Recently, I designed and made a backpack. This is the first backpack my company, Sidgl, has produced, and it’s design and construction offered some insights. Taking a step back from writing about sustainability, I wanted to focus on those design insights. Bear with me.

When designing anything, I find it’s best to follow the advice of Charles Eames:

Design depends largely on constraints…
… Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.

Building out straps

Start with the constraints of the project. In this case: The first constraint, the primary constraint: I am designing a backpack. There already exists a rough template for what I am doing. In talking with the customer, I get a better idea of what kind of backpack she is expecting. I know size, I know features. I know use cases. What I need to know are habits, and any implicit ideas of what a backpack is for the user. This is important and easy to forget — we all know what a backpack is right? Like the color blue, though, a backpack is a different thing to different people.

To get clarity on the actual product, I adhere to Charles Eames advice on constraints first — this will determine detail.

Defining the constraints that are part of business model.

Sidgl adheres to a model of sustainability for all its products. This limits my materials to fabric and hardware that I have previously vetted.

It also influences the design choices I will make because sustainability in design means making something that will last in terms of construction and use. I am also constrained by my own resources; my sewing machines, binders, etc. Knowing I have the tools to break trail on a new pattern is important.

Defining client constraints.

Get a firm picture of what the client wants/needs.

If I can, I want pictures.

From this I can draw a list of features.

Material is also a constraint in what a client wishes for — in this case, the client wanted a backpack made of felt. How felt sews together means that the construction becomes limited.

Once a list of features from the client is collected, put those through the funnel of what can/can’t be done given the constraint of material, hardware and machinery. This provides a spec, or a snapshot of what the product actually is. the client also hates top loading packs and draw-strings, preferring to have zippers that go 3/4’s of the way around the bag, so she can access the contents more easily.

Define critical pieces.

Once I have a “picture” of the product, I break that down into components.

Because I have never done a backpack before, I spend a lot of time designing the strapping system. I look at a lot of other packs to see what works — and to get a sense of proportion. Everything will hang off the straps, so fit is crucial.

Pocket and load carry are also crucial. How weight will sit in the pack, and on the carrier is something I consider in the spacial design.

I also consider which shoulder she might carry the bag on when not slung over both shoulders — how will she access pockets while walking?

Is she dominant left hand or right hand?

What kind of stuff is she going to be carrying — what makes the backback different than a tote in this case?

It is very easy at this stage of the design to over-think and get overwhelmed by details.

Know your process.

There are different ways to get to the physical design at this point — whether its doing a cad drawing or whether its patterning — the method by which fabric starts to be cut becomes somewhat of a personal process. Skip Frye, a surfboard shaper noted that some shapers think about how the board will move on the waves, others think about how a wave will move over the board — in other words — getting to the physical design is feel and intuition. Have a process to guide that feel and intuition.

Once I start to sew, I am conscious of two things: Mistakes will occur and Mistakes Cost Money. Once the design enters a physical realm — every mistake costs material and time. Frequently, trying to correct a design midway will cost more material and time than just starting over.

Know how to manage mistakes.

In my case, I have reached a place where, if a component goes wrong, or the join is not correct, I will move that piece to the side and start over. Years of pulling stitches and trying to re-sew the same cloth — trying to mitigate the mistake, mid-sew — really never works. At that point it becomes compensating for a design error. I might revisit the error and be able to fix it when I have a clearer head — but in the heat of battle, best to reset.

The moral of that story is-mistakes happen. Nothing is precious. ‘You can’t’, as my father used to say, ‘reach heaven without standing on a pile of crap.’

When I was a young letterpressman, my father and I were printing a book. The pages required a very exact margin of alignment that was difficult to achieve on a cylander press — we would get maybe half the pages true. After an initial press-run, my father, the book’s designer, threw up his hands, bellowed, and walked away from the press. He came back to the shop 2 hours later and redesigned the pages to address the limitations of the machinery. We reprinted the same pages.

The moral of that story is-mistakes happen. Nothing is precious. ‘You can’t’, as my father used to say, ‘reach heaven without standing on a pile of crap.’

It costs me less in time and material to start over. And I can factor that into the prototyping costs. Consequently, I will always buy a couple extra yards of fabric, and a couple extra yards of zipper material. The hardware I can salvage. In the long run, it saves me time to correct a mistake by going back to the cutting table.

Show V. Hide

Part of any design work is deciding what gets shown — eg, the fabric, the hardware, the seams — and what gets hidden. In software development, we think about the screen real estate and what tools can be shown on top of the workspace. In website construction, we want to hide things like conspicuous redirects and 500 errors. When constructing something physical, I want to decide whether and how to show seams, joins, stitching, or hardware.

It’s a game. For example, I use french and felted seams in a lot of my construction. While both joins can be double seamed, I will sometimes run a 3rd row of stitching along the seam, that highlights the seam just to re-enforce the idea of solid construction. You see this kind of seam a lot on jeans.

I use a lot of heavy material, so it can be tricky in how those seams are finished. I can’t just marrow a seam and call it good if the material gather is a quarter-inch thick! The initial phase of construction will guide what I can show and what sins I can hide.

Innovation v. Stealing.

Going back to Charles Eames —

Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.

The fundamental problem with being creative, is the desire to re-invent the wheel — because reinventing wheels is fun! It feels good and it makes me feel clever.

Here is what I have learned: do not be clever for clever’s sake. Let clever be a bi-product of a practical solution to a real problem. eg the wheel.

A lot of coverage has gone into this word; disrupt. Disrupt the paradigm. Disrupt the existing system. How disruptive does a new backpack design need to be? What is disruptive about what I do is not the product, necessarily, it is the philosophy.

A best-in-class product does not need to be disruptive. It needs to be easy to use — it needs to be seamless (in use) and intuitive — it needs to be so transparent as to function in the user’s daily life without being a pain in the ass. I don’t need to be disruptive to do that — I just need to be sensitive enough to be simple.

I do not need to fill a product with my ideas — I have to make a product that let’s the user fill it with their ideas — with their life. The more clever I try to be, the less my client will be able to impose their own will on what I produce for them.

The temptation to solve a problem for a new product is to be clever.

The first instinct is, in the heat of design inspiration, is think: “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” Inevitably, this thought will end in throwing away and recutting. More time is wasted trying to prove an unproven idea -that might not work-.

For an MVP — steal. Steal from previous designs.

I like to find a construction I have done before and retrofit it to the new product.This will get me to a functioning prototype and it’s not an also-ran compromise. It provides a functional detail that is attainable and good looking. It might not be the perfect solution — but it is a better solution that an exploratory project. Working this way also gives me breathing room to think about a better way to produce that initial inspiration — and breathing room to decide if that inspiration is just cool — or actually practical in terms of time, materials and function.

Working prototype.

The best laid plans… the best intentions…

A functioning prototype gets me to a lot of places. It can produce an aesthetically appealing product , a usable product, and a template for refinement.

It is in the using of it now that will dictate the next steps. It is impossible, Looking at that surfboard sitting on the rack to know if it can handle different weather conditions.

Looking at that backpack assures me it’s pretty — but the real test comes when the new owner takes it on a plane, walks around a new place, stuffs stuff in and takes stuff out. I already know from initial feedback what some refinements will be.

Coming from a background of Quality Engineering, I know now the testing begins.

I can be faithful to the spec, but in the end, the spec might not be faithful to the user. My father also used to say — in order to make the book you want to make, you first have to make a book. For every product I design, I create my spec, I design, and I fabricate all with the best intentions — and always knowing that the real design work doesn’t happen until the product is in the world.

— Ben Trissel

About Ben Trissel

Ben is the Founder of Sidgl, 4th generation craftsman and designer that believes in thoughtful design, sustainable manufacturing and functional beauty. Sidgl makes handcrafted bags that are designed to look good, feel good and above all function well.

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I am constantly in pursuit of my 3-goals for sidgl -- better design, greater sustainability and working with a community of like-minded individuals.  Join me as I explore this fashion revolution. --Ben


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