Pen Innovation – All Done?

IMG_4386A 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.

Conclusion

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.

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Uni-ball Jetstream – Good, but not the best

More than a little discussion, both written and verbal ensued after the publication of this Wirecutter article concluding the “best pen” (read – “the best affordable pen around for taking notes at school or a meeting”) is the Uni-ball Jetstream. In addition, my wife had recently started using one and absolutely loves it. The article itself was published in September this year, and upon reading it and hearing my wife’s feedback, I began to wonder why the 4 pack I purchased at the beginning of the year remains unused. Does the Jetstream have a place in the list of pens I prefer to use? The short answer is no, though it would seem reasonable to explain why.

According to the reviewers in the article:

For an affordable pen that writes smoothly; dries quickly and indelibly; won’t bleed, skip or feather; and has the best ink flow of any non-fountain pen; grab yourself the uni-ball Jetstream. Available in a number of sizes and colors, it’s the best affordable pen around for taking notes at school or a meeting.

As you will see, the “pen pedigree” of those utilised by The Wirecutter to reach the final choice is without question, many of whom I follow on the internet for their opinions on these very matters:

It’s worth noting the segment of use we are talking about here. This is an everyday pen – one that you don’t mind lending and ultimately losing if it comes to that. An office supply type pen – not your bargain basement sub one dollar pen, but a cheap one nonetheless, at under five dollars. We are clearly not comparing this pen to those in medium to high price ranges.

The Pens

From left: Uni-ball Jetstream, Uni-ball Signo 207, Pilot G-2
From left: Uni-ball Jetstream, Uni-ball Signo 207, Pilot G-2

For a reasonable comparison, I picked up a blue rollerball ink 0.7mm Jetstream and a couple of other retractable gel-ink pens, the Pilot G–2, and Uni-ball Signo 207, spending a few weeks rotating between each. The conclusion? I prefer the Signo 207 over both the G–2 and the Jetstream – for very different reasons. So is the Jetstream really the best pen? The answer is probably yes as a recommendation for others – just not for myself.

My Use Case

A little background on my use first. This varies greatly depending upon what any particular day brings. The office I work in utilises a “paperless” approach, in that much of what I hand write is an initial or signature on the few pieces of paper which are produced and come across my desk to sign. Longer form writing occurs with meetings and telephone calls, for I am not capable of typing quickly enough to capture the necessary information electronically for either.

The paper? This varies between your standard copy paper for any printed documents (initialed or signed); a cheap office supply spiral bound A4 ruled notebook (telephone calls and general scratchpad); an extra-large ruled Moleskine Cahier (idea or ‘spark’ journal); a Moleskine Large Squared Softcover notebook (meetings); and finally, a Field Notes notebook – currently the Night Sky Edition (for random thoughts or anything else).

Pen Choices

As with most of us, my choice of pen is based on numerous factors. The look (overall aesthetics, design, colour) of the pen; the functional fit and feel in my hand (overall weight, distribution, thickness and length); the performance (ink flow, smoothness, skipping, boldness of line, feathering, bleeding etc); suitability for the variety of paper types I typically use in a day; and whether or not I look forward to using the pen – does it make me want to pick it up when I have something to write.

Listing the criteria above is a curious endeavour. Do I have a list of check boxes for each of the above in determining whether or not I like a particular pen? Not at all. For someone who is a little obsessed about what they write with, you would think this would be the case, however it is probably only when writing about what I write with that the delineation of these characteristics becomes more relevant.

Overall it is a fairly simple process:
– That’s a good-looking pen;
– It does or doesn’t feel right;
– It does or doesn’t write well, and has or hasn’t bled, feathered or smudged;
– Has it sufficiently dried by the time I need to turn the page

The Outcome

After already letting the cat out of the bag above, you know the Jetstream doesn’t come up trumps for me.

As far as looks go, firstly, I find the G–2 to be a pretty ugly pen, whereas both the Jetstream and Signo 207 are quite well designed, with the Jetstream probably looking a little more “premium” overall. In considering the feeling in my hand, here the G–2 does win out. I have always preferred a slight taper where my index finger sits on the grip section of the barrel. Both the Jetstream and the Signo 207 have no taper and the Jetstream appears to have a slight increase in thickness nearing the lower end of the grip (as an aside – is that an un-taper, de-taper or even an a-taper? – anyway, it gets ever so slightly thicker). So the winner here is the G–2.

One other issue I found with both the G–2 and Jetstream was the refill moved around in the barrel a little at the tip – something which constantly annoys me about a pen when it occurs. As for the writing, I will let the images from my Moleksine Cahier do the talking here:

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Conclusion

Although I have compared three different pens over the course of the past two weeks and collected my thoughts as indicated above, personally, I don’t really think there is a clear winner. I can certainly see (and mostly agree with) where the conclusions drawn in The Wirecutter article are derived, and for most I think the Jetstream would be a fine pen. I would also have no problem recommending the Signo 207 if asked (though I rarely am). The only one of the group I would not recommend is the G–2 – not for long form writing anyway.

To summarise why, firstly, apart from the shape of the pen which suits my hand and writing style, there are not too many redeeming features I see in the G–2. The Signo 207 and Jetstream are fairly close, however I cannot write for any length of time with the Jetstream, which I believe relates more to my style of writing then the pen itself. I tend to press heavily when writing and use quite an angled pen position, so without a fairly heavy ink flow, things feel pretty scratchy pretty quickly. In thinking back, this is no doubt why I have always used rollerball and gel ink type pens, along with the fountain pen I wrote about in a previous post.

This combination of writing style and the Jetstream do not quite mesh, and it often felt as though it was too much effort to push the pen across the page. Notably, this improved markedly with better quality paper and lighter pressure, though the paper I use is not always of this quality, and that is not the way I write. The Jetstream also produced a much finer line than the other two, so it could be suggested the 1.0mm may be a better fit, however I recall using one a little while ago and finding the same issue.

On most occasions when the three pens were available in front of me, the default selection was the Signo 207 – it was the one I wanted to pick up, and hence was the winner in this comparison. There is always one caveat to reviews or comparisons such as these, and that is to remember this is my perspective, based on my writing style and use case – yours may be very different.

My advice? Pick up a couple for yourself and give them a run (I’d go with the Signo 207 and the Jetstream in varying sizes). It certainly won’t break the bank, and you may find yourself with the best pen – for you anyway.

Me? I am still on the journey to find mine, although in the mean time I will revert back to my trusty Retro 51 Stealth Tornado and Kaweco Sport.