A recent episode of The Pen Addict podcast touched on innovation, with host Brad Dowdy questioning whether certain categories of the pen market had been “solved”. That is, whether innovation on particular market segments had ceased (namely your ballpoint/gel ink end of the market). As far as my thoughts are concerned on this particular topic, I think it is probably a fair question. The answer? Probably yes. Is this a bad thing? Probably no.
A knowledge base
At it’s core, the pen industry is probably no different to any other. At some level, there are “standards”, which provide an overall frame of reference (to both experts and those less so). For example, when recommending a pen better than the average 99c bulk buy office stick, many might suggest a Uni-ball Jetstream, Pilot G2 or Uni-ball Signo 207. (We could debate all day about precisely which is better, and I have previously given my thoughts on this). Another example might be the popularity of the Lamy Safari as an entry level fountain pen.
Without a certain amount of stability (some may read – lack of innovation) in these “go-to” recommendations, the pen landscape in this particular segment would be constantly shifting, and recommendations moderated: “well, you could try a Jetstream however they have recently changed the …….. so I’m not quite sure if they write the way they used to”. The “standard” or well-known frame of reference would no longer exist.
Innovation or simply variation?
How you define innovation will go a long way towards answering this question for you anyway. According to the Oxford Dictionary, to innovate, is to:
Make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products
If we are talking about better versions of the same product, new and exciting products, or simply variety in a typical segment of the market, then your answer on the innovation question will likely be different. The many variations in design, materials, nib sizes and inks available to fountain pen enthusiasts (along with after market possibilities such as converters and nib grinding) typically provide an endless array of choice for the consumer. To me, this is not necessarily innovation, simply variation, customisation, and choice, with many pen lovers going down the road of fountain pen experimentation (and often obsession), even if the starting point was gel inks and rollerballs.
Also, innovation generally occurs at the “pointy end” of an industry, and much of what is considered innovation at a manufacturing level is often concerned with better production techniques, efficiencies and overall productivity. Do these changes necessarily mean anything different for the consumer? Sometimes in the form of price point, possibly a better product, however often there may be no real discernible difference.
Essentially, in many ways, I don’t necessarily believe there is a great deal of innovation occurring in pens, regardless of the market segment we are talking about. However, I equally believe this is not detrimental to either the market itself nor the consumer. What we do have is endless variety in the marketplace, from a few dollars for a consistent, good quality gel ink pen, up to a few hundred dollars (plus) for a fountain pen – with many variations in between.
The good old gel ink standby or the customised fountain pen? Entirely up to you, however I guess if you prefer gel inks and rollerballs, that will be where your searches take you. Or perhaps an early foray into fountain pens. Regardless of which, many discoveries will be made on the back of reviews or blog posts on pens, with many of those pens compared to those that have remained unchanged for some time, and are therefore familiar to you (which is exactly why we need them).
At the end of the day we are after a consistent and familiar writing experience with a little bit of choice as to how we achieve this. If products are created simply to “make something new” without this philosophy at the core, I’m not sure that is the way to go. After all, surely no-one here wants to write with a “multi” fountain pen.