Design Beyond “Fortuitous Contrivings”: The Guide’s Pack Top Pocket

I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuity. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.

― R. Buckminster Fuller

As product designers, we get to live in a world of “what if”: we look at how things are, and we get to imagine new ways they could be. We analyze existing tools, processes, features, and functionalities. We ask “what works?” and “how can it work even better?” And then (Tom likes this part best), we go out to the workshop and make some prototype bags. We take them on the trail, on a road trip, or a plane ride. We use the bags in situ to see if we’re headed in the right direction.

Sometimes our best design is but a chimera: what is called for is some sort of “Klein Bottle” (or perhaps a Klein Bag?)—something we can imagine but no one can actually make. Sometimes we suffer from what Tom calls “Kevenhüller Syndrome” (from Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berling’s Saga): maybe we can make one of something, but it turns out to be impossible to mass-produce. At the end of the day, we are not simply product designers, we are manufacturers as well. We must create things that can be imagined and then manufactured.

Like other kinds of birthing, taking a nascent idea for a bag and turning it into a finished thing can be messy. We put lots of thought into what features are truly essential for a particular design, and what features are extraneous. We try to be thoughtful, careful, and conservative. And when we release a new bag, we then listen closely to the feedback we get: are people liking it? Are they using it as we intended, or have they hacked it to do something we didn’t even know was possible? We realize we can’t please everyone, but we try to see how close we came to hitting our mark.

Do we get it right every time? Certainly not, so we often continue tweaking, refining, and fine tuning our designs, sometimes forever. In the design process, we challenge ourselves with some tough decisions: sometimes, adding a feature or a specific functionality would detract from some other utilization, or add substantial or unjustified weight, bulk, or cost, so we might forego it. Sometimes there might be several good ways to achieve a certain utility or aesthetic, and we must choose between them. It’s a fun challenge, and we’re glad you’ve come along for the ride.

The top pocket of The Guide’s Pack is great example of such a challenge. It acts primarily as a flap that covers the drawstring opening, protecting the contents of the main compartment from the weather. The pocket is designed with a zipper along what we think of as its “front” edge, where it is convenient to access when you’re not wearing the pack. However, the orientation of the pocket, and therefore the relative position of the zipper on the pocket, varies depending upon how full the main compartment is or isn’t.

When the main compartment is empty or not very full, the pocket—or flap, if you prefer—will swing down, sloping away from the wearer’s back, its front edge coming to rest lower than the rest of the pocket. Thus, when the main compartment is less than full, the front zipper is indeed effectively at the “bottom” of the top pocket.

When the main compartment is full, the pocket is more or less level and the zipper is now at the front edge of the pocket. And when the main compartment is more than full, or if something is stuffed under the pocket, atop the main compartment’s drawstring top, the pocket will swing upwards and the same zipper opening that was previously at the bottom of the pocket is now at the top of the pocket. It’s important for the sake of this discussion to note that in all these orientations, the weather flap that covers the pocket zipper is still doing its job of protecting the zipper from rain/weather.

It is somewhat counter-intuitive (and yes, sometimes down-right inconvenient) that this zipper is at times at the bottom of the pocket. The only way around this would be to move the zipper to the opposite edge of the top pocket, the edge that would be the “top” when the bag is less than fully-loaded. Though this might be an obvious “solution” to this design challenge, placing the zipper on that other edge of the pocket just reverses the whole thing: now the zipper is at the bottom of the pocket when the bag is over-loaded. Plus it creates yet another challenge: if you’re going to put a weather flap on the pocket’s zipper (which the aesthetics and functionality of the Guide’s Pack dictate), then you must decide which way that flap goes. In one orientation, the flap will protect the zipper from rain and weather when the bag is empty (or nearly so) but will actively channel water into the zipper when the bag is full or over-full. Flip the zipper flap the other way, and the choice is simply reversed: weather-proof when full, the opposite of weather-proof when empty.

Design Beyond “Fortuitous Contrivings”: The Guide’s Pack Top Pocket | TOM BIHN

This is a good example of the trade-offs that designers often need to consider. When we were looking at vintage backpacks that were the stylistic roots of the Guide’s Pack, that top pocket zipper placement was done both ways. We choose weather-proofness over the inconvenience of the sometimes “upside down” pocket zipper.

Note that Tom uses the Guide’s Pack several times a week. He says, “Yup, that zipper placement on that top pocket is a compromise, all right. But it’s the best compromise in my opinion.”

The Beauty of Objects

The Beauty of the Familiar | TOM BIHN
Watercolor by Dan Bransfield.

Haute Americana Interviews Tom

Haute Americana’s interview with Tom on design, life, travel, and U.S. manufacturing is up. Excerpt:

Haute Americana: What are your essentials for traveling?

Tom Bihn: I used to manage the youth hostel in Santa Cruz — there I watched what people carried and how they traveled. I realized that the weight of a person’s bag was usually inversely proportional to the fun they were having. With that in mind, I try to travel pretty light, though I always seem to need to carry an extra pair of shoes or sandals. Otherwise I guess I carry the usual stuff – a swimsuit is surprisingly a good idea, as I try to jump into water whenever possible.”

Read the full interview.

Tom Bihn interviewed by Haute Americana | TOM BIHN

Modestics Meet the Maker: Tom Bihn

Modestics Meet The Maker: TOM BIHN

Modestics recently interviewed Tom for their Meet the Maker series.

Modestics: When did you feel like you were a “real company”?

Tom Bihn: It all felt pretty serious, though very small, when I first rented commercial space back in Santa Cruz. Otherwise, our growth has been slow, steady, and mostly self-funded. Rather than owing money to a bank or venture capitalist, our loyalty is to the folks who believe in us enough to buy what we make: still friends and family, just a bigger circle.

Read the full interview over at Modestics.

The Fur Test

TOM BIHN: The Fur Test
1000d Cordura® after test

TOM BIHN: The Fur Test
We made mittens out of 420 HT ParaPack, 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon, 1050d Ballistic, 1000d Cordura® and 500d Cordura®.

TOM BIHN: The Fur Test
We then rubbed each one on a volunteer office canine (we are opposed to animal testing, but he seemed to rather enjoy the attention).

TOM BIHN: The Fur Test

TOM BIHN: The Fur Test
All fabrics picked up fur.

TOM BIHN: The Fur Test
But not equally so . . .
TOM BIHN: The Fur Test
Both of the Cordura® fabrics collected lots more fur than the smooth nylons.
TOM BIHN: The Fur Test
The difference between 1050d Ballistic, 420d HT ParaPack, and 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon; was negligible (though the fur is better camouflaged by the white Dyneema® ripstop grid.)
TOM BIHN: The Fur Test

The bottom line? If you have pets, or work in a place where people bring dogs to work and don’t vacuum as much as they should (ahem), or simply want your bag to collect as little lint/foozles/dust particles as possible, choose our 1050d ballistic nylon, 200d or 400d Dyneema/nylon, or 420d HT Parapack fabric over bags available in Cordura (500d or 1000d).

See also: Badger’s test comparing the pet hair resistance of our 200d Dyneema/nylon fabric and 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack. Note: our results differed from Badger’s in that the difference between Dyneema/nylon and the 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack was not significant. Neither collected nowhere near as much hair in our tests as the Cordura® fabrics. Results may vary on the breed or type of animal, and probably the amount of ambient static electricity. It’s also worth noting that in our results the hair that did collect on our Dyneema/nylon was quite difficult to see until we looked really closely (hence the close-up photo).

Video: How to tie cord zipper pulls

Included with The Guide’s Pack and Founder’s Briefcase are enough Coyote and Red cord pulls for the metal zipper pulls on each bag. This video demonstrates how to add the cord pulls to the metal zipper pulls:

Innovation in Fabrics (video)

The story behind the fabrics we use, including our 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack, told by the best textiles guy in the business.

On the design of The Guide’s Pack

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Like lots of good stuff, it all started in a garage.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Better than leather: heavy-duty synthetic felt and nylon webbing combine in the Double Accessory Strap Holder.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

#00 spur grommets, made for us in the UK. Yes, we took every detail quite seriously.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

The internal frame . . .

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

. . . is removable.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Two pie-slice cut-outs on each edge allow the frame sheet to flex in use.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

The 6061 Aluminum stay is removable. Soft plastic caps insure the rest of the pack can’t be damaged by the stay.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

We pre-bend the stay to a gentle S-curve to approximate the average spinal curve.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Carefully bending the frame sheet and stay over your knee (or knees for a gentler curve), you can adjust the curve if you so desire (though you needn’t remove the frame from the pack).

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

The back and bottom of the Guide’s Pack are fully padded with .25″ / 6mm closed-cell foam.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Six flat pockets on the interior back panel accept the six “fins” of the frame sheet . . .

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

. . . firmly holding it in place against your back.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

Curved, thermo-formed, die-cut, padded shoulder straps: we just didn’t have the technology to make these 40 years ago.

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

And who woulda thunk it: pockets for a cell phone and a GPS.

Tom on the design of The Guide's Pack

But then again, the best things in life really haven’t changed.

On the design of the Founder’s Briefcase

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Thick synthetic felt reinforces the handle attachment points.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

A pleated, 3D mesh pouch is divided in to three separate spaces . . .

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

By moving the two zipper sliders to be over the one you want to access, the other remain securely zipped shut.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Great for cables, power supplies, point-and-shoot cameras.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

The handles are designed to naturally meet top dead center.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Our signature, super-tough hardware facilitates attachment of a shoulder strap.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

Heavy-duty, 1050d ballistic piping adds shape and color.

Tom on the design of the Founder's Briefcase

The Founder’s Briefcase has many graceful yet subtle curves: a straight line may be the shortest path, but seldom the most interesting.

On Internal Frames and Frame Sheets

Tom on the design of the Guide's Pack

I’ve always tended to keep my designs as simple as possible and eschew adding features just for the sake of, well, just because we could. So, it should be no surprise that the first iterations of The Guide’s Pack had no internal frame, just a padded back panel. The idea has always been to rely on careful packing to supply the bag with form and the user with comfort. I still think there is great value in learning the artful arrangement of a bag’s contents to optimize weight distribution and therefore carrying comfort; however, as soon as I began using The Guide’s Pack with my beta version of its internal frame and frame sheet, I started to see the light.

At 35 liters (when you include the side pockets), The Guide’s Pack can definitely become somewhat heavy when fully loaded, and though not intended as a backpacking pack, it can certainly handle all you need for a very long day out (or maybe an overnight). Bending its single aluminum stay to roughly parallel my spine, I was able to comfortably lift some of the pack’s weight off my shoulders and onto my hips (yeah, with just a 1″ webbing waist belt). Combined with the HDPE frame sheet, the internal frame helps maintain the bag’s profile (read: keeps it from beer-barreling when overstuffed) and also allows one to have a somewhat cavalier attitude when packing hard objects such as a DSLR camera or a thermos: basically, I no longer need to wrap them in extra clothing or some kind of padding to ensure all-day comfort on the trail. After some further tweaks and some long hikes, I was a believer.

The Guide’s Pack’s internal frame consists of a unique, die-cut frame sheet of .060″ high density polyethylene (HDPE) and a single stay of 1″ / 25 mm wide 6061 aluminum. The stay is held in place by a strip of 2″ wide nylon webbing sewn down the center of the frame sheet; you can remove the stay if, for some reason, you want a frame sheet but no frame.

You can also remove the entire affair: six flat “pockets” on the inside back of The Guide’s Pack are designed to retain the six lobes (or fins) of the frame sheet. These lobes are engineered to relieve the torsional stresses of the pack flexing as you walk; they also facilitate the design that allows the frame sheet to be easily removed from the pack.

The aluminum stay comes to you pre-bent to approximate a generic spinal curve. If you find The Guide’s Pack comfortable out of the gate, as most folks will, you’re good. But if you need to adjust that curve, it’s easy to do — and you needn’t remove the stay or frame sheet from the pack to do it (we’re working on a video that’ll show you how — stay tuned).