Saturday, 26 March 2016

Design iconoclasm

As well as praising the hexagonal cross-section pencil for being a good thing in itself, I recently wrote that another good thing about it was how it inspired the design of the iconic Bic ballpoint pen.

Having slept on it, I've woken up to the realisation that the disposable plastic biro is not a good thing. It is an abomination which deserves to die.

Think about it. How many billion disposable plastic things do we want to produce?* Even ostensibly small-government-loving governments want to discourage the commercial proliferation of toxic, landfill-hogging, wildlife-destroying, petrochemical-slurping plastic trash with things like plastic bag taxes.

It's not as if we need disposable plastic ballpoints most of the time. Most of the stuff scribbled down in biro is ephemeral: notes to self, meeting notes, course notes, revision notes, shopping lists, messages to phone people back and so on. You could do all this stuff perfectly well with an HB pencil which ends its life as a few wood shavings and a biodegradable stump.

There are a few circumstances when you can't use a pencil - those hard-copy official forms where they ask you to write in black ink and keep your signature inside the box, and it's considered bad form to sign the letter you just printed, or somebody's birth, marriage or death certificate, in pencil.

Then there are cheque books and bank deposit slips (banks are a vector of disposable pen proliferation, now they no longer have a handful of pens chained to up for customers to use in branch, but encourage you to just take the biro equivalent of an Ikea stubby pencil from their endless supply). Oh, and you might want the top copy of an one of those carbon-papered invoices to be inked in but, honestly, how many people use carbon paper these days?

For some of these things, solutions already exist - the registrar can sign off the hatches, matches and despatches with a non-disposable fountain pen or similar (would you really want stuff like that scrawled in biro, anyway?). And if you send out hard-copy official letters, save your signature as a .gif file.

I think I've already established that the majority of disposable biro use can be done away with by just switching to pencils. But what about the small, stubborn residue of hard cases where we want a cheap way of making an indelible mark?

Well, the indelible pencil has already been invented. Maybe we need something better than the existing indelible pencil, but not much better. The cheap disposable biro has always been second-best, anyway. My handwriting is pretty shonky, but if I switch from a biro to a decent fountain, cartridge or fibre-tip pen which dictates a slower, more fluid writing action, it gets better. For a person with neat handwriting the eqivalent change would be from merely neat to beautiful, calligraphy-standard script. 

So the bar for a biro replacement isn't set too high. It's a technical challenge but we've had nearly eighty years of technological innovation and materials science since László Bíró patented the ball point tip, so I reckon there's a clever somebody out there who'd be able to come up with an indelible pencil core that writes no worse than a biro. Maybe micro or nano-scale ink-filled spheres in a suitable matrix or something? After all, it's only needed for a small subset of the things we now use biros for and, in an increasingly digital world, that subset is shrinking all the time.

I wonder if the main barrier to change is psychological. After all, one place where you see a lot of people writing in biro is schools. Moving up from writing in pencil to writing in pen is an educational rite of passage, a necessary preparation for the adult world. At least it is now. But most of the stuff most kids will be writing as adults will be on keyboards, anyway, and, if grown-ups woke up, smelled the coffee and abandoned their environmentally-unfriendly disposable ballpoints in favour of greener pencils, learning to write in biro would no longer be a preparation for anything relevant.

However digital things get, we'll still need to grab a piece of paper or a Post-It and scribble something down on most days for the forseeable future. But there's no reason I can see why we need to continue manufacturing a toxic mountain of disposable plastic things to do so.

*The 100 billionth Bic Cristal Pen was produced in 2006. How many other-branded disposable plastic pens have been produced, or the up-to-date total, are figures I don't know, but they're certainly going to be big numbers.