“The market really wants to embrace more types of people”
A Q&A with Outdoor Expert Greg Bass
Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Greg Bass, an expert in technical soft goods design and development with over 20 years of experience in the industry.
Greg has developed outdoor, cycling, and sport products for brands like Timbuk2, The North Face, and more. In 2018 he and his wife founded Telegraph Studio in Santa Cruz, California, where they offer product design, development, and strategy along with graphic and logo design. We asked him about what his love of outdoor activities brings to his work as a designer and what he sees in the future of outdoor and sport goods.
Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?
A: I have a pretty wide variety of projects. I would say the ones that are the most interesting, inspiring, are ones where I’m able to push a brand into a new area. There are a couple of brands I’ve worked with for a long time, helping them to fulfill their mission. There’s a company I work with called Two Wheel Gear that is all about getting people to use their bicycles for transportation. They are looking at the bigger picture of how getting around a city without a car can really improve health, improve the environment, improve your mood for the day. They’re one that I always enjoy working with. I’ve been doing work with CamelBak recently on some new bags that are products they’ve never done before, I think that’s exciting, too. It is always a good challenge to help bring a brand into a new category or direction.
Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?
A: One that comes to mind is the No Reception Club project. My wife and I have a studio together: she does graphics and I do the product side. No Reception Club is really cool because they are a couple with this idea for a brand all about traveling with kids. We have kids too, so the two of us were able to relate and bond with them. We designed their bags, their graphics, the whole package, and it’s been super fulfilling. As a bonus the products have won multiple awards. They sold out on their initial production run quickly. That is a fun success story of a little startup that seems to be taking off, and it’s something that personally relates to my lifestyle.
Q: Everybody has a different way of defining soft goods, what does soft goods mean to you?
A: There are a lot of different ways to define soft goods. I think of soft goods as any time that you’re using fabrics or other soft materials in designing a product, and that’s distinct from fashion design because fashion design has very specific parameters that make it fashion. There’s a bit of a blurry line between soft goods, product design, and fashion. I think it’s really just about using fabrics or soft materials in making some 3D object.
Q: I know that you specialize in cycling design and I also see a lot of photos of you on bicycles. How has your personal experience made you a better designer for these types of products?
A: I think that anytime that you really know the customer or deeply understand how they’re going to use their product, you can design it better. So I think that being into cycling personally in my free time and then also working with different brands on designing stuff for cyclists, it helps me to get into the mindset. If you know, for example, with Two Wheel Gear: I don’t commute on my bike very often because our office is a home office, but I know what it feels like to ride your bike to an office or to a meeting. Being able to empathize and really take that experience and think, if I were riding my bike to an office, what would be things that would be difficult and how would I solve those problems? That’s all valuable, being able to understand the experience that you’re designing for.
Q: You’ve worked as a freelancer as well as in leadership. What did you like about those different roles?
A: There are definitely pros and cons to both being in a corporate setting and being a design leader. It [being a design leader] has some real benefits as far as having a bit more of a defined role, a defined mission. Working in a big corporation, you have a budget and you have very clear structure. Managing people is another challenge for sure. I think designers who get into design leadership don’t think about that. Doing performance reviews and dealing with personnel issues, maybe somebody’s got a problem with somebody else they’re working with. That side of it is a whole other set of skills—that are outside of the design role—that you have to have when you’re managing a team.
Freelancing, on the flip side, has great flexibility and in some ways less flexibility. Being able to take off in the middle of the day to pick up a kid or go on a bike ride: I can schedule that in. But at the same time, my clients have meetings and deadlines that I always have to meet, so balancing that can be tricky. Being a freelancer is one of those things where, even when you’re busy, you have to be thinking about what your next contract is going to look like and who you can talk to. You don’t have the stability that you have in a corporate setting where you’re just focused on getting stuff done, getting the products out, and managing your team.
Q: Are there manufacturing techniques you are especially excited about right now?
A: I think that one of the things that’s not fully exploited yet—but I think we’ll be in the next five years—is computerized stitching and robotic operations. With the push to manufacture domestically or closer to home, labor costs are going to be such an issue that investing in a machine that can do a lot of sewing or a lot of the operations will help companies to be able to afford manufacturing stuff closer to home. I’ve seen factories in Asia where they didn’t want to invest in a CNC machine. They do and then, within a couple of years, they have banks of CNC machines because they save so much time and are just so much more accurate. So it’s good and bad.
Robots are going to replace people at some point but at the same time, companies are always pushing to have great quality and lower costs. I think that it’s the world we’re living in with 3D printing, with circular knitting, with all these different types of production that you can do that are more computerized and less hands-on. It’s going to open up new possibilities and I think it’s a give and take like anything else. It’ll be great to be able to manufacture things in North America more than we do now, but there won’t be as many people doing it.
Q: How do you work with sustainable materials when designing for outdoor and sport?
A: That’s been a huge change over the last five to ten years. I would say 10 years ago we wanted to be using more sustainable materials, more recycled materials, and they were either really difficult to find or really expensive. But there’s been such a push from some of the big industry leaders, like Patagonia and REI and The North Face, that the fabric mills and the suppliers are all investing in it. These days, even if I’m working with a small company, it’s much easier to find recycled material or something that has natural content that will work. It’s not crazy expensive. That was always such a challenge; we would find a really cool material but it was three times the cost of something that wasn’t recycled. Now you can find something that’s maybe 50 cents a yard more, which is pretty easy for most customers to absorb.
I’ve seen more and more brands, even small startup brands, that want to use sustainable materials. It just wasn’t a consideration for people a while back. I think that definitely in outdoor and sport, people’s mindsets have shifted to be much more attuned, looking for sustainability as a benchmark or baseline.
Q: At this point in your career, what are your favorite kinds of problems to solve?
A: That sort of gets back to the first question. I think it’s about new innovation or doing something that is pushing a brand or a category. That’s always fun, you know? And it’s not always a big success because sometimes you’re pushing into something that’s too new or you’re ahead of the market. When I was working for Specialized [Specialized Bicycle Components], we did a collection of bags for bike packing. It was not a niche thing but it was just coming up at the time and we did a nice collection. It didn’t take off in a huge way but now, every brand has bike packing bags. That’s interesting; being able to know when the market is ready for your new innovation, or what you’re doing.
I like adventurous brands or somebody who’s willing to push their boundaries. I’ve worked with some brands that didn’t make soft goods, and helping them to imagine what a soft goods line would look like for their brand is sort of fun. Oh, you make Watches. What would a brand that makes watches do for travel?
Q: Could you talk about what you see in the future of outdoor products?
A: The interesting thing that I see with outdoor products is that there are two divergent directions. One is to bring more people in and really expand the market to be almost anybody. There was an article I read the other day about how REI is going to take the word adventure out of their marketing and it’s going to be more about experiences, because some people are intimidated by climbing a mountain or, you know, freezing, or some of those adventure things. I can see that the market really wants to embrace more types of people and I think that’s great, being able to embrace different backgrounds, different body types, different abilities. I see that as a really big trend in a lot of brands.
The other side is the push for innovation and being super technical, things that use the highest tech materials and the newest manufacturing processes. Like a NASA level thing for climbing Mount Everest, which most people are never going to be able to appreciate, but for the people that do, it’s important to them. I remember when I worked for The North Face we had these Himalayan products that you only really need if you’re going to be sleeping on the side of a mountain, but we would sell a ton of them in Manhattan.
Q: Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to add or questions you wish you’d been asked?
A: One of the things for students or people who are just getting into soft goods design is being able to understand the various processes because, like I said, it’s sort of a gray area between fashion design and product design. That is sometimes intimidating for people. I’ve had people who are trained as industrial designers reach out to me and say, I don’t even know how to start designing a suitcase or a backpack. There aren’t a whole lot of programs out there for people who specifically want to do this kind of stuff. There are a few that steer that way, but I think that that’s something for people to dig into. There are resources online where you can see how bags are made or luggage is made or shoes are made, and those are all really good ways to start in the field.