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Insights :: What is quality?

by , November 21, 2012

In the world of carry, ‘quality’ is a word that gets used a lot. Probably too much. From brands promising ‘The Finest Quality’ to the constant debate about which countries produce the best quality craftsfolk, the word has been bent and manipulated until it looses any valuable meaning.

Thankfully, after a long slog of engineering school, I learned a definition that really helps:

Quality = Fitness for purpose

Yep, 5 years of an engineering degree, right there (stoked I spent the money). But let me actually try and communicate the power in that simple definition…

  • A Ferrari is a quality car if you’re driving race track laps. However if you feel like some off-roading, it’s about the worst quality you could get.
  • A Goruck GR1 is an awesome backpack, unless you’re trying to SCUBA dive with it, in which case it will be a sopping mess.

To measure performance (fitness), you need to have defined your purpose. If you don’t bother to do that, you end up trying to please everybody.

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby

So, let’s say you define your purpose as helping uni students fill their first apartment with un-embarrassing furniture. You know they don’t have much coin, they care about the planet, and if they have a car, it will be small. Is IKEA all of a sudden looking like good quality furniture?

In the world of carry, an old school LV trunk is quality if you have a sherpa and private jet, but pretty terrible if you have luggage restrictions and an underground train to catch.

This definition of quality gives you a filter with which to judge things, while also getting you to consider just who that backpack, essay or even kiss is designed for. It also helps you understand why the ‘brand’ is so important in helping find the right customer for the product. If your carry brand uses military imagery, but your zips don’t last outside of a sterile office space, you’re asking for quality issues.

It’s a nice definition, but probably not worth 5 years of uni…

Further reading: If you’ve never picked up a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you should. It’s an amazing book in which the author explores the metaphysics of quality – kind of philosophy meets quality on a motorbike, and it’s a 5 star read.

Postscript: With some excellent discussion once again happening in the comments, we thought it was worth describing the ‘8 dimensions of quality‘, which is how many engineers further flesh out the concept of quality. Those dimensions are: Performance, Features, Reliability, Conformance, Durability, Serviceability, Aesthetics and Perception. As you can see, this simple word sure needs a lot of explaining!

A version of this post first appeared at Uncluttered White Spaces, a digital magazine about good ideas. We believe recycling is good.

  • Dan

    Good journalism promotes debate, so I am glad to be motivated to comment on this.

    Firstly, from the look of the GoRuck backpacks, they might do better than you think in a salt water/scuba situation.

    I have been designing/making backpacks for three years, following this website closely for the last year and a half. This issue of ‘quality’, whatever your perspective on its meaning seems to me to be the most important element of carry discussion that is not always covered, in fact usually glossed over, even on this site occasionally. There is a minefield of things waiting to go wrong in manufacturing if the design is not fit for purpose especially if you are actually challenging yourself and trying to make something new.

    So my take on quality is in the design and manufacturing standards, matching material to form, but also in the demonstration of that quality through media. Would be great to see some articles focusing on the processes behind bag making that can allow readers here to connect more to the end result and also highlighting the best mediums for showing those processes in branding/marketing.

    One of my favourite examples of how to market ‘quality’ is the Barbour film here, completely non-pretentious:


    Keep up the great work Carryology

    • Ando

      Thanks Dan. Some great points and a great link.

      Yep, this really is a tricky area. For instance, the vast majority of ‘built to last a lifetime’ stuff gets discarded well before a lifetime is up either because it’s no longer on trend, or there are just sexier things out there. Then sometimes building something tough enough to last forever makes it uncomfortable in use (ie: I’m really glad my sleeping bag is crazy lightweight and not crazy robust and durable).

      Regarding the bag making posts, we hope you love the recent Taylor post on Bexar goods. We’ll try to show more of these as we find willing brands 🙂

  • http://jknightsmith.com james

    Hi Ando,

    Love the site, but I’m curious about this post, What is Quality.

    Its a funny word thats often used in different contexts. I get the Engineering reference, I am one myself. Though in an engineering/manufacturing sense I would say that quality is not what you are talking about above.

    Take the old macdonalds burger for example. McDonalds is widely known as a very high quality product (Most people would disagree, but stick with me, its not about the taste). A McDonalds burger is a high quality product, not because of the way it tastes, but because you can repeat the manufacturing process almost anywhere in the world and get exactly the same product. Quality in this regard is being able to easily repeat a manufacturing process. But thats in a engineering sense and most people don’t talk that way.

    What you are actually talking about is the grade of the product. Again with McDonalds I would class this as low grade, because the burgers are not highly nutritional, don’t taste that good etc. However most people interchange the word grade for the quality

    So I refer to the grade of a product, it brings up tangible things like does it have lovely thick material, nice thick stitching, nice thick padding so on and so on and you usually need to experience the product before you can say it is quality ie you need to feel it and use it. For the most part if things last for many years and don’t rip, break or wear out, they are usually quality.

    Fit for purpose is an interesting one, I would say it doesn’t equal quality (or grade as you call it here).

    For me, fit for purpose refers to the needs of something, its the minimum requirements. ie will the bag hold x litres, is it waterproof. Fit for purpose just needs to be good enough to do the job it was intended for. However something could be fit for purpose but may not have high quality (grade).

    However quality (grade) is about wants, not needs. If I buy something I deem quality then I want it to be made of good material that will last, won’t wear out, wont break, feels nice in my hand is designed well.

    So depending on who you speak to definitions of quality and grade are often interchanged however I do not think fit for purpose does not always equal quality.

    • Ando

      Thanks James. Some really good discussion points.

      I think we both agree that quality is a difficult word to define. Sometimes that means that the word itself has been created without properly understanding reality. For instance, fruit vs vegetable does not have a satisfactory definition (Dr Carl says if you put gravy on it, it’s a veg, if you have it with icecream, it’s a fruit). That might just mean that when crew were sitting around a campfire inventing words, they got it a bit wrong. There is an excellent discussion of this at http://lesswrong.com/lw/o0/where_to_draw_the_boundary/ if anyone is interested.

      In engineering, we often see the 8 dimensions of quality discussed (performance, features, reliability, conformance, durability, serviceability, aesthetics and perception). Eg: http://lssacademy.com/2008/05/28/8-dimensions-of-quality/

      The common engineering use you speak of James probably fits the ‘conformance’ dimension (ie: variation is the enemy of quality). But again, I feel like this is just one part of what the term quality represents.

      Those 8 dimensions do give a reasonably comprehensive picture of what the word represents, but if you need 8 concepts to define a word, maybe that word is going to be more confusing than useful.

      For me though, all those 8 dimensions still require you to set the parameters with which you will judge, and that’s why it comes back to fitness for purpose, or meeting the expectations of the consumer.


    “A Ferrari is a quality car if you’re driving race track laps. However if you feel like some off-roading, it’s about the worst quality you could get.”

    It’s this part I disagree with the most.
    A ferrari is built to the highest levels of quality possible…there is no disputing that…and it is designed to be driven fast, on smooth roads and race tracks.
    The fact that it is completely unsuitable for driving off road doesn’t suddenly make it a low quality car…it simply makes it an unsuitable design for that particular purpose. It is still built to the same high quality regardless of it’s inability to perform well in a situation it was never designed for.

    Likewise, a beautifully tailored, handmade suit may be built to the highest quality, but the fact that it is no use to go fighting fires in doesn’t change the fact that it is still high quality.

    Take a plastic carrier bag for example…it may be capable of making it all the way home without your groceries falling out the bottom…but it could still be a low quality plastic bag. The fact it made it all the way home doesn’t automatically make it high quality. Its purpose is simply to make it home from the store. It was never intended to be used for the rest of your life.

    In my opinion being fit for purpose doesn’t automatically mean quality, because there are different levels of ‘fitness for purpose’. Two similar items may both be fit for purpose, but one may handle that purpose far better than the other, And being unfit for a purpose it was never designed for doesn’t automatically make something low quality either.
    If something is built to a high level of materials and construction quality, and performs very well in the field it was designed for, then it is high quality regardless. How it performs in fields outside of that which it was designed for doesn’t change that.

    To me, high quality means being built to the highest level of workmanship, from the best performing materials for the intended use, with a design that performs the products intended task in the best way.
    Once any of those things are compromised then the quality gets progressively lower.

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      Haha, I think we’re actually really close to agreeing. You definitely need to consider the product’s intended purpose, and I loved seeing how often you stressed that. That is something most don’t do when talking about ‘highest level of quality’.

      But I don’t think you can really say something is super high quality without mentioning (or at least implying) what the intended use is. To illustrate, let me return to the Ferrari…

      If you want to race Le Mans 24 hr, then a production level Ferrari is once again crap. It’s just not built for it. The engine is not durable enough, the chasis not rigid enough, the gear box will collapse in smoke and the headlights won’t project their beams far enough for the speeds you’re traveling. If you put any production car infront of a race driver used to race built cars, they’d scoff at you and say they weren’t risking their lives or reputations in that thing. Even if you put an F1 car infront of a Le Mans driver, they wouldn’t want a bar of it, as there’s no way it would last the distance. Mind you, if you brought any of their race cars onto the road, you’d be scraping the underbody, having road skirts rip off on speed humps, and you’d hate every bump that the suspension transferred directly to your spine. It would feel like bad quality.

      I guess what I’m getting at is that there are no absolutes in quality. Is a production Ferrari really the highest quality, when even the F1 cars that lose races cost over 10 times as much? Last century’s mountaineering gear, no matter how good it was back then, would be considered terrible on Everest these days. Or take any ‘highest quality made in USA’ heritage backpack on an Indo surf trip, and you’ll be cursing the corroded zippers, the mouldy waxed canvas, and the water-logged leather bits.

      Quality is a relative term, and you need to consider a product’s time, place and intended purpose to properly assess its quality.

      I know that sounds pedantic, but I think it’s an important point. When I judge products, I try to think of all those quality dimensions (Performance, Features, Reliability, Conformance, Durability, Serviceability, Aesthetics and Perception), and judge whether they hit the spot for the intended purpose, and then even how they compare to others trying to do the same thing. I bet plastic shopping bag makers rate different bags at different levels of quality. There will be the high quality ones that last for several reuses and tear less on sharp tissue box corners, and those that are so cheap they always need double bagging. Quality is a relative term.

      • Moritz


        you both uses two different definitions of quality.

        The Ferrari, standing in an empty room with no one who is sitting behind the steering wheel, is a high quality product in comparison to other cars. I agree. It is an neutral look on it’s craftsmanship.

        But if there is someone who wants to drive it, it’s “quality” (like Ando means it) has to be measured with the specific purpose of the user/customer.

        It is like you said before. It depends on the definition. What about using another word for “fitness for purpose” than “quality”?
        You wouldn’t need to fight all these misunderstandings anymore.

        • http://www.bellroy.com ando

          Yep, ‘quality’ as a word has all sorts of baggage that can be misconstrued. I hear ya. Let’s start using rad, banging, dialed and candy!


    I’m not meaning to be awkward here, but your ferrari example seems a complete contradiction of the ‘Quality = Fitness for purpose’ statement.

    A production ferrari isn’t designed for racing le mans….for it’s intended purpose, it IS high quality.
    You are again taking something designed for a specific end use, and putting it in a situation it wasn’t designed for, and then claiming that because it couldn’t handle that task so well it’s suddenly a lower quality, when really it’s a design issue. If that same ferrari design had been drawn up and built to go off roading then yes, it could be seen as a poor quality design…but even then it could potentially still be seen as having a high quality construction, with high quality marerials, but just one that doesn’t perform the intended task well…which again comes down to a poor design.

    The term quality can be placed on every individual components design, construction, and materials, independent of how it works once it is built into the finished product. So if a product has been built using the best materials for the end use, with the best construction available, but then it performs it’s end task terribly, that doesn’t make the materials and construction low quality…only the design, and the final products ability to perform it’s intended task.

    The quality of anything can only really be judged based on it’s ability to perform it’s own intended task, and using the materials available at that particular time.

    If a bag made thirty years ago was made at that time with great cratsmanship, using the best materials available at that time for it’s intended use, then yes it was high quality at the time, and still should be viewed as such…it’s just that it’s materials are now outdated.

    I personally view a products quality as the highest level of construction, materials, and design available to allow that particular product to perform the task it was designed for at that time.

    To say that it is no longer high quality if it can’t perform a task it wasn’t designed for, or to compare it to similar products made years later after there have been advancements in technology or construction and say it is no longer quality because the newer product can now outperform it seems wrong to me.

    I think I’m just repeating my same point too much now though so I’m going to pass the shoe. But it’s been fun! :]

    • http://www.bellroy.com ando

      I think we basically agree 🙂

  • Gitson

    Given that bags are ultimately only as useful as the spaces they create, I think the semantic back and forth over what is meant by ‘quality’ is a bit of barking up the wrong tree. Of course, there is an aesthetic dimension, which is why those useful, ubiquitous, and nigh indestructible red/white/blue checkered nylon bags crop up in the conversation.

    Maybe a concept akin to ‘wabi-sabi’ would provide grounds for more fertile exploration. I say akin only because I think heavy waxed canvas isn’t a great choice for duty-oriented bags, however much I may like the look and ‘quality.’ Yes, Makr, Archival, and all the midnight sewers with a tattoo and a dream, I do mean you.

    • Gitson

      Rarely crop up, of course, I meant.

      • Ando

        It’s interesting that the Japanese, for all their pursuit of perfection and mastery, are also some of the best at celebrating imperfection. I guess that’s similar to how Picasso had some incredibly realistic drawing skills, but chose instead to focus on the approach that “it’s the mistakes that make it interesting.”

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  • Oliver

    I’m someone who loves philosophy. I devour it regularly. I start with the classics and refer to them often, having re-read Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” recently. I consider anything wise philosophy; one of my all time favorite philosophers is George Carlin.

    That said, I didn’t care for “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. It’s the sort of pointless meandering that I feel harms the field of philosophy, adding to a negative reputation. I ride motorcycles and this book has very little to do with them. It’s more of a chronicle of one man’s psychotic breakdown and his misguided attempt to extract meaning from existential pain.

    A piece of Carry can still be well constructed (what we typically think of as quality) while being ill-suited for the intended purpose. I’ve owned many high quality items that I ultimate let go of because they weren’t the ideal match for the type of traveling I did. Now, that’s an interesting notion: all carry goods are intended for travel. Why else would you use them? A wallet helps your money and plastic cards travel. A waterproof messenger helps you travel in the rain on a bicycle better than a rigid plastic suitcase with wheels aids in bicycling, yet I’d rather the suitcase if I were moving through airports and hotels rather than roads and trails.

    So I’ll offer this bit of taxonomic focus: How well the Carry gear assists you in your particular travel endeavor is a strong indicator of it’s quality. There are more factors but I’ll assert this one as paramount.

    Sorry Robert Pirsig, but I just helped the readers of this forum more than you ever could.


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