Show Me Something Well-made”

  1. I visited Ian’s museum a few years ago and was blown away. It reminded me that we sometimes take quality for granted, in that modern manufacturing techniques can provide very consistent products. Something is undoubtedly lost from the time of handmade goods however. Seeing the machines and tools used for craftsmanship of times past emphasized the drop in quality and pride of production that mass production has led to in many cases.


  2. Hi Chris,

    Excellent comments on the nature of the things we aquire these days. Have you read the book cradle to cradle?

    Those of is who are designing and building the products people buy and live in can always do better, and we all can make a difference every day by being careful about the things we buy (or don’t buy.)

  3. I haven’t read Cradle to Cradle, but the concept is described many times in Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawkens, and Mid-Course Correction by Ray Anderson.

    We have to keep looking for a better way!

  4. Chris,
    I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the relationship between quality, our current economic system and ethics. While studying engineering I remember learning concepts such as planned obsolescence. As the name suggests the engineer’s efforts are harnessed to reduce the life of a product as part of its functional requirements. With our money currently a derivative of debt and our economic engine driven by consumption a predictable product turnover rate seems desirable. The problem with this ethic is that it pits our economy against sustainability and quality.

  5. Patou… great questions! Here are my thoughts:

    Ethics is a set of standards about what “right” conduct is. Quality is judgment about the excellence of something as compared to some standard. The meaning of ethics and quality will vary depending on what standards you’re using.

    Now this begs the question, so what standards are being used? From a human venture standpoint, the standards should be based on the best of the human story as well as what is possible.

    Our economic system (if I can be permitted to oversimplify) uses a crude set of standards where individuals are seen as self-interested “rational” actors living in a world with (essentially) infinite resources. If the standard is about giving people whatever they want at a profit, then we’ll get the kind of ethical and quality standards seen today.

    From this perspective, the current economic system fails the test of quality because it does not reflect what is happening in the real world and the best of humanity. Resources are finite. People respond to far more than self-interest.

    If we actually match our standards to the human venture, then our sense of ethics and quality will derive from what is needed and possible as opposed to existing standards.

    For instance, planned obsolescence makes sense in a world with infinite resources. If resources are infinite, why not satisfy a need to have something new more often? However if the quality standard is that the manufacturer must be responsible for the disposal as well as the production of the product, planned obsolescence requires much more design thinking.

    The challenge is that people and corporations are so attuned to existing standards, they are unwilling to see or adopt better standards.

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