The X-Acto knife can be found on the desks of architects, artists, designers, photographers, model makers, and ransom note writers everywhere. They're the ubiquitous gold standard in precision cutting, the Kleenex of utility knives. They're easy to control, affordable, and sharp as hell - I have the terrible scar to prove it (pro-tip: don't wrestle in an architecture studio at 4am). With those characteristics, it isn’t that surprising to learn that the X-Acto started out as a surgical blade.
Architect magazine recently published a short history of the X-Acto company, from its inception in 1917 by Polish immigrant Sundel Doniger. For 15 years, the company exclusively produced medical syringes and scalpels with removable blades. Then on one fateful day in 1930, an in-house designer needed to crop some advertisements, and Doniger quickly produced a knife that was up to the task. Though the simple design hasn’t ostensibly changed much from that first model, it’s constantly refined and perfected in search of perfect ergonomics and the ideal blade - one that balances a sharp edge with the ability to maintain that sharp edge.
Architect has an interview with one of X-Acto’s project managers who describe how the company rethinks the design of their product line every two years.
Innovation in the last decade has been around ergonomics and color. Every two years we poll our audience for feedback on what they like and don’t like. One item that comes up often is ergonomic grips. Stage one is understanding that there is a consumer need for more ergonomic grips. The second stage is working with a CAD design or model to develop a starting point of what we think an ergonomic grip would be and then testing a plastic model with various consumer groups to see how it looks and feels.
And to refine their designs, X-Acto uses a select focus group.
We have groups of power users that we have been in contact with over the years who use the knives on a regular basis, including design and architecture firms. We'll also poll a general audience, randomly bringing in focus groups of a certain demographic or certain [practice] area. If we’re creating a new craft tool, for example, we’ll look at a demographic that’s skewed more toward women that use the product on a daily or weekly basis.
What's next for X-Acto? An experimental LED-equipped blade. After that? It seems like the next logical step will be some sort of mini light-saber. Check out Architect for the full interview and a timeline of X-Acto products.