On The Design Process: Inspiration, Timeline, Testing

Both Tom and Nik are designing various new bags and smaller items—everything from new backpacks to new travel bags to new organizer pouches. And that, of course, prompts questions: When will they be released? Will all the designs turn into real bags that will debut someday?

There’s an easy answer: we don’t know. But why do we not know? And further, how can we be comfortable with—and actually admit to—not knowing?

First, we might identify the various impetuses behind the new designs, as the origin of their inspiration does impact the design process and timeline of development.

The inspiration for Tom and Nik’s new designs is influenced by:

  • Taking and using bags (current designs or prototypes of new designs) on trips.
  • Observing other people traveling, hiking, or commuting with bags.
  • Feedback from people who use our bags.
  • The intervention of inspiration from an unknown, unidentifiable source. (Sounds lofty, but we’ve all experienced that in our work, haven’t we?)
  • A design problem or challenge that would be exquisite to solve.
  • An aesthetic drive: to first start with building something that looks good.
  • Life events. Best friend having a baby? We’ll make a diaper bag!
  • Recalling an incomplete design that was put aside years ago, and applying newfound knowledge and skills to complete the design.

The development timeline of new designs is influenced by:

  • How busy we are running our small business. Internal projects can sidetrack design. For example: over the past few years, we’ve designed and programmed our own inventory and production management software, implemented our new inventory scanning/tracking system, rebuilt nearly our entire website on a new platform, and reviewed, documented, and improved all customer service and shipping-related procedures.
  • How inspiration waxes and wanes. It may be there for a week and gone the next three weeks—or three years. We don’t push it or force it; in our experience, design driven by inspiration is far superior to design forced to meet a timeline.
  • Research into and development of new materials that’ll make the new design truly sing.
  • Engineering the manufacturing of the design so that it is … manufacturable.
  • Configuring a new sewing machine set-up, folder*, or ordering dies* to make the design efficiently manufacturable.
  • Staff time to either make the bag or make the debut happen. We have decided we’re happy with the size of our company more-or-less—with 47 people, we’re big enough to do stuff like develop custom fabrics and small enough that we’re all still working here together under one roof in Seattle. Having a smaller company/crew means there’s less redundancy—if someone takes family leave because they’re having a baby or someone else has major surgery (these two things have happened recently/are happening right now FYI), we rally to cover their work or make do so they can take time without worrying about it. That can mean that new releases or debuts or other projects get delayed because we don’t have our full crew on deck. With the rare exception around the holiday season, our crew doesn’t work overtime. Tom, Nik, and I often work in excess of forty hours each week, but that’s because we want to.
  • The fact that many design ideas don’t make their way to fruition. This excerpt from Tom’s most recent newsletter update sums it up well: At the same time, we’re experimenting with and developing new fabrics (my Taber testing machine is getting a workout!), new webbing, and new zippers. And I realize (once again), that more often than not, these forays start off with high hopes but yield nothing new that we can actually use—they’re good ideas that turn out to be not-so-good realities. Indeed, life would be much different (though far less interesting, IMHO) if one knew in advance which was going to be a gold mine and which a rabbit hole. But the few fabrics that work well, and the few designs that rise above the others, make it all worthwhile.

Updates on Just a Few of the Designs We’re Working On Right Now

Last month, Tom sewed a prototype of a new backpack/briefcase design so he could use it on a weekend trip. In line at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the guy standing behind Tom told him that it was a great looking bag and asked him who made it. Tom replied that he, in fact, had made it, and that while he appreciated the feedback, he’d already redesigned the bag over the course of that short trip, and it would end up looking a lot different. Tom made something like five design changes to the bag after using it on trips—that’s how his design process works. Even when that process results in a longer development timeline, we think it’s worth it. We’d rather take our time and meet our own standards of perfection.

Or, take the Luminary backpack: we were 100% sure its design update was done when several different people testing the bag told us an additional interior pocket against its front face would be useful. And, upon first consideration, Tom thought that could be a good idea too. But by that time, he had shifted his focus to working on other new designs, such as the aforementioned briefcase/backpack, which are now nearly done. His plan is to complete those designs and then work on samples of the Luminary with the new pocket so we can see if it’s a good idea in reality.

The same process can apply to materials—and it’s not uncommon that we have to wait on the development of a new material that’s necessary to make a new bag design. Tom’s currently developing a new fabric and a sample of it arrived from our mill. It looked exactly as we had envisioned it, but it didn’t Taber test as well as we had hoped. We expect to spend weeks investigating those Taber results in an effort to identify and solve the problem.

To Sum it All Up…

As usual ’round here, there’s a lot in the works. And when a design is really, really done—and its debut it scheduled—we’ll let you know about it.

Until then, we remain grateful for your feedback, support, and interest in our little company and what we make. The more work we put into what we do, the more we get out of it, and the more you share with us (whether a review of your bag, photos from a trip, or constructive feedback), the more we’re inspired to take on new projects and make things even better than they are. Thanks!

*Dies and die cutting
A die is, most simply put, a sharpened steel edge bent into a specific shape: think of an industrial strength cookie-cutter. We use dies to cut small fabric parts like pouches, as well as foam and plastic parts. Dies allow you cut out parts with a very high degree of accuracy and speed. We use a 20 ton press (called a “clicker”) to push the dies through whatever material we’re cutting. All of our dies are custom fabricated to our specifications.

*Folder/binder
A folder (also sometimes called a binder) is an attachment to a sewing machine, typically made of stainless steel or chrome-plated steel, which sits in front of the needle and feed-dogs (mechanisms that pull the fabric through the machine). The folder/binder effectively mimics the hands and fingers of a sewing machine operator, locating or placing various parts in very specific and consistent orientations relative to one another. Folders allow many of our sewing operations to take place with near-perfect consistency, and at high speeds. We have folders that keep the edge of zipper tape in the same relative placement to the sewing operation, at the same time folding the cut edge of the fabric and holding that folded edge consistent to the seam and zipper as well. We use several folders that fold the various narrow widths and types of fabric tape (effectively light weight webbing) that we use to cover the cut edges of fabric inside our bags, preventing those cut edges from fraying apart. Many of our padded handles are created by using folders. All of our folders are custom fabricated to our specifications.

Darcy

Darcy is the CEO and CCO here at TOM BIHN. She is currently reading Dersu the Trapper by Vladimir Arsenyev

10 Comments

  1. twosandalz on 10 July 2018 4:15 pm at 4:15 pm

    It’s always interesting to learn about the process of designing and manufacturing bags. I’d like to have folders for my sewing machine at home! 😉

    • mm TB Crew on 11 July 2018 4:29 pm at 4:29 pm

      It’s pretty cool what folders allow us to be able to do!

  2. Hannah G on 11 July 2018 9:17 am at 9:17 am

    I am reminded of all the reasons I love my Tom Bihn bags. Keep doing what you’re doing!

    • mm TB Crew on 11 July 2018 11:41 am at 11:41 am

      Thanks for the support, Hannah!

  3. Teo on 11 July 2018 11:09 am at 11:09 am

    “We have decided we’re happy with the size of our company more-or-less—with 47 people, we’re big enough to do stuff like develop custom fabrics and small enough that we’re all still working here together under one roof in Seattle.”

    This, to me, is a really special, rare and admirable quality in a successful company. It gives me hope that we will be able to buy and enjoy your wonderful backpacks, etc. for many many years to come.

    Thanks for the writeup.

    • mm TB Crew on 11 July 2018 4:27 pm at 4:27 pm

      Thanks, Teo. We hope so too! At this point, we can’t imagine not making bags… it’s too much fun!

  4. Ivy-J on 17 July 2018 2:16 pm at 2:16 pm

    Awesome post! I really like to hear about the process and the design of the bags! As a mechanical engineer the Taber machine results are really interesting to me. It’d be nice to hear about the materials that were considered but did not make the cut because of what you observed in testing. I’ve seen some explanations in a couple places why you guys chose ballistic vs cordura or urethane vs pvc, etc.. These details only prove how well thought out these bags are!

    • mm TB Crew on 17 July 2018 5:06 pm at 5:06 pm

      Glad you liked our post; thanks for noticing the thought and care that go into our bags.

      We think that testing fabrics for abrasion resistance is very important, but certainly not the end of the story. Though one thing we’ve realized is that by the time a fabric is “beefy” (for lack of a better word) enough to give us the results we’re looking for on the Taber machine, said fabric has more than adequate tear strength – in other words, abrasion testing tends to set a high bar for other attributes we’re looking for. Naturally we pay close attention to how a fabric actually fairs in real-world use: we’ve seen some fabrics that Taber OK but just don’t have the long-term abrasion resistance we’re looking for; inversely, some fabric (420 HT Parapack comes to mind) doesn’t do so well on the Taber machine but in use is über-tough.

      Up next: we’re looking at getting (or fabricating) a device to puncture test fabrics. Basically seeing how much force is required to jam a screwdriver through the fabric. Should be fun! – Tom

  5. Mark on 18 July 2018 2:09 pm at 2:09 pm

    “Last month, Tom sewed a prototype of a new backpack/briefcase design so he could use it on a weekend trip. ”

    I would love to see pictures and read a way-too-long blog about that prototype bag, what the goals were, what went well, what went wrong, and what changes Tom made to it. I would clear my calendar for it. Does this make me a bag nerd…?

    • mm TB Crew on 18 July 2018 2:18 pm at 2:18 pm

      That’s an interesting idea. I could see us posting something like that after the design is released. Hmmm…. you’ve got us thinking. 🙂 – Darcy

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