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A guide to help the average man... look less average

The MARK Pen is now on Kickstarter!

Mark Kwak

It's been a long and windy road to get here, but the Kickstarter for my pen is is finally out! I'm super excited to bring this to you guys, and have had a blast (despite the trials and tribulations) trying to figure out how to design a product.

If you have any questions at all, feel free to email me at simplermaninfo@gmail.com. Cheers!

The Design (Part Two)

Mark Kwak

tl;dr - I've finalized a design. Here it is!

So clearly it's been a little bit of time since my last post, and that's because I've been traveling the world for the past couple months after leaving my job- forgive me guys! Good news is I'm back refreshed and ready to take on the world.

I wanted to make sure to finish off my last post, which was about the design of the pen I'm creating. If you haven't read that post, make sure to check it out below (or here)! 

So if you caught up with my last post, you know that I started a journey to create a premium fountain pen, but ultimately decided not to even go with the fountain mechanism. This actually led me to test out literally hundreds of different ink cartridges (ballpoint, felt, rollerball, gel, etc.) to get to one that wrote most consistently, had the least amount of splotches, dried quickly, was not too fine tipped, was not too thick, came out lusciously, was offered in multiple colors, was reliable.... okay you probably get the point. 

Ultimately I found a rollerball cartridge that I felt was better than any other I've used in the past. It was designed by a German company that has been making ink cartridges for ages, and actually supplies ink to some of the top pen manufacturers in the world today (think Mont Blanc). 

Finding the ink was important because ultimately that would decide how the rest of the pen would be created/designed. If the ink cartridge was thick, then the pen would have to be fairly thick. If it was super long, then the pen would also have to be pretty long. Anyhow, the good news was that I felt confident enough in the ink I had chosen that now it was just about building an aesthetically pleasing and functionally practical enclosure to house it. 

Easy, right? Eh not really. Turns out there are tons of decisions you need to make in creating a product even as simple as a pen. Will it have a cap? Does it utilize a push mechanism? A twist mechanism? How thin will it be? What length is best? What does the weight distribution need to be like? Materials used? Will there be a spring? An O-Ring? It was actually kind of overwhelming. 

16x9 Large.jpg

So here's where I landed after much thought and deliberation:

1. Cap, twist, or push? It will be a capped pen. Why? Because the premium pens I love are all capped designs- why fix something if it ain't broke? Besides, I love the action of capping and uncapping a pen. 

2. What materials? Resin (or plastic) is cheap and easily moldable, but the lack of weight and gravitas is what bothered me about it. So for me it had to be made of metal. That opens up stainless steel, brass, and aluminum as the possible options. In testing aluminum, not only did the lack of weight bother me, but it looked and felt cheap. No one wants to spend premium money on a pen and feel like they paid for a cheap item. So the pen will likely be in the highest grade stainless steel or brass I can possibly find. The dimensions of the pen are such that with either metal, it won't be overtly heavy and fatiguing, but it will still have enough heft to feel valuable.

3. Finally, what shape? This is where design really comes into play. How do you make a pen that is unique, yet familiar? Simple, yet interesting? Pragmatic yet aesthetically pleasing? As I talked about in an earlier post, I certainly wanted it to be as thin as possible. Fat pens aren't all that well-received in relation to today's sleek streamlined aesthetic. 

Working with a product designer / architect friend of mine, Tanya Retherford, we started to prototype and sketch. First coming up with this design:

MARK1_TOP.png

There were things I liked about this design. It was simple, streamlined and thin. Unfortunately I did not like the back bulge (to accommodate posting the cap on the back). It was also a little too simple, with nothing distinguishing it from the rest. So we went back to the drawing board and came up with this:

MARK2_SIDE.png

The slanted cap was the main design change here. I felt it would be a good signature mark to the design, something you don't see everyday. However I had some issues with this design as well. First off, the widest point was again fairly fat and not very streamlined. It also seemed too slippery in the hand, with no grooves or perforations. I did like how it looked with the cap posted in the back like below though: 

MARK2_CAP@END.png

What my designer and I decided to do then was combine what we liked about the first design with the second design. Slanted cap, but thinner body. More streamlined, yet distinctive. Also, I added some grooves so that it would be slightly more decorated. And voila, we came up with the below... which largely remains our current design. Check it out:

MARK3_TOP.png
MARK3_PERSPECTIVE.png
MARK3_UNCAPPED.png

What's also great about this design is that luckily, the weight is evenly distributed throughout the pen! This means that I could put my finger at the very middle of the pen, and it will balance evenly. Even better is that when you post the cap on the back, again the balance is at the center point! I don't know if we got lucky, or if it was just good design, but this means that ergonomically, the pen will be close to ideal. 

So there you go... the design process. I'm sure I'm missing a ton of points to the process (there was a lot more thought than what I just wrote above), but hopefully this gives you some insight into how I got to where I am as it relates to the pen's design. There's a lot more work to do on the branding, the accessories, the launch, and the business model, but all of that doesn't really matter until we lock down a product that I am happy with. 

The pen hasn't quite launched yet, but we have started an Instagram page with some photos of the prototypes. Below is one photo, but check out the page here! Follow us and you'll know exactly when everything gets launched and can be in your hands!

The Design (Part One)

Mark Kwak

In my last blog post, I mentioned how important good design and high construction quality are in a physical consumer product. So it shouldn’t come to you as a surprise that the design was and continues to be one of the top things I think and care about while starting this company. Oh yeah, I’m going to pause here and say: if you have no idea what I’m talking about… I’m starting a pen business, feel free to check out my first post in this series.

 Getting product design inspiration from wineries... Just kidding, I'm just opening a huge box of wine.

Getting product design inspiration from wineries... Just kidding, I'm just opening a huge box of wine.

It’s insane how many things go into good product design… I continue to be baffled by how many steps I needed to go through to finalize a design and get a prototype made. For the last eight to nine months, I’ve been iterating again and again to get to a design that I feel works for most people. I emphasize most because I’ve definitely noticed that I cannot make everyone happy as it relates to design, it’s too subjective. Funny enough, I’ve learned to lean a ton on the simple question- do I personally like how it looks?

Anyhow, I wanted to show you guys a bit of a the early process of designing my pen, and the reasons I chose to end up where I ultimately ended up.

Question #1 - Fountain, ballpoint, felt, or rollerball? Many of you might not have a clue as to what the differences are between the various types of pens, but suffice it to say, there a many reasons why one would choose a specific design over another. At first, the choice seemed clear... Fountain.

MARK1_black+silver1.png

Here was the first fountain pen design, designed by my buddy Ryan who I worked with at Foursquare. Sleek, slightly modern but still classic, and with both a black and silver colorway and a white and gold one.. I thought that a red stripe and/or button would ultimately be the best way to distinguish my pen from the crowd, since it looked sleek and sexy (think Leica's red dot), and that the letter M would be the mark of the pen (didn't know what it should stand for yet).

Ultimately, this design had multiple problems with it. First, it was too fat. People saw it and were immediately asking why it was so thick. Second, it was too reminiscent of an old design, like Montblanc or Cross. I wanted something more modern, something that today's hip young urbanite would enjoy, and this design wouldn't cut it. So the design graduated to this:

Screenshot 2017-02-22 19.00.16.png

A little sleeker, a bit more modern, and thinner, right? Felt pretty good about this design for a while until I realized a couple things. First, the red stripe, however unique and cool I thought it was, seemed to already be patented (or registered or whatever). A company called rOtring that sells writing instruments for designers already had that idea first. It's even in the logo!

Rotring_logo.png

Second, it seemed more and more that folks were interested in a fountain pen, but did not actually want to manage and maintain a fountain pen for everyday use. And I don't blame them - it is indeed a ton of hassle. Fountain pens spill all over, they can't be taken on airplanes readily, they bleed a ton, need to be refilled using technique, etc.

So after all that time, I was back to square one. At least I knew a couple things after the first couple rounds of design: don't go with the fountain pen, use a different distinguishing mark than a red stripe, and keep the shape thin.  Design (part two) will cover where I headed to next.

5 products that inspired my pen

Mark Kwak

I figured my next post in this pen-making saga I started on Simpler Man will be on items that inspired me to develop the pen in the first place. By the way, props to fellow menswear blogger Barron over at Effortless Gent for helping propel me to start this series on the blog. 

1. Quip Toothbrush

 Source: psfk

Source: psfk

So I've been using a Quip toothbrush now for about six months, and I think I'm a fan. Not really sure why I'm a fan, since it costs much more than a normal toothbrush, and performs worse than a competitively-priced Sonicare, but I continue to use it every day with satisfaction.

Ultimately I think it's because it offers high construction quality and beautiful design- and those two things make me feel just a tad better about brushing than the average toothbrush. My ultimate goal would be for a pen to offer those same attributes and get you ever so slightly more excited about writing and note-taking than before. 

2. S'well Bottle

 Source: Joyus

Source: Joyus

I mentioned S'well in my last post, but only because I think they've really done a lot of things right. And yes, it's true that there are are a number of amazing water bottles out there that offer the same value prop (bkr, Hydroflask), but I think none of these compare to the popularity of S'well.

I don't know if it's the design, the branding, the fact that it was featured on Oprah, but this bottle seems to be the bees knees. It's a product that truly shows me that good design, personalization, and high quality can be all you really need to succeed in the market. It's part fashion accessory and part utilitarian tool, and that's exactly where I want my pen to stand. 

3. All Birds

 Source: All Birds

Source: All Birds

I feel like All Birds shoes have become so popular in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I see more of them on peoples' feet than Nikes... How?! It all started with a Kickstarter that wasn't even branded as All Birds yet, but offered a unique value proposition on shoes: since they're made of wool they won't get stinky.

These guys give me inspiration because it goes to show you that no matter how huge the competition is (Adidas and Nike, anyone?), and how saturated the market is, that a small new entrant can truly thrive. Again, good design and high construction quality seem to be a trend in all of these products so far! And All Birds does make me wonder if Kickstarter is the right way to soft launch.

4. Warby Parker

 Source: Pinterest @warbyparker 

Source: Pinterest @warbyparker 

Warby Parker is an inspiration for most direct-to-consumer physical products in today's age. They built a billion dollar business in several short years thanks to their eye for design, their innovation in the eyewear space, and focus on customer experience. 

However, the reason they are an inspiration to me is actually not because of their glasses or business model, but instead because of their packaging! Above, you'll notice Warby Parker's recent holiday packaging. Colorful, striking, yet whimsical design that delights the consumer each and every time they look at the box. I look to follow this model very closely, as I think customer delight is what ultimately brings a brand to the next level.

5. Apple Pencil

 Source: iphonehacks

Source: iphonehacks

I know, an odd one huh? I've had a very interesting relationship with the Apple Pencil, particularly because it's both an inspiration as well as the antithesis of what I'm trying to do with my pen. On one hand, I feel like people are getting a sense of technology fatigue and yearning for an analog experience, thus my pen would be the solution to those lost in a world of screens and digital styluses (like the Apple Pencil). On the other hand, I believe the Apple Pencil does a lot of things right, and looks fantastic.

In fact, as I'll explain in a future blog post, the Apple Pencil is where I got some of the inspiration for my design. Simplicity and soft edges! Also, to its credit, it does actually write well on the new iPad Pro, even if it isn't a wholly necessary accessory. 

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So there you have it - 5 different products that gave me inspiration during my journey to build a high quality, well-designed pen. 

A New Venture

Mark Kwak

 Source: YouTube @TLDToday

Source: YouTube @TLDToday

It's funny... half my recent posts are "what have I been up to lately" as opposed to real menswear advice. I suppose it's a sad byproduct of putting my blog on the back burner for quite some time now. One quick menswear bit - Adidas is killing it right now with their Ultra Boosts and NMD products!

Either way, I figure it might be worth it to share with you what I have been working on, and why I've been so MIA.

Over the past eight months or so, after I shot my short film and submitted it to film festivals, I've been working on a project that I think will become a real business sometime in the near future. I've had a lot of creative projects over the years to quench my artistic thirst: this blog, my podcast, my short film... But I've never done anything like this - a true business venture.

Let me give you the whole spiel:

I feel like in the last several years, particularly in San Francisco, I've been seeing a trend of folks upgrading their everyday items. Whether it be their water bottles, watches, laptops, sunglasses, notebooks, etc., people are starting to care more about the quality and aesthetic of every physical item they possess.

Maybe it's because these things help match or elevate one's lifestyle and aesthetic. Maybe it's because people want their small everyday interactions with things to be pleasant and not purely utilitarian. Either way, something is happening in this space, and you don't have to just take my word for it - just look at the marketplace!

S'well water bottles are incredibly popular, but really what are they? Simply a well-designed water bottle that costs a cool $30-40 and keeps your drink cold. No added tech, frills, functionality... The same with Moleskine notebooks. What do they do better than other notebooks? Not much, but they do look better, have an air of quality around them, and feel great in the hand.

 Source: Instagram @mypaperprojects

Source: Instagram @mypaperprojects

And these items adorn the millions of beautiful Instagram photos of desks and coffee tables around the world. Yet in almost every one of those pictures, one item seems to remain wholly un-upgraded. That item is almost always included in those pictures, but rarely is it anything more than low quality and forgettable. And that item is the pen.

And I ask myself, why is that the case? Maybe because pens are everywhere and virtually free so why upgrade? Maybe because we're going more and more digital so pens don't matter as much? Maybe because nice, expensive pens seem like a complete waste of money?

In any case, after much deliberation and thought, I've come to the conclusion that actually, there is no overarching reason why people don't upgrade their pen the same as any other one of their items. Sure, people have told me plenty of their personal reasons, but none of those objections so far have swayed me from thinking there's a gap in the market on this one. So my goal for the past several months has been to develop a pen that might change peoples' minds on this very topic.

So there it is- as basic as it might sound- I am starting a pen company. And boy it's been a long and windy road so far, but I'd love to share my process with you guys on Simpler Man. Stay tuned for what I've been going through in this crazy process.

 

Moncler

Mark Kwak

I have mixed feelings about Moncler coats. For those of you who have never heard of the brand, they are a premium luxury goose down coat company (wow that's a lot of adjectives), and frankly, they are amazing quality and design. Fantastic materials, incredible warmth, wonderful build quality... what's not to like?

Well, there is one thing. They are supremely over-priced. The coat above is my personal one, and its retail price is $1,495! Truly a luxury designer piece. You could own six Patagonia down jackets for the price of one of these. 

I was lucky enough to find a damaged/ripped one at a sample sale in New York for a quarter of that price, but even still, it wasn't an easy hit on the wallet since it also required some repairs.

If you have the cash and live in harsh winter conditions, I would consider grabbing a Moncler coat (or also Canada Goose), but in the case that you can't, stick with Patagonia, Arcteryx, and possibly North Face. Down jackets from those brands aren't cheap either, but they sure aren't $1500. 

Valet Tray

Mark Kwak

To continue this streak of showcasing things in my room, I want to bring up something I've found quite indispensable, despite its lack of sexiness. What am I talking about? My valet tray.

A valet tray is simply a container (or tray, what do you know?!) that holds your everyday items while you're at home. Mine, above, is a really cheap one I bought from Marshall's several years ago. I like it because it has six separate sections, which helps me organize my stuff just that tiny bit better.

There are also valet trays out there that look super fancy, are made of expensive woods/leathers, and cost a lot of money (like this one that I'm a fan of). Only you can decide if something so basic is worth the extra cost, but the good news is you don't have to spend much to get a decent looking tray.

What do I usually keep in my valet tray? In case you're curious- the following:

Wallet, watch(es), money clip, leatherman, keys, shoe horn, zippo lighter, Visine, chapstick (and a lot of it, I must have insanely chapped lips, wow), earbuds, and a record player stylus cleaner.

Anyhow, Xmas is coming soon so wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I hope I'll write another post before the 25th, but in case I don't, enjoy time with the fam and stay warm y'all!