The Merely Different Is Not Always Better, But the Better Is Always Different

David Rowland? Dale Dauten? Art Weinstein? William C. Johnson? Sun Microsystems? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Attempting something new and innovative is crucial to success in many fields, but triumph is not guaranteed. An unfamiliar or unusual strategy may fail. Designers have advanced the following adage:

Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.

Memorability is enhanced by the rhetorical technique called antimetabole in which a phrase is repeated, but key elements are reordered. Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: David Rowland was a New York industrial designer who created the remarkable 40/4 stackable chair. The numeric name was based on the fact that forty of the chairs could be combined to produce a stack that was only four feet tall. An article about Rowland appeared in “The Miami News” of Florida in 1965. At that time the chair had recently won an American Institute of Interior Designers International Award. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A designer of chairs since he was 13, the California native has an artistic family background. Much of his early childhood was influenced by the designers in his family. In his approach to design, Rowland’s motto is “the merely ‘different’ is not always better, but the better is always different.”

This phrasing of the adage above differs from the typical modern version, but it still represents a close match. Rowland popularized this expression, and QI tentatively gives him credit as creator.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A couple weeks later an article about Rowland appeared in “The Arizona Republic” of Phoenix, Arizona and the saying was repeated: 2

In his approach to design, Rowland adopts the motto that “the merely ‘different’ is not always better, but the better is always different”

In 1973 an advertisement for Golden Hanger Ltd that appeared in an Escanaba, Michigan newspaper included a version of the saying without attribution: 3

We have more than tripled our size in less than one year because we’ve developed a better way to operate and our growth pattern proves it.

Different is not always better, but better is always different. Would you like to meet us and hear our story? Why not. It will give you a chance to see the difference.

In 1995 author Dale Dauten who pens the long-lived syndicated business column “Corporate Curmudgeon” mentioned the saying: 4

When people ask me what’s the best thing I’ve written, I tell them that there is one sentence that has become my touchstone: “Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.” For over a decade I have used the second half of that sentence to remind me to welcome the unusual into my career.

The 1999 book “Designing and Delivering Superior Customer Value: Concepts, Cases, and Applications” by Art Weinstein and William C. Johnson included the adage: 5

It is relatively easy to be like everyone else; great companies have their own unique identities and carefully conceived value propositions. It is important to realize that different is not always better, but better is always different.

In 2008 Dauten referred to the saying again in his business column: 6

DALE: There’s a sentence I wrote many years ago that has meant more to my career than any other: “Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”

In 2011 a commenter at “Hacker News” stated that the motto was present on a mug for the former computer company “Sun Microsystems”: 7

“Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.” — My roommate’s Sun Microsystems coffee mug

In conclusion, designer David Rowland popularized the saying as a motto by 1965. Over the years, others including Dale Dauten have adopted the expression. Yet, based on current evidence QI believes that Rowland should tentatively be given credit as the creator.

Image Notes: Picture of stack of chairs shown with a close-up from aitoff at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Matthew D. Groves whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1965 February 7, The Miami News, Rowland Got To The Bottom Of That Chair Problem, Quote Page 32, Column 3, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1965 February 21, The Arizona Republic, Many Chairs on the Market Aren’t Really Comfortable, Quote Page 12E, Column 3, Phoenix, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1973 April 6, Escanaba Daily Press, Better Is Different (Advertisement for Golden Hanger Ltd. Store Systems of Wausau, Wisconsin), Quote Page 19, Column 1, Escanaba, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1995 July 16, 1995, Sunday Advocate, Corporate Curmudgeon: Lowering sights on hi-tech things by Dale Dauten, Quote Page I1, Column 1, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1999, Designing and Delivering Superior Customer Value: Concepts, Cases, and Applications by Art Weinstein and William C. Johnson, Chapter 4: Defining and Refining the Value Proposition, Quote Page 51, St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, Florida. (Verified with scans)
  6. 2008 June 29, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Use cover letter to set yourself apart from pack by Jeanine ‘J.T.’ O’Donnell and Dale Dauten, Quote Page ZE1, Column 1,Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com)
  7. Website: Hacker News (at ycombinator), Forum thread title: Why Sun Microsystems Failed (referring to informationweek.com article), Forum username: wtn, Date of user comment (specified on website): March 4, 2011, Website description: News stories pertinent to hackers that are submitted and voted on by volunteers. Also, a forum system for commenting on news stories. (Accessed news.ycombinator.com on July 16, 2019) link