The design of experience

Brands are often asked the question: “How do you design your products?” The answer they won’t normally give you – but which is all too often the case – is: “On the basis of what we think we can sell.”

In the vast majority of cases, products are developed for the simple reason that brands needs something new to sell more of. This is not being cynical; it is the reality of being in business.

The standard corporate scenario goes like this. A product manager (PM), responsible for range X, will be given a target of Y % growth, or £ Z of turnover, or similar. The PM will assess the current styles, and identify the good (keep), the bad (replace), and the so-so (improve). He will be assisted in this process by a highly vocal sales team. The PM then draws up a list of proposed new and amended styles, prepares a design brief outlining their characteristics (features etc), and sets the important parameters such as target price and margin. However, this list of new products is really little more than a re-hash of the old.

The brief then goes to the Design department who works closely with the PM and the factory. Samples are made and assessed - this latter process usually undertaken in large meetings, at which representatives of various departments – Design, Sales, Marketing – argue about the merits of the colour, price, and story of each product, until some kind of agreement is reached. These meetings are often messy.

The fact is, if you've been making backpacks for thirty years, you aren't “designing” a new one every year. You are just re-arranging the features, fabrics, colours, style lines etc. to meet a commercial goal. Although it is fair to say that most brands have expertise in the design and manufacture of their products (after all, most started in a similar way to crux), many have lost that innate understanding of how and why the products have evolved and the relevance of this to the end use. They now merely pursue a philosophy of superficial change for change’s sake. We believe there is an inherent inertia in design of this kind. It is design the way it has always been done; design that produces more of the same. Anything “new” is more often some new component or a feature positioned somewhere different or similar. Whatever it is, it is usually hyped-up out of all proportion to its significance. Most of the time, the new products aren't really any better than the old ones (and often they are worse).

The crux way is different.

For seven years, Carol (the owner) did nothing but climb, heading out on several expeditions a year all around the globe. He struggled up big routes, generally suffered a lot, but stayed alive. He is no stranger to the cold, to altitude, to bivouacs, or to the shortcomings of gear. Like any serious mountaineer, he sought to make his equipment work better, not necessarily for more comfort, but just to be able to climb either a little quicker or safer.

Carol started crux because the products he wanted to use in the mountains were basically no longer available. Simple, tough backpacks. Waterproof down sleeping bags. Strong, light tents. He had extensive first-hand experience of what worked and what didn't.

Carol is also an engineer – a chemical and materials engineer to be precise. He understands the fundamentals and mechanics of fabrics and metals very well, often better than the sales representatives selling said items to him. He chooses crux fabrics and components entirely on the basis of functionality and performance, and with no regard for commercial relationships or brand names.

Crux products are the result of looking at an end-use problem and finding a design solution, drawing upon our own personal experience and expertise. We have no illusions about being able to create “perfect” solutions (although if no expense was permissible, one could get close), and operating within the commercial constraints of price and affordability, our designs are a finely judged balance between conflicting parameters and inevitable compromises.

Being a small company gives you a precious independence, but requires a healthy dose of self-confidence. Most crux products have gone into production without a single order on the books. Some even take a year to even make it onto the website, or into the dealers’ workbook, after arriving in our warehouse. Our passion is solving the problem and creating the product. The commercial part of marketing and selling them is almost an afterthought (and hence probably the reason why we are still a small company).