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.”

Box Senryu

When Lisa placed her order with us, she asked that we write a poem on her shipping box, and Hannah (Bag Guru) obliged.

Box senryu courtesy of Hannah | TOM BIHN

In stock: Travel Stuff Sacks, Nordic + Black Dyneema

Thanks to our awesome production crew (they made the bags) and shipping crew (they shipped out the backorders) the following bags are in stock and ship within one business day:

Aeronaut, Black/Steel

Ristretto for iPad, Black/Iberian

Travel Stuff Sacks, all sizes and colors

Shop Bag, Large in Black, Steel, Solar, Nordic, Wasabi, Iberian

Shop Bag, Small in Black, Steel, Nordic, Wasabi, Iberian, Ultraviolet

Travel Tray, Nordic, Ultraviolet and Black

Packing Cube Backpack (Aeronaut) in Ultraviolet, Steel, Black and Nordic

Packing Cube Backpack (Tri-Star/Western Flyer) in Iberian, Ultraviolet, Wasabi Black and Nordic

TOM BIHN | Travel Tray in Black

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

Crew Meetings

On February 5th and 6th, we’ll be having company-wide crew meetings, and that means we won’t be answering the phone (leave a message and we’ll get back to you!) or emails (we’ll respond later those days or the next day) as quickly as we usually do. Our Seattle Factory Showroom will also be closed both of those days (if you are coming from out of town and were hoping to visit one of those days, and we’ll see if we can arrange an appointment that’d work for you and us). Note that orders will be shipped out as usual and won’t be delayed by these meetings.

What are the crew meetings about? It’s a chance for all of us to get together and take another look at the mission and culture of our company — and, most importantly, to discuss it, with the future and our shared goals in mind.

On Backorders

At any given time, you can count on at least some of our bags being available for backorder. Sometimes it’s just a color or two that’s sold out, but sometimes every color option is on backorder. It’s pretty much been this way since we can remember: as soon as we think we’ve increased production capacity to meet demand, you guys demand even more from us. And it’s awesome. And we spend a lot of time thanking you silently in our heads as we get to be busy at work every day doing what we love to be doing.

That said, we realize it can be frustrating to not be able to get the bag you want, especially if you’re going on a trip or have some other time constraint. We’re continually thinking of new ways we can increase production capacity: being smarter about the flow of work through our Seattle factory, buying new/faster/better equipment, hiring more factory crew.

But here’s the thing: if the only goal was to have every bag in stock at all times, there’s choices we could’ve made that would’ve guaranteed that. We know what those are, and you probably do too. They aren’t necessarily bad things or things we pass judgement on — they just aren’t things we want to do.

So, it’s slow and steady, but we’re working on being able to make more bags so that chances are, more often than not, the next time you need a new bag we’ll be able to ship it to you right away. We’re getting the quality right, we’re making more (and more secure) jobs for our factory crew, we’re getting better at what we do. It’s a challenge, but it’s one we’re up for, and we hope you’ll stay with us for the ride.

Looking Forward to 2014

TOM BIHN | 2014 Designs

We don’t really believe in resolutions, but we’re all for reflections, and as we wrote this list of things we’d like to accomplish in 2014, we realized it was something we could share with all of you.

- Thought/Design
You told us you liked the posts on the design of The Guide’s Pack and Founder’s Briefcase and we hear you; we want to work on more posts for more bags that explain the thought that goes into each pocket, each seam.

- Our Awesome Crew
This is something we work on/think about a lot — we’ve got one of the best crews in the business, from design to production to customer service to shipping, and we want to make sure they know they’re that great. We came up with (what we think) were some good ways of showing our appreciation in 2013 (better benefits, raises, more lunch parties) but we want to top that in 2014. One idea: a monitor/tv where in which your tweets and photos and posts complimenting our crew and the fine bags they make scroll past.

- More efficient
As you well know, our bags are often on backorder (demand is greater than production). We think with a few small tweaks (mostly, looking at how things work and stripping away the unnecessary stuff) we can get even more efficient and be able to make even more bags, as we continue to hire more/add to our Seattle factory crew.

- What’s Fun, What’s Not
A rule we often use around here: if we’re having fun doing X, great. If it’s a drag, why is it a drag? Maybe it’s something we shouldn’t be doing. Or, maybe it’s something someone else would be way better at, and we could hire that person to do that thing. Always a good rule to reassess with.

Looking Back At 2013

2013 | TOM BIHN

It sure felt like a busy year, but until we compiled this list, we didn’t realize just how much we’d accomplished.

New Designs:
Synapse 25
The Guide’s Pack
Founder’s Briefcase
Knitting Tool Pouches
Cache for iPad Air
Motto and Pattern Water Bottles
Cafe Bag for Jung’s The Red Book (April Fools)
Utility Strap
1″ Cafe/Ristretto Messenger Stabilizer
Smart Alec Modular Pockets + Gate Keeper Straps
Pilot (design completed December 2013; pre-order January 2014)

Updated Designs:
The Cadet
Synapse 19
Side Effect
Handle Loop

New Materials:
420 Denier High Tenacity “Parapack” Pack Fabric
400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop
Black 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop

Materials Testing TOM BIHN Style
Innovation in Fabrics
All About the Red, White and Blue, While Being Green
One Week in Montreal
How to tie cord zipper pulls
Adjusting the Internal Frame in The Guide’s Pack
The Guide’s Pack and Founder’s Briefcase
Synapse 25, Ristretto, Swift
Three Trips with the Aeronaut
Our Materials
Two Weeks in Japan Part I and Part II
Amy Singer,, and The Swift
The Smart Alec
Packing the Smart Alec Backpack for a Hike
The New Side Effect
Tom on Design
The Tri-Star Travel Bag
How the checkpoint friendly Rails system works
Kieu’s Mad Bartacking Skills
Q-AM Shoulder Strap

The Setup
Modestics Meet the Maker: Tom Bihn

Happy Holidays from the TB crew!

Whether it snows for six days and six nights or twelve days and twelve nights, here’s to you and yours having a good holiday. Merry Christmas from the TOM BIHN crew!

TOM BIHN | Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

Scarves, Cowls, and Thanks

Last week, Annie delivered three bags full of scarves and cowls to our Seattle factory. A group of knitters nationwide had decided to knit them for our crew. Why? Just because they’re awesome. Well, that, and also because they have our knitting bags and wanted to show our crew how much they appreciate the design and fine workmanship that goes into them.

In the interest of fairness, we put numbers in a bowl and asked people to draw. Everyone got a scarf or cowl and there were even some extras; those will be included as prizes in the raffle at our company holiday lunch.

A big thanks goes to the knitters who made this happen. Everyone here has been working extra hard to make sure bags get made and shipped out in time for Christmas, and what did you did for us means a lot.

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN

Scarves, Cowls, and Amazing People | TOM BIHN