Finding Design Inspiration When It’s All Working Against You

You may have noticed that for a designer I talk very little about designing on this blog. I think that’s because I’m so consumed with learning about all the other aspects of running a business that I think of designing as the easy part. I already KNOW how to do that.

Yet lately I’ve been feeling like I haven’t been giving designing enough attention. For the last few years, it has been something that I’ve just dashed off when I’ve had time. Need to design the Spring collection? There are a few hours for me to do that next Friday. That’s designing multiple items. In an afternoon. I’m joking somewhat but it’s sadly not too far from the truth.

A few weeks ago I went to a Creative Mornings and heard local fashion designer Maria Pinto speak. She told us that as creative types, we have this great gift to create new and beautiful things, and that’s a gift that a lot of people yearn to have. I realized that I have this gift and I’ve been kind of squandering it, focusing instead on learning how to be the marketer, accountant, logistics guy. All those things are important, but it’s like I’m dwelling on all the things I don’t know instead of exercising the muscle that I already have.

The problem is, it’s hard to get into a creative flow when you’re being pulled in so many directions. I’ll be happily sketching new bags and get a phone call from a lender about an upcoming loan repayment that I don’t have the money for, and that stresses me out. Or the dock door stops working and we all have to load boxes onto the truck by hand. Or a magazine editor calls and wants assets ASAP to be included in a new story, which of course I drop everything to do. Before I know it, a few days have passed and I’ll look at my page of sketches and barely be able to remember what I was thinking, or imagining.

Feeling like I owed the designer in me more, I took advantage of a cheap flight to Mexico City and spent five days there to escape my normal life. I pictured myself sitting in one of the city’s beautiful parks and sketching, or going to museums or galleries and getting inspired. Instead, I spent most of my days at my computer responding to email (how does that take up so much time?!?!) or researching keywords for our website refresh. Even so, I could feel the richness of the city seeping into me. Every time I went to a new cafe, I’d snap a few pictures of something new and enchanting, knowing that it would resurface later.

Creadores De Bicis, Po Campo’s Mexican distributor.
The “La Vuelta a la Bici” (Return to Bike) exhibit, about the history of the bicycle and its continued relevancy. I would have died of happiness if a Po Campo bag was included in the exhibit, but the bit about women suffragists and World Bicycle Relief were enough to make me feel included.
The cafe next door with cheap and good coffee and strong WiFi
Coyoacan, whose tidy backstreets are seriously enchanting.
Love love love Mexican tilework.
Woven goodness

Then, on the airplane on the way home, I pulled out my paper and came up with some new ideas.

Airplane Sketches
Airplane Sketches

What do you do to get inspired, or to escape the madness of the everyday?

How to Make a Good Soft Goods Tech Pack

Have an idea for a bag design and want to get quotes from a soft goods manufacturer? One of the first things they will ask you for is the “tech pack” for your design, so they can make a sample of the bag to see how complicated/time-consuming it will be to produce. The tech pack generally consists of three things:

1) Sketches of the design concept with material call-outs. For simple designs, this can be a simple three-quarters view sketch that shows the front, side and top. Additional sketches may be needed to show how a pocket opens or other such details. Be sure to include stitch lines.

Example of Bag Sketch
Example of product sketch with material call-outs

2) Orthographic / elevation drawings with dimensions. I take pride in providing our suppliers with very detailed drawings that leave little room for guesswork. This forces me to think through all the bag’s details in advance of sharing the concept with the supplier, which in turn helps the factory produce samples quicker and easier.

Example of Bag Orthographic
Example of Detailed Orthographic Drawings

3) Bill of Materials (BOM). Again, the more detail you can provide here, the better off you will be. The factory may use other materials for the initial sample but it will always be clear what you are intending for the final product.

Example of Detailed Bill of Materials (BOM)
Example of Detailed Bill of Materials (BOM)

How long should the tech pack be?
Most of my tech packs are three pages long, one page for each item above. More complicated designs may require additional pages to explain some of the details and features. There is no limit to how many pages you can include, but in my experience, the more concise you can make things, the better.

What software do you use?
We do all of our technical drawings in Illustrator. I’m quite reliant on using its “Smart Guides” feature to quickly align objects, to find intersections and anchor points and to see measurements as I draw. I first draw everything full-size on a large artboard and then scale it down proportionately to fit on a letter-sized piece of paper. There is also an Illustrator CADtools plug-in that helps with dimensioning and material call-outs.

Besides the orthographic drawings, we make our BOM in Excel and then share it all with our factory as a multi-page PDF.

How do you show updates and revisions?
After you receive your sample, you’ll probably want to make some revisions. I’ve found the best way to do this is to clearly mark everything that is changed on the next version of the tech pack so that the sample maker can quickly see what needs to be done differently.

Do you have to create a pattern?
No, thankfully in bag design, you do not have to create the pattern. The sample maker figures this out based on your tech pack.

What if I’m unsure about what materials to spec?
If you don’t specify the materials, the factory will tend to use either what they have lying around or what they can get at a good price. In other words, they’ll use what’s easiest for them and not necessarily what’s best for your design. Therefore, I always try to specify something. If you have a sample of a material but you don’t know what it is called, send the sample and ask them to find something similar and include the “Sample Fabric A” in the BOM until you have a better name for it.

Is collaboration lost if you are being so “prescriptive” and “detailed”?
While we designers revel in concept development and iterative prototyping, you have to remember that factories make money from production, not sample making, and therefore every effort to streamline the sampling process is greatly appreciated. Expect collaboration to take the form of factories offering suggestions on how to make your design more efficient to produce.

It took me awhile to learn this. My first job was making bags for Arctic Zone, whose biggest customer was Wal-Mart. We constantly made samples without nary a grumble from the factory because they knew a huge order was the pay-off. With small companies, like Po Campo, there is no assurance of a huge order, or any order for that matter, at the end of the sampling process, so factories are much less interested in endless sampling. I have found working relationships best if we can get to the final prototype within 2-3 rounds of sample making.

Do you prepare the tech pack the same for both domestic and overseas manufacturers?
Yes. With native English speakers, there is less risk of things getting lost in translation, but I have found the importance of a concise tech pack to be the same regardless of where the factory is based.

Any other questions? Please leave in the comments below. Do you do things differently? I’d love to hear from your experience, as I’m largely self-taught.

Savoring my design moments

Nowadays I identify more with “small business owner” than “industrial designer”. I’ve pretty much come to terms with that, although I still think “industrial designer” sounds cooler. Honestly though, I consider building Po Campo to be the ultimate design project, and that keeps me pretty satisfied.

Regardless, there are times when I get to return back to the simplicity of just thinking about design (in the traditional sense), and these are fun, blissful moments. One such occasion is working on our print patterns. I love coming up with the inspiration and building it into the larger Po Campo story.

This spring, we introduced our first proprietary bicycle print, which we are calling Bike Ride. We had originally intended to launch it for Fall 2013 and wanted to do something kind of wintery. In building our Pinterest inspiration board, Russia-esque images of furry hats and snowy palaces kept emerging, which got us thinking about Russian constructivism. The more we looked into it, the more inspiring it became.


You can read more about how Russian constructivism influenced Bike Ride’s creation, from its role in industrial design history to its prominent female designers (a rarity then and now, sadly) in my recent post on Po Campo’s blog.

We are starting the journey again by working on a new print for Spring 2015. This, along with some new product designs, gives me a few days to be on a design vacation, which I cherish, before going back to the land of spreadsheets and sales presentations.

I need to stop designing things

I have problems with sell-through (which means my products sell slowly in stores) and maintaining customers. While my business is still growing, I know that these problems will eventually kill my business if I don’t fix them since there are only so many possible Po Campo customers out there. Today, an advisor diagnosed these problems as symptoms of SKU-proliferation disease. I have to agree that she is correct, as my resources (money and time) are stretched very thin supporting all the bags in my line.
The cure? Not only to stop designing new bags, but to also stop making bags already in my line. She told me to just pick my four best selling bags and just make and market those. My first thought was, “My babies!”. I have 40 SKUs (which stands for stock keeping unit and means every individual item that I sell), so narrowing down to four will be sacrificing much of my offspring. My second thought was, “Okay, point taken, I have too many. Let’s just cut the number of SKUs in half”. Now after mulling it over for an hour or two, I think she was right. I am going to shoot for selecting 4-6 bags.
How do I decide? Here’s my plan:
  1. Look at which bags sold the best this year and take the top 6.
  2. Look at which bags are going to be new for next year and take the top 6 that I’ve gotten orders for so far.
  3. Have a popularity contest. Tomorrow I will put these bags out on a table at during a Christmas cookie party of potential Po Campo consumers and have people pick their favorite three. I also plan to put a survey together online and blast it to the world – both consumers and customers
  4. Study the results, and pick 4-6 bags.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Hoping to have an idea with what to move forward with the first week of January.

Failing Fast with Durable Goods

At a party last night, I was talking to friends about the big learning curve I’ve experienced with Po Campo. In short, at 4 years in, I feel like I need to rethink who my consumer is and what my distribution strategy should be. In some ways, it feels like going back to the starting line.

Agile Vs. Waterfall product development
My friend Randall, who works as a programmer, suggested trying the agile method commonly used by Web 2.0 developers, that encourages you to develop a product in quick iterations to “fail fast”. It is thought to identify and fix bugs faster and less expensively. Agile doesn’t have a definitive endpoint, you stop when you run out of time or when the product is good enough. This contrasts with the traditional waterfall method, in which development and management follow a sequential stage-gate process. For example, you know there will be, say, five phases of product development and what will happen in each phase and what criteria needs to be met before moving to the next phase. I grew up with the waterfall method in industrial design, which always made sense to me since there is more capital investment involved and more interdisciplinary stakeholders that need to be managed. You can’t pay to have a mold built and then decided you want to change it. And what about rapidly getting approval from marketing, engineering, procurement, logistics? That sounds like chaos!

Graphic from Thycotic Solutions,
Graphic from Thycotic Solutions,

I told Randall that it was hard for me to fail fast because it took a long time to get learning in the marketplace. By the time product is made and shipped to stores, 3-6 months have already gone by. We need another 3-6 months to see what consumers think, so my rounds of iterative development would be every 6-12 months – not very fast. Also, all of that less-than-perfect product would still be out there, potentially tarnishing my brand name. It’s not like I can just do a software update and bring everyone’s Po Campo bag up to the latest model. Retrieving them and replacing them would be too costly to consider.

No new machinery here!
No new machinery here!

Yet, I’m interested to see if there is a way to become more agile in product development. As consumers, we are getting accustomed to products being rapidly improved and the kinks worked out on an ongoing basis. There isn’t really any reason why this should stop with durable goods. One thing I like about cut-and-sew is how it is already inherently pretty agile, in that no new tooling is generally required and doing running changes is pretty acceptable. If agile was going to work with any manufacturing process, cut-and-sew would be the best fit.

Our bags in a store
Our bags in a store

What’s holding me back? I get confused with implementation. Most of our business is wholesale, meaning that we sell to other stores who sell it to the end user. They are a fairly traditional bunch and I know they would only want the latest and greatest. They also discourage change (even seasonly!) because it makes things harder for them to manage. Online sales seem like a better match because we can communicate with our end user and get feedback faster. Again, the bulk of our existing wholesale customers will push back against this, as they do not like product available online that they can not sell in their stores.

Has anybody else had success with implementing agile in their development of durable goods? I’m very interested to continue this discussion.