Matt Cardinal of Signal (left) on "Fremont"
Where the Fuseproject × SyCip team went for a novel three-wheeled design and IDEO × Rock Lobster sought to perfect the electric-assist bicycle, Portland's local collaborators Ziba × Signal Cycles decided to improve upon existing mechanisms, so much so that they saw fit to file patents on the sidecar, bags and lock.
"Fremont" at Checkpoint 2
At first glance, the "Fremont" looks like a traditional mixte-style cruiser with a sidecar, though its conventional appearance belies several key innovations from the Ziba design team, led by none other than Paul Backett. Which is not to say that it's not an absolutely beautiful machine; credit to Matt and Nate of Signal Cycles for building an exceptionally-crafted bicycle (and kudos to SyCip and Rock Lobster as well, while we're at it).
Courtesy of Oregon Manifest
The most obvious feature is the sidecar, which consists of a collapsible bag atop a platform, set on a hinge at roughly 10 o'clock on the drive side of the rear wheel. (The bicycle also features a belt drive instead of the traditional chain, which makes for an interesting contrast to the otherwise classic bicycle design.) When the bag is flattened and set into the base (or simply removed), the entire sidecar can be flipped over the rear wheel to function as a rear rack for cargo-less rides.
Suddenly, we have about two weeks to finish our bike and make all of the last pieces fit. We've settled on a name: The Fremont. Also known as The Great Pathfinder, John Frémont was an early settler of California and led the expedition to build a railroad from St. Louis to San Francisco. We think he personifies the bike. The name Frémont holds local significance too, one of Portland's bridges is named for him. As we type this, our frame is off being painted, and one of our designers is hand stitching our foldable canvas bags. With the end in sight, we spent some time reflecting on our time working with Signal to create the ultimate utility bike—and asked them to do the same.
Ziba: When we started 9 months ago, we really did not know what to expect. At Ziba, we're used to our projects being meticulously planned down to the last hour and deliverable. This project gave us unprecedented freedom and autonomy, which had its up and downs. On one hand, we were able to take the project to creative heights that we are incredibly excited about. The story of the bike—The New West, the Urban Explorer, and Fremont—manifested itself in a final bike that each of us wish we could own.
On the other hand, a creative blank canvas meant a lot of work. A lot more work than we imagined it to be. When you look at the final product, we hope you see the beautiful craftsmanship, the attention to detail, and just a generally cool bike. But inextricably, we look at it and see late nights spent refining the sidecar, or Saturdays spent fabricating an LED light housing.
Don't mistake this for regret. Honestly, this bike became something more than work for us. We put in the time because this project was something we genuinely believed in from the start, and that we grew to love as it came to life.
TALES OF THE DETAILS
At this point in our project, we have our bike frame and our big idea. A good story and a strong product can emerge from just those two things, but what really brings design to life and elevates it from good to great is the details. We want our themes to manifest at every touchpoint, to create an entire ecosystem beyond the bike. We want our rider to live and breath utility and freedom whenever they are on this bike. We decided that, to create the ultimate utility bike, it was time to really sweat the details.
MATERIALS AND COLORS
Our bike is designed to live outside. It's made to get dinged up and beaten on, so how can the materials and colors celebrate this? Utilize materials that will show their age, but not break down.
A fresh paint job looks amazing until the first time your bike tips over. Then all you can see every time you look at it is that chip above the rear wheel. Ok, if you're going to fixate on that, how do you make the chip a badge of pride instead of a blemish? One of our designers kept bringing up the idea of reveals. Make the paint reveal new aspects the longer you have it.
Wear was once a badge of honor in our society. The way your boots or your jeans were worn in (or out) revealed something about how you lived your life. To bring this idea to our paint we're experimenting with layers. Our plan is, as the top layer starts to wear off, another color is revealed, and then maybe even another. We're trying different colors and coats, but we have this vision of being able to glance at someone's bike and immediately know that they've put some miles on that thing. The bike will tell its own stories about the rider.
The design brief and beyond.
At the Oregon Manifest kick-off party we received a design brief that specifies the functional requirements of the utility bike. The brief lists the elements that are essential to the design of this type of bike: locking, loading, carrying, lighting, etc. As designers and bike builders we know that the basic brief is only a portion of the overall story; it contains the minimum requirements to make a design a viable solution.
We have to think beyond the minimum requirements and design a bike that brings all the required elements together, tells a cohesive story and delivers a beautiful experience. In our initial phase we decided to add richness and depth to the brief by designing for a specific person: the urban explorer.
Who is the urban explorer?
The idea of the urban explorer came to us as we considered what kind of utility bike we would like to own and use. We realized that each member of our Ziba x Signal team is a transplant to Portland and relishes in the opportunity to delve into the idiosyncrasies of our fair city (the dream of the nineties is indeed alive in Portland).
We also know, as all cyclists do, that the best way to get to know a city is on a bike. Even a city where you have lived for years becomes new and intimate when you swap a car for a bike. The urban explorer thrives on curiosity and spontaneity: when he's out running errands he is constantly drawn to the nooks and crannies of the city. She loves to browse bookstores, find undiscovered hole-in-the-wall restaurants, explore specialty shops, chill at great bars and peruse Bob Loblaw's law blog. The urban explorer frequently takes the long way home—quick trips to the grocery store are often an opportunity to run additional errands or simply enjoy a bike ride through the park on a gorgeous (or gloomy) day.
"That's cool, what is it?"
People often ask us about the research phase of our project. It's an interesting question because, unlike many of our traditional projects, we don't have the luxury of traveling the world to gain insight about people and their bikes. Our research has had more of a guerrilla methodology as we seek out any and every opportunity to be inspired from analogous experiences, to gain insights from cyclists in our own community. We often stop cyclists on the road to ask them about their particular setup and learn about how and why they have modified their bikes in a certain way. Public bike racks are our petri dishes; we find ourselves looking over the bikes, observing, taking notes, doodling, asking questions. We've stood suspiciously in front of bike racks for long periods of time and have interrupted people's errands by peppering them with rapid-fire questions. Recently, the tables have turned as our friends on the streets of Portland have noticed our prototypes, stared quizzically, asked questions and complimented our design (at least we think they were compliments). The most memorable feedback came a couple of weeks ago as we made the maiden voyage of our bike + sidecar prototype.
At our first meeting with Matt and Nate from Signal Cycles, we asked them how they prototype and test their design ideas. Their response has become a memorable anecdote in our collaboration: "We don't." Nate pointed to a small rack on his personal bike and said, "Oh, that was a prototype." The small rack, Nate explained, was intended to be part of one of their client's bikes. During the build process Nate had a small problem with the rack (and I mean small—these guys are perfectionists) and subsequently deemed the rack unworthy of the client's bike. He started over, fixed the problem, put the new rack on the client's bike, and relegated the "prototype" to his personal bike.
Matt explained later that they generally don't have the luxury of putting time and materials into prototyping. They are masters of their craft and, as such, they are able to plan and predict in such a way that there is no need for an in-process prototype. Measure twice, cut once captures the essence of their process.
Ain't nothing like riding a fine horse in new country.
Ziba loves Signal Cycles
This has been an amazing month for the Ziba + Signal Cycles experiment as our work together has developed into a true collaboration. We've met multiple times (frequently on our bikes) to explore our conceptual direction and nail down the major technical building blocks of our Oregon Manifest bike. From the Ziba side we look forward to these meetings as an opportunity to test out the feasibility of our ideas. We are also interested in the reactions we will get when we propose some of our concepts that are more "out there." We learned this week that the guys from Signal also look forward to and enjoy our meetings. Check out this email exchange between Ziba and Signal this week:
Zibites love for bikes has become apparent as we've kicked off the Oregon Manifest design challenge. To harness the raw energy and excitement around this project we asked all Ziba employees to submit a couple of their ideal bicycle designs. The results were incredible. In the end we had a couple hundred submissions from a wide variety of perspectives. Some bikes were thoughtful and serious, some were playful and a handful came out of left field (see pizza party). Enjoy!
In our previous posts we mentioned the methodical and rational way that we—Ziba + Signal—typically approach creative problem solving and design: we understand the user, the context, and the problems associated with a specific design challenge. This information, and the insights we derive from it, becomes the foundation for designing a beautiful experience, building a beautiful bike and telling a beautiful story. Of course, the essential ingredient to the Ziba + Signal approach to the design process is inspiration. You know the kind we're talking about: the "Eureka!" moment when the design becomes clear, when the abstract becomes concrete. It is impossible to force these moments of inspiration, but there are things we can do to increase the likelihood that they will happen early and often in the process.
On this project, we are surrounding ourselves with a carefully curated assortment of objects and visuals. We believe there are two fundamental ways that visual stimulus aids inspiration. First, there are always opportunities to find inspiring metaphors in things that are vastly different than the object we are designing. Second, by surrounding ourselves with things that we find brilliant and beautiful, we are compelled and motivated to make things that are brilliant and beautiful. This is the almost-visceral response that lives inside designers: when we see creativity we want to create. To this end we have plastered the walls and filled the shelves of our project room (room 225) with all kinds of inspiration material.
Take a look at a few of the initial boards we are using as visual inspiration for our bike project. We like to think of these boards as "living," meaning that they will evolve and change as our bike progresses and as our need for inspiration becomes more specific. Why do we find these things interesting and beautiful and relevant and meaningful? We're not entirely sure yet, but that's precisely the point.
In the words of Tobias Funke: "Let the great experiment begin!"
What's the best way to kick off a bike design project? A bike ride. We decided to take advantage of a rare sunny day in mid-February and conduct our first Signal x Ziba brainstorm in the saddle. As we pedaled the streets of downtown Portland, we dove straight into a conversation about the finer points bicycle-building and design. It felt a bit like a first date in that, as we chatted, we nervously eyed each other's bikes and riding styles to get some insight into the perspective that each team member would bring to the table. For the Ziba team it was an opportunity to get some first-hand information about the materials and processes that go in to custom bike building; listening to expert craftsmen explain their technique is exhilirating for a group of designers. For the Signal team it was a chance to learn more about Ziba's approach to design and how that process would inform our creative collaboration.
An interesting anecdote from our first date:
At the end of our ride we decided to get take-out from one of our favorite Thai restaurants in the Pearl district. We emerged from the restaurant with a large bag of curry-filled take-out containers. Matt from Signal grabbed the bag, set it on his elegant custom rack, and adeptly secured them with standard elastic net. It was a simple act that almost went unnoticed but it demonstrated to all of us that the best designs are so natural and intuitive that they appear effortless. We decided that this kind of fluid and flexible interaction epitomizes what is missing from a lot of utility bike design; and we are determined to fill that gap.
From left to right: Matt Cardinal, Nate Meschke, Dan Rowe, Paul Backett and Sam Amis.
Based in beautiful (but rainy) Portland, Oregon, Ziba and Signal Cycles are partnering up to take on the Oregon Manifest design challenge. With a dedicated indoor bike storage room at Ziba headquarters, it would be an understatement to say that the design firm is "bike-friendly." All three of the industrial designers working on this challenge bike to work each morning, rain or shine. In fact, the team mantra is "there is no such thing as bad weather...just bad gear." Founded in 2007, Signal Cycles specializes in beautiful hand-built bicycles. These two friends grew up working in bike shops and they realized after graduating with fine art school degrees that, "we were perfectly equipped for working in a bike shop." So they started their own. Even in one of the most bike-friendly city in the United States, Team Ziba x Signal Cycles hope to address some of the obstacles to biking - from comfort to safety and everything in between - with passion as the driving force behind this unique pairing of design and craft.