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

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!

Stendig Calendar

Mark Kwak

There's something in my room that I absolutely adore, yet at the same time it couldn't be more boring. As you can probably tell from the photo above, I am talking about my wall calendar.

Oh but worry not, this is not just any ordinary calendar, it is of course the infamous Stendig Calendar. Not only does it have a truly unique design, going from black on white to white on black every month with elegantly drawn numbers, but it is absolutely HUMONGOUS. Normal calendars are what, 12 inches by 24 inches at the most? The Stendig is a whopping 3 feet x 4 feet in size. It dwarfs all other calendars I've seen, and does it brilliantly.

Frankly, I'd say it's more artwork than a normal calendar, but all the more reason I'm a fan of it. Once a month is finished, you can use a page of the calendar to draw on, use as decoration, or whatever your heart desires.

Not much more costly than other calendars out there ($38 vs ~$25) but if you have a super boring blank wall in your apartment/home, I'd suggest picking one of these bad boys up.

Too cheap not to use

Mark Kwak

If you've ever thought about taking up bartending or mixology as a hobby, I highly encourage you to take the leap. I'm not a bartender but I do have an interest in making cocktails and at the very least, it helps you catch up with old friends and practice some hospitality.

As a result of this hobby, I've been able to acquire a bunch of fancy schmancy glassware to serve my drinks in. Every now and again, a friend will ask for my recommendation on what glassware they should purchase if they were to start making cocktails themselves, and I always point them to small mason jars.

Look at that - 12 for $7. Can't get cheaper, cooler, and more durable than that. Plus you can use them for beer (see pic), wine, water, etc. I even use mine as a piggy bank for change. Before venturing into the land of Nick and Nora, Schott Zwiesel, etc. go with the tried and true Ball mason jar. They've been cool for a while and will likely remain so for some time.