Unpacked is our new interview-style series that aims to provide our readers some insight from the minds behind the designs. Who are they, what influences their designs, and creativity? From apparel to pouches, admin organizers to messenger bags and packs of all sizes, how does a design evolve into the final product? We ask these questions of various brands that supply our carry needs, and Unpacked is born.
For our first article, I reached out to Patrick York Ma and Christopher Whitney of Prometheus Design Werx. Graciously, Chris and Patrick agreed to the interview, and invited me to come visit their shop in San Francisco, CA. Upon arrival, I was greeted with some hearty handshakes and given a tour of the shop, while chatting about everything from our hobbies, fabrication, manufacturing processes, and the outdoors industry as a whole. Over the time spent visiting Chris, Patrick, and Evan, I gained a wealth of knowledge about how the outdoors manufacturing industry works, shared a few laughs, and then before I knew it, it was time to get back on the road home.
What initially influenced you to create quality products for the urban adventurer and outdoorsman alike?
Growing up in the woodlands and mountains of PA and Upstate NY during the late 1970s, “being outdoors” was my pretty much natural state of existence. Walking out the door of my childhood homes and I was “in it”, for miles around, nothing but forests, streams, lakes, and mountains. The adults (hunters, famers, teachers) around in my life then, taught and explained to any kid what one should wear. Bear in mind, this was in the days just before the advent of polyester fleece, or any waterproof breathable shells as we know them today. Wool was the standard, as anyone knew that cotton was the quick path to hypothermia in the outdoors if you got wet or soaked from rain or snow.
If your family could afford it, the go-to brands back then were LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, etc. It wasn’t until I was in 8th grade that I was introduced more into the world of what we now know as “core outdoor” or “mountain sports”, and shown brands such as LOWE Alpine, Sierra Designs and some others, many of which no longer exist. These brands led the charge into the age of modern technical outdoor apparel. These designs were driven by the needs of mountaineering, x-country skiing, backpacking, trekking. My family couldn’t afford any of it, so I made due with convincing my folks to take me to the Army-Navy surplus stores for “outdoor gear”. Using military surplus as a kid, plus whatever outdoor styled generic stuff I would get at Sears would constitute my “outdoor wear”.
At this point in time, even as a 12-13 year old kid I could see the many areas for functional improvements, color palettes etc. that could be applied to technical outdoor apparel and equipment. One of my very first backpacking packs was a very early gen internal frame pack from a small brand in Schenectady, NY. I remember buying an extra closed cell foam sleeping pad, cutting it up to line the back of the pack so the frame stays wouldn’t be so hard against my back. I would try to get my mom to sew extra pockets on some of my clothes or a “custom” pouch/carrier for my surplus canteen.
I would say from all these childhood experiences, I began my journey into my eventual career. I learned the legacy basics in outdoor wear-materials, the purpose driven design and ruggedness of military gear, and followed performance technical advancements in the outdoor industry pretty much from it’s dawn in the late 70s. A lot of my urban design and use case sensibilities come from my love of motorcycles, and international travel. The experiences with the latter, showed me that I liked to travel as light and efficiently as possible. The things you have with you have crossover capabilities, easy care, functional, comfortable, while looking presentable if not “stylish” in urban contexts.
Do these influences still carry today in your designs or do you aim to push your creativity even further?
I think having an eye, seeing areas for improvement, being aware of the historical design antecedents, and needs born from my personal empirical experiences constantly drives my design process and ideation. Innovations in materials and fabrication processes also come along which can turn ideas sitting on a “shelf” into reality.
PDW is a company founded by you and Patrick but some of our readers are not knowledgeable of your professional background. What was your profession before PDW?
Prior to PDW I owned and operated a welding and machine shop for 18 years. It was basically a high-end fab shop, offering design and production services. We specialized in modern/contemporary one of a kind furniture and architectural projects. We also did a lot of product prototyping and small-scale production for the high-end residential market. Things like cast aluminum, bronze and silicon bronze sinks, lighting fixtures and we also handled a variety of different local furniture lines.
The last 6 years of the business were spent focused primarily on vertical gardening systems for urban food production. We developed solar and wind driven systems, aquaponics systems (plants fed by fish) and even a vertical living wall that was an interior air filtration system.
What influences your design ideas?
Form, function, process, material all of these things and how they’re intertwined. I’m not motivated by any one person or company. Or the idea of doing something simply because I can. I get excited about what a material can do and what it can become. I get excited about how it’s done and the tools it takes to do it. Design, craft and artistry all in harmony.
I like the ideas set forth in the Bauhaus school of thought. Specifically, the Bauhaus inspiration for me stems from how they reintroduced workshop training in lieu of a traditional studio and classroom education. It helped to bring together artistic creativity and manufacturing. It also focused on the functionalism in architecture and the revolutionizing of streamlined industrial design. These ideals have been big influences for me.
Before the official launch of PDW, was a pack design already on the idea board, or did discussions begin after the launch?
CHRIS & PATRICK
We knew from the get go the lines we wanted to offer. These are the product lines that constitute the core of PDW and the lifestyle we aspire to.
We started with hard-goods and accessories as they were the fastest goods to produce. In this industry, apparel and soft-goods (packs-bags) typically run on a 18-24 month development cycle, that is from concept to market, so that took us some more time. Having many vendors and new factories excited to work with us, some of these products we were able to condense their whole cycle. With apparel and nylon for the US market we started in earnest in early May 2015.
When pack design discussions began, what steps followed?
We have to adhere to a design process. Make the appropriate documentation to stick to the process and see it is can end at a satisfactory outcome. The concept sketches, materials sourcing-availability etc., then a tech-pack (technical drawing, pattern, prototype materials etc.), working with the sew facility, meetings, the prototype stages, approvals, finding subcontractors for any custom parts etc.
With various packs and pouches on the market, how challenging was (and is) it to design a product that will set yours apart from others?
Chris & Patrick
We’ve never seen the pack market so full of products, many good ones, some great ones, and a lot of junk. The sheer volume of packs out there the past few years does make things more challenging. However ultimately we design any of our goods based on purpose and intent. This a pack for just about any activity. Some can cross over, some are very specific. I tend to design products with an area of concentration, but with cross over capabilities for other tasks and use cases. The core DNA of my pack designs are in alpine or mountain type packs. If they work there, they inherently have the attributes that work in other contexts.
Supporting local economy, sourcing local vendors for materials or manufacturing, and trying to keep your products Made in the USA, is import to PDW and some of your customers. How do these factors influence/affect the production process and pricing?
We support our local economy as much as we can. Many of these business are operated by folks who have become our friends, and have been with me from my early days. Many of our goods are made locally in the Bay Area and throughout CA.
Producing goods in the USA is an expensive dedication. Take the cost of quality materials, Cordura or YKK for example, they cost the same anywhere in the world. It’s the labor costs that have the biggest delta depending on point of origin (where it’s made). It is in orders of magnitude more expensive to use US labor.
To be honest when it comes to US nylon production, it is generally 10-15 years behind the rest of the world when it comes to modern fabrication techniques, and much more expensive here. Choosing to produce here in the US often requires you to work with a great deal of constraints and limitations.
Overall, in our industry, reports and statistics over the past 2-3 years show that the American consumer overwhelmingly does not care where their goods are made. It is no longer a consideration in deciding whether or not to purchase a particular product. These days, the loudest or most vocal Made in USA consumer is statistically the smallest in number. The economy is global, has been since the founding of the first city-states. Conquest was often to expand commerce and markets, exemplified by the Romans.
We continue to support our local business network, but our first job as many boutique brands that creates consumer goods, is to provide the best design and quality we can to our consumer. For most of us (higher end, but non-luxury brands), retail prices are a direct outcome of a fiscal formula calculated from costs, over head, and required margins to stay a sustainable business.
When an initial prototype for the SHADO Pack was assembled, what types of testing conditions did you perform, and how many changes to the first design were made, before you guys felt it was ready for production?
There are a great deal of T&E steps we must go through. Some tests can be conducted in our workshop. Other test are simply using it in the field under various conditions. We have a few “proving grounds” we run any of our products through. Ultimately, does any particular product we design and test perform if not exceed what we intended it for.
For the SHADO Pack 28L we ran through 7 prototypes before it was approved for production.
Chris & PATRICK
When the SHADO Pack became available in the newer Wolf Grey and OD Green color choices some changes were made to the side pockets, interior mesh pockets, the outer upper pocket, and shoulder straps. What influenced these changes?
Some design functionality was lost on some of the broader consumer, or in some instances, some “pack reviewers” with a limited scope of pack design knowledge or field experience were unable to grasp some of these concepts, and unable to share this product knowledge. Some of these concepts weren’t even actually that new per say. Also many folks assumed the SHADO Pack 28L was going to be another “tactical pack”. Certainly it can cross over into that use as we do have a good number of customers from the FBI to contractors and others in that arena, using our pack in that capacity, but this pack was an wilderness-backcountry daypack first and foremost (again with cross over capabilities).
Take for instance, a “thicker” vs “thinner” padding in a pack strap. A harder durometer closed cell foam shoulder strap pad is perceived by some to be “thin” and therefore “less comfortable”. When in reality, a “thicker”, softer durometer shoulder strap pad will compress to the same thickness as the thinner one and feel pretty much the same. A basic design point which is understood by just about any pack designer, is that in most daypacks under 45 liters, what is important is some padding, but more so the cut and surface area of the shoulder strap as it distributes weight over the shoulders and torso. Simple physics; the more surface area, the more distribution of weight. The super thick padded shoulder straps is something of an outdated pack design detail which was outgrown in the 1990s, when designers and engineers realized a balance of form, surface area distribution, and padding stability were more important as a combination.
So to that point, we made our shoulder strap padding “thicker” to appeal to some outdated perceptions. In use, it’s really going to feel the same. One simple look from some users and comparing our 28L SHADO to other peer packs in the same volume range and use category and you’ll see right away what I am talking about when it comes to shoulder strap pad thicknesses. PDW is a small outfit and if we receive feedback asking for a change that we can accommodate, we will try and do so if it doesn’t fundamentally alter the pack’s core soul.
Also, keep in mind, that when packs are designed over 22” tall, load lifters really come into play as it lifts the top of the shoulder straps off the body’s traps. This will relieve a great deal of felt fatigue with heavier loads. In these instances with all modern 3+ day packs, the stability with shoulder straps is from the contact on the pecs, and the sternum strap keeping the width of shoulder straps at a optimal distance which further reduces fatigue on the traps, pecs and even delts.
We also removed the admin organizers from the side stretch pockets and converted the top center back pocket to be lined with loop so our Admin 6×6 Tile could be placed there.
The admin organizers in our side pockets addressed a certain streamlining of use and access. In practice from day to day EDC, a user will carry one water bottle. That left the other side pocket free for additional organization or storage. The original design intent was to place some admin organizers here on each side so whichever pocket was not being used for the water bottle could be used for some basic admin items like a pen etc. What’s also key here to note in usability, is that to swing a pack off of only one shoulder to access a pen from the original SHADO Pack’s side pocket for a quick note or jot down some hottie’s phone number, is much faster and far less steps than taking the whole pack off to access the more familiar center back admin pocket. As designers it’s very important to listen to our users.
If some features are not used or even liked, we will listen and make some changes. Some design features we could do a better job of showcasing, but unfortunately most as a matter of bandwidth, PDW has not yet been able to launch our series of Product Knowledge videos to help demonstrate some of our products’ features. We hope this will change in the next year or so. We need to be able to get into the weeds in many instances to show just what many of our design features do and how to best use them.
Finally the change from one zippered interior mesh pocket into 2 made more sense for most users. The single mesh pocket was for workout swim fins. As a swimmer, I do laps for my workouts and the swim fin pocket suited my needs. A single mesh pocket was not as appealing to the majority of our users, so we did a change there too. It gave most users the more desirable extra compartment to organize.
I’ve posted these very same explanations elsewhere when asked to explain or elaborate, and I hope having done so again here will impress upon again the cause, effect, logic and rationale behind many of our design decisions.
Will there be additional color choices for the SHADO Pack available in the future? If so is there possibility of additional design changes for a Version 3.0?
Oh yeah, we are VERY stoked about the next SHADO Pack we’re currently working on. We’ve broken through some production constraints we have had in the past.
Are there plans to expand Prometheus Design Werx’s pack and accessory line?
Yes, has been in progress for some time now.
Has a prototype been created and testing begun? And when may we start seeing some teaser photos on social media?
We’ll be sure to share some teasers with Pack Config when we are ready. It takes time to get a new design right, and we won’t show anything until the primary design is tested, proven and ready for a reveal. That said, we’ve been working on the new SHADO Pack since last year… stay tuned…
I would like to personally thank Chris and Patrick of Prometheus Design Werx again for not only inviting me to their shop, but the great conversations we had, and gaining some insightful input for PackConfig’s launch of Unpacked. I hope our readers enjoy what is just the beginning of our new article series!