It’s rare that we can take a peek into the making of a great bag. Luckily, I’ve had direct access to the whole Peak Design crew, especially lead designer Art Viger who led the charge on the Everyday Messenger. I asked him about five elements to designing the most successful bag on Kickstarter.
Motivation, Driving Forces
We had been tossing around the idea of doing a bag project for a while. I think there were really three main drivers:
1. I’m a big carry nerd and it’s been a dream of mine to design a bag for probably 10 years at least. I have always loved doing weird hacks and mods to bags I’ve found at thrift stores and flea markets. Trying to generally squeeze more versatility and cleanliness out of them.
2. Our core team are all pretty serious travelers and adventurers with a super wide range of carry needs for their photography and general life essentials. We all work hard on the road and do all our own product photography and videography. This means that across the board, we all had pretty major gripes with camera bags and bags in general when it came to trying to find a good daily carry bag. Most of us ended up just using non-camera bags with various covers and cases for our cameras and lenses to protect them. It’s hard to ignore a design problem that everyone around you has, so it was very personal for us.
3. Trey Ratcliff called us up with basically the same story. This is when things started to really heat up. Trey is the most followed photographer on the Internet and probably the most traveled person I’ve ever met. The guy has endless access to photo bags and has tried all of them. In the end he was using more standard bags and just wrapping his gear in weird cases and scarves like the rest of us. He was not only a great resource and contributor in designing the bag, but provided great inspiration and a kick in the pants that we needed to actually take on the project.
Peak’s Unique Approach to Design
In a funny way, the design is a product of our ignorance about how most companies design bags, and our incredibly stubborn and lofty list of design goals. Our requirements for the bag looked like a list of ransom demands. For example, the access requirements were to be instant, secure, expandable, have one-handed entry, no flapping webbing tails, and have blind operation. Of course everyone wants those things, but they usually compromise and go with something that satisfies most of the requirements – not all of them. We looked into hardware options of all types including the latest magnetic stuff. Nothing met all our requirements, so we decided to pull out all the stops and develop a system from the ground up. I don’t think any veteran of bag design and manufacturing would have taken the path we took. It would have been too risky and expensive. We really had a blind optimism in our team’s ability to pull it off. That’s the same sort of mentality that went into all aspects of the bag, and all our other products for that matter.
The Devil’s In the Details
Every bag has a line when the demands you are putting on it are simply outside what the bag was designed for. This is when you throw in the towel and get a bigger bag, or a specialty bag, a more weatherproof bag, etc. Our goal was to stretch that line as far as possible without letting the bag turn into a frumpy mess. For camera bags, the lack of expandability and versatility was the big pain point we focused on. We loved the expandability and versatility of a flap entry, but the foam grid format of camera bags simply doesn’t allow for it. At least not in any meaningful way.
“For camera bags, the lack of expandability and versatility was the big pain point we focused on.”
The ones that do rely on stand-alone inserts, so you basically have a bag inside a bag. In order to get around it, we designed the FlexFold inserts, which not only switch to a variety of configurations, but allow for a very wide range of compression and expansion.
We also designed the outer shell of the bag to have flex zones that expand and contract like a standard soft bag. We designed custom fabrics, that we felt straddled the line between modern technical fabrics and classic low-key look and feel. We had tons of different options we were looking at and went super far down the path of developing a custom waxed canvas, but in the end it didn’t meet our standards for water resistance and weight. I think that the fabrics we developed will really go the distance and adapt to a wide range of situations.
Innovation Sets You Apart
In general, we tried to really use our experience in hardware design and manufacture as much as possible. We pulled out all the stops for the shoulder strap and borrowed some of our unique hardware and construction from our camera strap line. The challenge was to design a strap that was quick adjust, had enough length adjustment that it could be set up for different carry styles, and was padded. Most bags go with a floating strap pad, but we have always hated those things. If you go to a photo tradeshow you always see them flipped over, twisted or not even at the shoulder. Our strap uses a series of tension hooks that dictate where the padded section of the strap rests on your body. This along with our tubular webbing construction makes for a very versatile and clean strap.
The strap connection to the bag was another area we focused on. The goal was to have the strap behave like a super clean sewn-on strap, but still have the articulation needed to conform to different body types and carry styles. The rivet connection allows for articulation in only the axis we want, so there is no twisting and clutter like with standard swivel-clip hardware.
The dividers are really cool as well. I was working on clip-based inserts, pin-based inserts, flexible neoprene inserts and a whole host of other dead-end designs. In the end, we decided to play by the rules and use Velcro, which really can’t be beat in terms of versatility.
“Our strap uses a series of tension hooks that dictate where the padded section of the strap rests on your body. This along with our tubular webbing construction makes for a very versatile and clean strap.”
What makes our inserts unique is the folding geometry and compression molded construction. By using a really experienced compression molding factory, we were able to develop a super clean insert with no loose fabric. This also allows the insert to quickly fold into a number of origami-like configurations depending on the type of gear you’re carrying.
Manufacturing Decisions, Challenges, & Lessons Learned
As far as manufacturing goes, we knew we really wanted to do something unique with the construction of our bag, and that meant we needed to find a manufacturing partner that had experience with complicated soft-goods. That means there are only a few places in the world you can go, and Vietnam is probably the mecca of technical soft-goods manufacturers. We met with and had prototypes made with at least six to seven different manufacturers. It was a wild experience. Walking into a factory floor with 5000 people will really drop your jaw.
In the end, the big manufacturers (who do incredible quality work for some top companies) didn’t feel like the right match for us. We ended up partnering with a smaller independent outfit that specializes in high-end bags and complicated front end development. They saw our vision and really wanted to help push it over the edge.
“What makes our inserts unique is the folding geometry and compression molded construction…allow[ing] the insert to quickly fold into a number of origami-like configurations depending on the type of gear you’re carrying.”
Man, it’s been such a journey I don’t really know where to start. I tend to really bury myself in a project and this one took it to another level. Peter Lockett and I really became road warriors and partners in crime for this project. I think we did three Asia trips in six months. Trey and some of the other folks joined us for one as well. We would be shooting photos and video the whole time and getting into some crazy situations. We started to realize that making this bag was really a journey in itself and our inside joke became “oh the places a bag will take you”.
Bonus – Designing Never Stops
Our office is pretty small so we actually moved our humble soft goods prototyping lab off-site…to my tiny San Francisco basement.
I really do think that being hands-on with the materials is invaluable. Our manufacturers are amazing. I could send them a napkin sketch and they could spit back a bag that looked ready to sell. But the devil is in the details, and unless you’re living and breathing it, it’s pretty easy to be disconnected from it all. Also, being able to rely on your team for support and guidance is so incredibly important. The rest of our team, Robb Jankura, Joseph Cunningham, Peter Dering and Peter Lockett really went the extra mile to get this thing off the ground. At one point we had given up on developing the main flap closure. It worked, but was a little underwhelming. In the 11th hour Peter Dering and Robb took it upon themselves to rethink the whole mechanism and it ended up even better than our original vision. Can’t say enough about those guys and can’t wait to take on our next project.
Reminder: If you’re interested in having an Everyday Messenger to call your own, make sure you back it on Kickstarter. The campaign ends on Sunday, September 20, 2015.