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The Time I Designed a Dog Backpack
And I didn't even have a dog.
Next month is the tenth anniversary of my dad’s death, so naturally I’ve been thinking about him a lot. Last year, I completely forgot about it, which I tried to tell myself was actually healthy, but I just ended up feeling guilty about forgetting. If you’ve been following me for a while or you’re an OTP listener, you know that my relationship with my dad was often difficult, to say the least. But as I’ve been thinking about him lately and how I’ve talked about our relationship in the past, I feel like maybe I’ve been a little incomplete in how I’ve portrayed him. I loved my dad, no matter how close or how far we were in the moment, and the truth is that he’s just as responsible for my creativity and to an extent my curiosity as my mom and my stepmother were.
My father was a maker. Not necessarily of art, but he was definitely a maker. Wood, metal, even found objects could end up as the raw materials for the things he made. My dad had the ability to see things—especially mechanical things, like engines—almost as an exploded view of disparate components in his head. He would often show me crude sketches for things he wanted to build, but in his mind, every detail was there. They kind of remind me of some of the sketches Frank Gehry makes of his building projects. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Frank Gehry is the iconic architect behind buildings like the Disney Concert Hall in LA, the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. If you were to look at Gehry’s initial concept sketches for any of these buildings, you might think they were just random scribblings, but in those scribblings, Gehry saw form, structure, and detail. My dad was the same way and while I respected the hell out of his ability as a technician, we disagreed around the whole notion of art—especially art for art’s sake. The things my dad made had to have a specific purpose or use case. He never really came around to seeing something as purely aesthetic—everything had to have a function.
I remember once asking my grandfather when dad started to make things. He told me a story about dad bringing home a couple big bushel baskets full of spare parts. A couple days later, he was racing around the neighborhood on a mini-bike. I asked how old he was. “Oh, maybe eight or nine,” my grandfather said. I asked whether dad learned it from him. He said maybe a few things, but he more or less “just knew how things went together.”
I get it and in many ways I’m the same way, though not nearly to the degree he was—especially with mechanical things—and I think my real expertise lies in different and more varied areas. As I said, dad wasn’t as interested in the aesthetics of things unless they were more or less a byproduct of the functionality. By contrast, I am mostly about the aesthetics, and trying to figure out how form and function can work together without one simply having to follow the other.
The way that would come out as a designer is that on multiple occasions, when I would finish a project and was ready to send the files off to the client, I would often hold onto them for a bit because I knew that I would keep going over them again and again, making little tweaks and refinements to the design or functionality, even if it was beyond the scope or what was explicitly outlined in the brief. Like my dad with all things mechanical, I have a similar ability with regard to visuals—an innate sense of when things just “feel” right. It might be color or composition or functionality, but once I see something that feels off, I have to try to make it right.
And that can be a double-edged sword. For example, I love coming up with the big concepts for projects, but I also tend to get lost in focusing my attention on the details. I actually think that combination is one of the things that makes me a good designer and art director, but it’s also very difficult to turn it off.
About 20 years ago, I had an idea for a product that for whatever reason, I just couldn’t let go of. To this day, I still don’t remember how or why it popped into my head, but I decided that I wanted to design a modular backpack system for dogs. There were backpacks for dogs, but they were basically just two big pouches, similar to panniers on a bike rack. As I said, I don’t know why, but I thought I could come up with something better. At the time, I didn’t even have a dog, which makes the whole thing even more ridiculous. I did research on materials and hardware. I talked to vets about appropriate weights and distribution and isolating heavier things over the shoulders so it wouldn’t put too much pressure on the spine and hips. I even took design cues for packaging and branding from vintage national parks posters, because I wanted it to have a specific look and feel that was adventurous and outdoorsy, rather than than military. I made dozens of drawings, designed various modules with specific functionality, and ended up building 7 prototypes—first out of paper, then muslin, and finally out of Cordura nylon that I sourced form an outdoor fabric distributor in Colorado. I also tested a variety of zippers, buckles, hooks, cords, cord locks, and d-rings. Once I had something that I thought could be an actual product, I approached a manufacturer to see what it would cost to get the thing to market. And remember, this was the early 2000s, long before you could simply connect with a manufacturer on AliExpress. As it happened, the number of units I would need to order to get the cost per unit down to something competitive was way more than I had anticipated or could afford—and that didn’t include packaging or marketing and advertising. I thought about approaching existing manufacturers like Ruffwear or Outward Hound to see whether they would be interested in buying the IP and folding it into their existing product lines, but even that costs money in attorney fees that I just didn’t have at the time. In the end, the product went nowhere, and I still have everything in a box in the closet of our guest room. I still think the whole experience was massively valuable, if for no other reason than to prove to myself (again) that I can take something from concept to completion all by myself.
Adrianne and a few of my closest friends have all said to me again and again that there are two things that I can’t not do: make and talk to people. I know this, but I keep putting imaginary hurdles in my way to keep me from doing one or the other. One of those recurring hurdles is money, which I keep trying to convince myself is the only measure of value and the the lack of it somehow invalidates the things that I have made or will make. Maybe that’s true for you about some of the things that you’ve made. Adrianne said just today, “for being process driven, you don’t always value the process.” I’ll be honest, that stings to hear. I know what she meant, and she’s right, but it still stings. I think the last several Iterations have been moving the needle back towards rediscovering the value (and joy) in making things just because I want to see them. A few years ago I wrote a book called Photography by the Letter. Did it sell millions of copies? No, it didn’t even sell thousands. But that doesn’t change the fact that I researched, designed, and wrote a book that’s sitting on my bookshelf. I’ve designed content for studios like Universal, Warner Brothers, Disney, and dozens of clients you’ve never heard of. Is any of it still out there? Nope. But that doesn’t change the fact that ideas that once only existed in my head were made real. And yes, I designed and built a modular backpack for dogs. The fact that it only exists in a box in my closet is irrelevant to the fact that I went through the creative process of getting it out of my head and into the world. The numbers are apart from the process. Business can be taught. Creativity, not so much. If you can make, then make. You (or someone else) can figure the other stuff out.
Thanks so much for reading.
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