Ace Hardware 4 in 1 screwdriver

A love letter to my favorite tool (what design means to me)

This post is all about the humble screwdriver pictured above. It is an Ace Hardware 4-in-1 screwdriver from I don’t know when. The screwdriver pictured is my own. My Dad gave it to me quite a few years ago. I can remember him having it from well before that – always in the junk drawer for quick access.

I don’t keep this in my junk drawer anymore, although that might actually be a better place for it…but back to the topic at hand. I’m writing about this screwdriver because it is my favorite tool. Part of the reason for that is the special significance of my Dad giving it to me. But my Dad has also given me some tools that were hot garbage 😅.

The main reason why this is my favorite tool is because it is so damn good at what it does. This is a perfect example of good design.

There are lots of definitions of design. I don’t necessarily ascribe to one particular definition at all times, but in this case, Steve Jobs’ famous statement on design is probably the best definition:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs (source)

Let’s examine this screwdriver more closely to see why it’s so well designed.

Ace Hardware 4 in 1 screwdriver
Looks unassuming but there’s more to it. Four (er, three) more.

The first reason it is well designed, and why I tend to grab it over other screwdrivers (I have quite a few) is the length. It’s not particularly long – length is sometimes a problem when working in tight spaces. But it’s also not so short that you can’t use your full hand to turn it. Basically, it’s just a good length for most jobs.

The second reason is that it’s comfortable to hold and torque on if needed. It just has basic plastic handle, but it’s not uncomfortable and you can grip it tightly if you need to. It’s also solid and doesn’t feel like it’s about to break if you have to turn it hard.

The third reason this screwdriver is well designed is that the most common bits you are likely to use are self-contained within the screwdriver. If you haven’t figured it out yet, it has 4 bits! Right along with being self-contained, they are a snap to swap between (reason number five). Check this out:

Ace 4-in-1 screwdriver with the shaft pulled out
Just pull the middle shaft out to swap ends
Ace 4-in-1 screwdriver with central shaft and bits pulled out
Then just pull either bit out to swap between Phillips or Slotted bits. You can tell which ones I use the most by the rust.

The bits and shaft are easy to swap out with a solid, but not difficult pull. All self-contained in the screwdriver, you get: 1 large Phillips, 1 small Phillips, 1 large Slotted, and 1 small Slotted bits.

Why is this good design?

This doesn’t look like much, I suppose. Why is this so special? There’s nothing particular special about this specific model or brand. I’m sure there are other screwdrivers that have this exact same functionality. But, let’s look deeper at the design of this screwdriver.

Much of design is about making choices about what not to do. Sometimes those choices can be particularly challenging if you’re the engineer or designer, because your boss or the CEO may be asking for something that will harm the design of a product. What did the people making this screwdriver choose not to do?

It could have more bits

Many multi-function screwdrivers have more bits self-contained within them. I have several. They are all a worse design than this one, although I do use them occasionally. But why would having more bits be worse?

The reason is that there is no good place to store them, while still retaining the super fast and easy swapping of bits. It could be done, but not without making the design of this screwdriver worse.

It could have other features…

Other screwdrivers have features like magnetic bits or ratcheting functionality. These features are handy sometimes. Sometimes.

You don’t always want a magnetic bit on a screwdriver, like when working on electronics. And it’s not something you can just turn off.

Ratcheting functionality makes some screw-driving tasks easier, but can also get in the way. It could also hurt the currently solid build quality, by putting a ratcheting mechanism inside.

Including these features may have also affected the cost of building the screwdriver, changing the ideal price point for the consumer.

Design is all about choices

The products with the best designs are ones that make strong choices about what features they include, and what features they don’t include.

Think about your favorite apps, tools, pieces of furniture, or other products. Are they well designed? What choices did the people making those products have to make?

Design is not all about aesthetics

Design is not all about look of a product (aesthetics). Aesthetics matter and should be carefully considered. But, the way the product works – and the problem it solves for the person using it – is the core of good design.

But make it look good too. Seriously. 😂

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