June 5, 2017.Function vs Form

Function vs Form

Photograph of a Ronson, Zippo and Bic Lighter
Ronson, Zippo, and Bic lighters. Copyright © 2017 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

This is one of those odd conundrums that often troubles me. When form and function (appearance and features/operation/capabilities) of a product meet and reinforce each other, I don’t have a problem. Examples of this are my FujiFilm X-series cameras, my Swiss Navy knife, and dare I say it, my Beretta handgun. However, when form and function diverge and do not reinforce each other I can sometimes have issues choosing between a product with elegant aesthetic design and poor functionality, and one with poor aesthetics and good functionality. In some cases the tension this causes for me is tangible, and can go on for a long time — years in some cases.

Software-wise Lightroom is a great example. It looks good and the UI is generally well thought out. The problem is, it has some areas where it doesn’t function very well. The raw converter for my camera sucks, and the lack of spell checking for tags and meta-data drives me nuts and wastes hours of my time. So, I’m constantly looking for an excuse to change to another tool – the functionality lets it down.

The lighters above are another excellent example of this tension between aesthetic design (form) and functionality.


It just works and keeps working until it runs out of fuel. It is inexpensive, you can instantly see how much fuel it has, and it’ll still work after days immersed in water (I know, I’ve done it). These lighters work so well that every emergency kit we have (and we have several) includes at least one.

It does have problems and limitations though. Any wind will blow it out, and it is disposable. From an aesthetic design standpoint, it looks awful and feels what it is – cheap.


This lighter has a fierce flame that’ll keep going in almost any wind, it is refillable, and it lights every time. It uses a Piezo igniter which shouldn’t wear out quickly – though how water resistant it is, I’ve yet to find out.

The Ronson has several problems, but my issues with it are mainly aesthetic. There is no way to check how much fuel it has, the case is made out of some horrid, cheap metal, it is heavy, has an odd unsatisfying shape, and it looks awful, especially as the surface coating wears off.


This lighter is light and a joy to hold, use and look at. It wears well, after many years of use mine still looks quite new. And finally, it makes the most satisfying noise when you open and close it.

The Zippo has many problems though. It is supposed to be windproof, and it is, but only up to a point, you cannot tell how much fuel it has, and the fuel evaporates quite quickly if the lighter isn’t used. It cannot be used on its side (a requirement for lighting a campfire), and will not light at all if wet.

Logically the Ronson or the Bic should be my EDC (EveryDay Carry) lighter. However, I’ve never carried the Bic except in my emergency kits. I love the Zippo and want it to be my EDC lighter, so I’ve either kept re-filling the Zippo, wasting fuel as it evaporates, or I carry the ugly, but serviceable Ronson, which I dislike.

So, Stylish Design or Functionality?

That’s still a hard question. It’s a matter of degree. I’ll happily go without some functionality, or put up with some poor functionality if the core functions do what I want. In which case I’d rather have a good visual/tactile design. At the end of the day, it all depends on the weightings/reliance/expectations/importance I place the functionalities that are absent or suck.

Photograph of a Ronson, Zippo and Bic Lighter
Ronson, Zippo, and Bic Lighters. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Update – Good News – Thunderbird Lighter Butane Insert

After writing this, I decided to repeat a search I did a couple of years ago – searching for butane inserts for Zippo lighters. Great news: now there are several inserts to choose from. It looks like when the original manufacturer fails to improve or fix a fault in their otherwise brilliant design, someone else will step into the breach to do so. It is great. The new insert makes the Zippo lighter just as good, functionally as the Bic and Ronson, but with the great Zippo look and “click”. It’s a winner.

cell phone photograph of a Vector butane lighter insert with a Zippo brass lighter case.
Dodgy cell phone picture of the new Thunderbird Butane insert.

Update June 2022

My original Thunderbird insert is still going strong after five years of use, but I’ve bought a new one (in fact I bought two) because they now make them with a transparent fuel tank. I couldn’t resist getting one.

Update March 2019

Pocket Dump — The things that are always in my pockets. My knife, wallet, and Zippo lighter with a butane insert. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

The only thing I’ve changed is the Zippo case. Ginger bought me a new Zippo lighter with a brushed brass case. I took out the original lighter mechanism and replaced it with my Thunderbird insert.

The Thunderbird Lighter insert keeps on going for me. It’s been my everyday carry for a couple of years, And so far, with no problems. It’s my main lighter when I go backpacking too. You can see how much fuel it has, and the jet flame is very difficult to blow out. It will light things at any angle making it great for lighting my backpacking stove and campfires.

Update September 2019

I accidentally found out how well the Thunderbird Lighter insert copes with immersion in water. The answer is exceptionally well. I didn’t just drop it some water, it went through a full wash cycle, and after drying out, it lit the first time. Highly recommended.

Link: Thunderbird Lighter insert on Amazon.

Vector Thunderbird Butane Insert

Copyright © 2017 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

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