Blog — Updates


Slim Pack behind the scenes: Components

Following up on the previous post about patterns and dies, the steel versions have arrived from the die makers. Making dies is a long tradition best done by master craft people, which is why I use a small business out of Texas for almost all of my die work. Why Texas? Some of the most complicated dies are used to cut leather used for horse saddles, Texas still has lots of horses, and so the tradition and skills there run a bit deeper than in Silicon Valley!

Slim Pack Perfect Backpack Dies for cutting

That said, they’ve modernized to the point that I can send them die lines output from Illustrator which get CNC cut onto a board which is used to shape the steel.

When my dad asked me, "How long does it take to make each pack?", I had to honestly say I didn’t know yet. More quizzical than accusatory, he replied with a look that seemed to say- “Isn’t that something you would know?” In fact, I did know how long it took to make some of Slim Pack prototypes… they ranged from 3 to 10 hours each and have cost up to $1000 for a single prototype just in labor. But this is because changes and refinements are being made during the construction process. New patterns are being made, production documentation is being generated, and sometimes it’s simply exploration. On many occasions, we would produce 3 prototypes at once with 3 different ways to solve a problem, so that we could compare them.

During production, the challenge is to systematize and standardize the process in order to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, since we’re using such expensive materials, we also need to reduce mistakes as much as possible at each step in the production process. This was a large reason for investing in producing dies for each piece of soft shell material. Normal materials are much easier to cut and the penalty for error is a lot lower. If you make a mistake at the time of cutting, you’re only out a few dollars for the cost of the fabric. But if you make a mistake cutting layers of Soft Shell material, it could be a loss of a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars.

Slim Pack Perfect Backpack Pockets

To further optimize efficiency, the backpack production is separated into individual components. For example, all of the interior front pouch ripstop nylon can be cut and assembled to produce the pockets. The key loop and clip is also attached at this stage.

Meanwhile, the shoulder straps, back, sides, front and zippers can each be produced concurrently in batches. This also helps with quality since each individual assembly can be inspected before it’s included into the bag. Any mistakes are isolated to that particular piece and only perfect pieces are used in the final pack.

Slim Pack Perfect Backpack Final Assembly

The final assembly step then goes rather quickly… and can honestly be put in the hands of the most experience seamstresses. Many of the top seamstresses in the shop have 12-15 years experience with this same company and have been sewing much longer than that. They have an amazing ability to maintain both speed and focus.

The packs go through the shop in batches like this… starting with 10 or so to get things moving, then 50 to refine the processes, then 100, 250, and 500.

Slim Pack Perfect Backpack Components

The goal is that each batch takes less time than the last while quality is maintained or improved. And as the team becomes more and more familiar with the produce, optimizations continue, sometimes for months.

So how much time does it take to make one bag, anyway? Well, this is calculated per batch according to “shop time” and the number of sewers and cutters allocated. Sometimes time studies are conducted for each step and then divided out. So once the first batch of 50 are done, I'll have an idea for those, but hopefully the next batch will go more quickly, and we'll have a really good idea of how to improve.

Is there something you’d be interested in learning about the process to make a Slim Pack? Let me know in the comments below...


What goes in to a new color Soft Shell?

When I first introduced Soft Shell, the natural choice was to make black. It’s the most popular Tyvek model and, putting aside debates as to whether black is a color itself, it’s probably my favorite color- at least to wear.

I have to order a huge minimum amount to have it custom produced though and the whole lot needs to be dyed the same color. So that means I can have it made in whatever color I want, but I better hope enough other people like the color too! In order to introduce the initial lighter gray Soft Shell, I went through quite a learning curve about what it takes to create colors for custom materials. The Pantone system didn’t really work in the same way as I was familiar with for printing. And while there are Pantone systems for other materials, the way the actual product comes out will differ slightly depending on the exact material.

So what’s the safest most accurate method? Trial and error basically. To be a bit more technical, you could say it’s color matching and lab dips. What it boils down to is that if I can find something as close as possible to the color I’m looking for and send it to the manufacturer, they can try to formulate a dye to match it. For the first gray, I sent them a special edition Roger Federer jacket I had. 

For this time around, I found an earphone case that was exactly the hue I was aiming for, though I ideally wanted something of a slightly darker tone.

But it’s an imperfect process so a few big variables need to be controlled for...

The first major one is the material of the color I send them. Different types of fibers take dye differently and also reflect light differently so ideally, a color sample would have a similar appearance to the end material I want it to become in order to be accurate. But even if we were to examine two pieces of 100% cotton material, the weaves and thicknesses may vary. Technical fabrics are blends of all kinds of stuff so it’s very rare to find an exact match.

Second is context. A little swatch of a color is going to look different than a larger one… so ideally you can create a visual mock-up that’s somewhat similar in size. In this post about choosing a green to print the Tyvek wallets, you can see that I printed mock-ups with 1:1 scale and even included stitching lines.

Color mock-ups

I also mask out color samples with white paper so no other colors are visible. Even being near other colors or in a room with different color walls can have an effect. So when viewing any color, it’s important to do it in some kind of controlled environment.

Third is the lighting conditions. Similar to differences in how different computer monitors depict color, physical objects look drastically different with various lighting. One way is to use a full spectrum or daylight bulb. Most indoor lighting is too warm (yellow) to accurately show color. But what’s usually regarded as best is to use actual sunlight by going outside or right next to a window.

For this particular color matching process, the last element is the material of the sample that comes back. Since production of my actual material is complicated, the samples are of a similar material that’s slightly different. Therefore, I need to use just a bit of imagination as to how the thread density and fabric weight will affect things like folds in the material, which impact how the color is perceived.

When they send me the lab dip samples they usually will send two, sort of bracketing the target color. If they aren’t acceptable, they’ll go back and adjust things and send back two more. With the variability, it can be a bit nerve racking to approve the final one, but it’s really cool when the final product is produced and the color is how you imagined it. After all, in the end it’s about coming up with something that looks good rather than a technically perfect rendition of the reference color.

So what if you need thread that’s the same color as the material you just had produced? Don’t even get me started...

The new charcoal soft shell material has just been introduced as a color option for the Slim Pack Kickstarter project for both a backpack and wallet.

Charcoal Slim Pack

Soft Shell Charcoal Thin Wallets

What other colors of Soft Shell would you like to see?


Behind the scenes: making a product demo video

There’s no doubt that video is a compelling medium to demonstrate things, but there’s such a wide spectrum of ways to produce one that it can be daunting to choose one. I’m sharing this method I’ve started to use since I’ve found it to work for me, but not to say it’s the best for everyone. It may work better for you to point the camera at yourself and start talking if that’s your style and the look you’re going for. Or maybe your first step should be to hire a production company.

This is a middle ground whose goals are:

  • To be produced by one person
    • Possibly with some assistance from a novice camera operator
  • Output is professional enough looking to be posted on a website selling the product
  • Production quality does not distract and ideally somewhat enhances perception of the product quality
  • Time investment to produce is approximately 1-3 hours for a 2-3 minute video start to finish

I’m going to focus on the process used rather than the equipment and this can be applied regardless of whether you’re using an iPhone and iMovie or Audacity, a podcast mic, 5D, and Premiere. You just need something to record audio, video, and something to edit them together.

The overall approach is to limit downstream production time by refining the script, laying down the audio track, and then performing the demo while you listen to it. For a very short clip, it’s very achievable to record everything in just a couple of takes and then lay it all together with almost no editing other than overlaying the audio, demo, and potentially a sound track. The result is fairly professional looking and highly efficient.

For examples of videos I shot this way, visit the Slim Pack Kickstarter page, scroll down, and look at the demos on the page itself such as the one for the interior and the one for sternum straps.

1) Start with a script

Deciding what will and won’t be in the video may be the most important element to determining the success of the video. If you start by rolling a camera, all of the technical elements will come into play and distract from the message.

By writing out every word that will be said in the video, this forces you to edit for content, flow, length, and tone as far upstream in the process as possible. In many ways, this is the limiting factor to how successful your video will be so take the time to get the script extremely tight.

Do a quick read through and time it. Reading it out loud will help you refine the words to make it sound more natural as well as give you a rough idea of the timing of the video.

TIP: Get clear about the purpose of the video and use that to inform the content. If you start to see two themes emerging, start an outline for a second video in order to remove that content from the one you’re working on. For example, when I made my video about the interior of the backpack, I found myself including lots of information about the material- ripstop nylon, water resistant zippers, etc. Having everything written out made my realize I need to have a separate video which was all about the material choices of the backpack, but that mentioning all of these things distracted from the purpose of this particular video, which was to illustrate the configuration of the pockets.

2) Record the audio first

There’s something compelling about a person talking into a camera, but it also greatly increases the difficulty of creating a polished video. Sound, lighting, talent, and editing are all going to take a lot more time. It also has the potential to shift the focus of the video to the person rather than the product, which may or may not be what you’re aiming for.

Instead, I like to simply lay down the whole audio track by reading it into a microphone. This yields much higher quality audio with low quality equipment (even an iPhone) because you can control your surroundings to make it quiet and take several focused takes.

I find that I can get through about a minute of audio very cleanly and consistently but more than that and it starts to become more efficient to break up chunks into paragraphs and record them separately.

TIP: Hold the mic (or bottom of the iPhone) about 1 pen length away from your mouth as you record. The backpack interior demo was done in one continuous read through and took about 3 takes.

3) Play the words while you perform the actions of the demo

For this step, keep in mind that you’re going to record the audio on the camera but it makes do difference how good the quality is because you’re going to use the track you just recorded instead. If I recorded everything in one take from an iPhone, I’ll just play that directly from my phone. If the audio was split into multiple pieces, I’ll put them all into one and then play that while I record the demo.

The most efficient thing downstream is going to be to do the whole demo in one continuous pass and have the timing align with the audio very closely. But don’t worry if the timing gets off a little bit. Just continue the whole demo start to finish, hitting all the things the script mentions. It’s easy to insert little gaps in the audio later to get it to line up.

If your demo is long or complicated, don’t be frustrated if you can’t get it in one pass. After a bit of practice if it’s not coming together, break it into 2-3 smaller pieces. This is especially true if a different camera angle is better for another piece of the illustration. But remember, if you get caught up doing lots of little separate clips for each element, you may feel like a cinematographer artist right now, but you’re setting yourself up for some long hours of editing down the road!

TIP: If possible, it’s helpful to have someone help operate the camera even if you’re putting it on the tripod. They can give you immediate feedback on how a take was and offer another set of eyes. Want two camera angles? Shoot one with a tripod and then shoot the whole thing again with a handheld closer shot following the action.

4) Overlay the video onto the narration

If you did step 3 as one continuous take, then this portion is going to be pretty simple. The more complicated you made the shooting, you may actually end up with a more highly polished result at the end, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s gong to take you editing time to get to that point.

After going through this process a couple of times, you’ll start to get more efficient and know when you’re doing things during shooting that are going to cost you time in editing without providing much added value. Or if you're really fast at editing you don't need to worry too much about it.

Adding a bit of background music isn't required, but if you choose good music, it can set the tone and make it much more watchable.

TIP: You might need to adjust the levels or “Gain” between the narration and music if you have any. Just do a search for Gain in your editing program or online to see how to turn it up or down. It’s usually good to err on the side of having the music too quiet.

5) *Bonus: Splice in a 2nd camera angle and/or context shot

If you had time or assistance during shooting, you may be able to lay in a 2nd camera angle. These work best if there’s a single steady wider shot (like on a tripod) to maintain continuity through the demo enhanced by “punching in” to have a few tighter shots of particular elements.

TIP: A little goes a long way so don’t get bogged down by feeling like you need to go in and out with every detail. Just get the whole continuous wider shot all done and lay in a tight shot here and there.

When not to use this method

While I find this effective for creating demo videos, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a video intended to be used to sell or tell a story about a product. For example I would highly recommend that any Kickstarter video have the project creator in the video telling the story of the product as well as some lifestyle shots showing it in use. These types of videos take longer to make, but even if you end up with a lower production quality given the same investment of time and resources, demo videos which are simply informational aren’t enough to communicate why the product exists in the first place. Here’s an example of the Slim Pack project video.

This framework is just a starting point. Want to do something a little more polished? Throw in a little on-camera intro or wrap-up, put some titles in, or invest a bit more time into upgrading your lighting or audio equipment. If the video is meant to live on Facebook or serve as online marketing in other ways, it also may be worth adding subtitles.

Hopefully this gets you past the “blank page” syndrome that comes with so many technical elements involved with making videos… so fire up the editor of your choice and start on the script!