In Praise of Over-Engineered Products

One of my favorite TV shows is Mythbusters, which ran from 2003-2016 on the Discovery Channel. In order to test popular myths, the show’s hosts Adam and Jaime would often need to fabricate their own testing rigs or modify items to meet the needs of the experiment.

One of the often-repeated mantras of the show’s hosts is that “If something is worth doing, it’s worth over-doing” which is a play on the old proverb that “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” I absolutely love this expression!

This mindset of over-engineering something in terms of its design, durability, or reliability will rarely, infrequently, but sometimes manage to find its way into a consumer product. There is a feeling of delight and excitement that I experience upon discovering products which are built with “greater performance far in excess of its needs.”

Built to Last vs. Disposable

One of the tenets of designing a product with a capitalist mindset is that excess material or functionality is a waste of resources (time, money, materials). An object or product should be built to perform its function at the lowest possible cost in order to maximize profits.

In the early 1900s, King C. Gillette invented the safety razor, which became the most popular method for shaving by the 1920s. A safety razor was a quality instrument that was both elegant yet simple in its design. Properly maintained, they can last for generations.

The 1970s saw the introduction of disposable razors, which offered convenience over quality and craftsmanship. The metal handle gave way to cheaper plastic, and the whole unit was designed to be thrown away after a few uses.

Though they both serve the same purpose, the safety razor and the disposable razor were built with completely different underlying principles and mindsets. Many products today are built cheaply in order to maximize shareholder value, rather than built with top quality components that will lead to a longer lifetime of use.

What is an over-engineered product?

I have begun to document a list of products which in my own opinion are well-engineered and built to a higher standard of quality than their competitors’ products.

When I say over-engineered, I am not talking about a product that contains extra or useless features or is unnecessarily complicated. I am also not talking about products that advertise themselves as being the “World’s Greatest” or “World’s Best.” To do so would be the opposite of what I am talking about. There are certain products which have proven themselves above and beyond their original design specifications.

The “Shibui” Quality

There is a Japanese word that describes an aesthetic for objects which have an understated elegance to them. “Shibui” refers to items which have a commonplace appearance with underlying great refinement.

Elizabeth Gordon, writing for House Beautiful magazine in September 1960, described it this way:

“Shibui describes a profound, unassuming, quiet feeling. It is unobtrusive and unostentatious. It may have hidden attainments, but they are not paraded or displayed. The form is simple and must have been arrived at with an economy of means. Shibui is never complicated or contrived.”

Dane Owen, owner of Shibui Japanese Antiques & Furniture, described shibui in this way:

“A thing shibui must have [is] depth worth studying after first being noticed. It must not reveal itself all at once. It is interesting, with intrinsic quality and depth of character. Its beauty is imperfect and unique, enhanced by particularities.”

My Criteria for Inclusion on the List:

1). The object is subtle or restrained in its design and appearance, yet its function/performance is superior to other products of a similar type or purpose.

2). The product may be a luxury item, sold at a higher price point than the competitor’s products – though this is not a requirement.

3). The product appears simple, but is quite intricate and beautiful in its details.

4). The product has not significantly evolved or changed from its original design.

High Quality Products

1). The Double-Edge Safety Razor
Still preferred by many for the closeness of its shave, the disposable blades, and for its history dating back to the 1880s. The safety razor is something your grandpa would have used, and is extremely simple and elegant in its design.

2). The Zippo Windproof Lighter
This is a great example of a “shubui” product. The Zippo windproof lighter has changed very little since it was introduced in 1933. The plain, unassuming case is rugged and the product performs well and is completely user-serviceable. It is also a great value.

3). Cast Iron Skillet
Many will argue that there is simply no better, more versatile piece of cookware than the cast iron skillet. Its low-tech appearance belies its brilliant design. This is an outstanding material for cookware and is extremely durable. With proper maintenance, a set of cast iron cookware can last a lifetime.

From Wikipedia: Cast iron’s ability to withstand and maintain very high cooking temperatures makes it a common choice for searing or frying, and its excellent heat retention makes it a good option for long-cooking stews or braised dishes. Because cast iron skillets can develop a “non-stick” surface, they are also a good choice for egg dishes.

4). Casio G-Shock Digital Wrist Watch
The original DW-5000C G-Shock wristwatch was designed to be ultra rugged. It incorporated Casio’s  “Triple-Ten” design philosophy that the watch should have 10m water resistance, 10G impact, and a 10 year battery. The result was a watch that was affordable and significantly more durable than anything else on the market when it was introduced in 1983. The G-Shock continues to provide excellent performance and is still in production today.

5). Technics SL-1200 MKII Turntable
If you are into vinyl records, the SL-1200 MKII is considered by many to be the best turntable around. Weighing in at 26 lbs, the unit has a stable base, high-torque direct drive motor, and rock solid build quality.

6). Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
Introduced in the 1950s as a long range heavy bomber aircraft, the B-52 has been in continuous use by the U.S. Air Force for more than 60 years and is planned to continue service through 2050. Though more advanced aircraft are available in the decades since the B-52 entered service, it continues to fly because it is just so good at what it does. Its superior performance and relatively low operating costs have earned it a reputation for durability that few other aircraft can match.

7). 1990-2000 Lexus LS400 Sedan
Though it may look like a boring family car, the Lexus LS is an incredibly well-built car that is over-engineered in many ways. More than $1 billion was spent on the car’s development, and it was the car that proved that Japanese automakers could produce a world-class luxury sedan to rival BMW and Mercedes, at a competitive price point. These cars, while not perfect, have earned a reputation for reliability and value.

 

What other products can you think of that have earned a reputation for being over-engineered? Please share your thoughts by posting a comment.

About the author

Trevor Freeman

Trevor Freeman is a writer, photographer, and maker who loves learning new things. His favorite food is pizza. He received a Bachelor's Degree in Business Management from Grand Canyon University. He lives and works in Phoenix.

You can follow Trevor on Twitter @TrevorFreemanAZ, on Instagram at @arizona.dreamin, and on YouTube: TheRealTrevorland.

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