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Design Heads :: Interview with James Brittain

Design Heads :: Interview with James Brittain

by , June 6, 2014

In our Design Heads series we get inside the heads of designers who really know their stuff and have been in the industry long enough to have picked up nuggets of gold – nuggets that we mine just for you. So who have we snagged this time round to share their insights and inspirations? None other than James Brittain, the Senior Equipment Designer at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC).

Are there any key insights that guide your stuff? What do you know that most others haven’t realized?

I like to remember that not everyone has a different bag for every different activity that they do. It’s often the case that the bag that takes you hiking at the weekend also takes you to work during the week.

What are your main channels for your creative inspiration?

I try to be open to inspiration as much as possible but I definitely gravitate to other disciplines when I’m stuck. Things like furniture and automotive design for form, and footwear and apparel for construction. I like to start every day catching up on blogs and online content, so tools like Pinterest and Tumblr are great for a quick creative hit.

Where is your most creative space and why?

I generally do my best work either after hours at the office, or in my own space at home. I was always the guy who got things done late at night when there are less distractions and I’ve continued that pattern to date.

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Any unusual places or circumstances where you got an idea for a new innovation in carry? Do you get a lot of ideas in the shower or the corner market foraging for organic dragon fruit?

I tend to find ideas all over the place. Mostly while travelling and moving around, interacting with packs/luggage in real life situations. A lot of the ideas come out once I get home and start reflecting on where I’ve just been and the activity I’ve been doing.

Who do you look to in the bags world? Who does rad stuff (brands or designers)?

In terms of the big brands, I think Gregory are killing it right now. Their stuff has been strong for the last few seasons and I’ve watched the brand really re-invent itself recently. Smaller brands-wise, I’ve been a big fan of Trakke for some time now too. Those guys are making some lovely stuff.

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Are there any trends or things folk do in carry that drive you nuts?

Over-engineering of a solution. Our industry is pretty guilty of over-thinking some things in the strive to differentiate from others.

You’ve worked with a number of different teams and brands. What are some of the ingredients that help you make better designs? Is it about good managers or good customers?

I read an article about working culture just recently and would put that up as the key. If the culture in a team is collaborative, inclusive and progressive, then all the other things seem to fall into place. For sure, there are infinite other nuances to creating good carry but if everyone is trying to achieve the same thing, that’s when the good stuff happens.

What are your tools of the trade?

I always start with paper/pencil. I work much quicker that way and am less precious about ideas. From there I’ll get into illustrator and/or sewing.

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What materials do you most like to work with? Are there any new materials you’re experimenting with? Anything that will break the time-space continuum?

We typically work with all the traditional nylons and polyesters that you would expect, but you might be surprised at the sheer number of options you have when selecting them. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of work on our lifestyle collections and it’s been fun to dive into some non-traditional pack cloths.

What sort of brief do you love to get?

My favourites are the ones where there is no definite outcome from the start. Not 100% open-ended but open to interpretation and discussion as the project develops.

Do you like working as a team or going solo?

Team every time. By far and away the best situation for me is when collaborating in a small team of fairly like-minded individuals. I say fairly, because I think it’s important for each team member to bring something to the table that’s unique to them. The best designs that I’ve worked on are definitely collaborative efforts and involve the manufacturer right from the beginning.

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Do you have to go to the maker to make a good bag? Can carry design work remotely?

I think you can make a good bag remotely, but in my experience, you can only make a great bag once you get on the ground with the manufacturer. There are a lot of unique challenges in construction that can only be overcome when you all get around the same table and solve things together.

How do you test your product? What do you look for when testing?

We have a team of trusted individuals whose opinions we value really highly when it comes to testing. They range from ambassadors, to staff members, to everyday users we have met and established relationships with. The list is forever changing but the core remains the same.

How many prototypes do you go through before release?

Totally depends on the complexity of the project but we average 3-5 as a rough guide.

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What products are you most proud of?

At MEC, we have a lot of established products that have stood the test of time. The products I’m most proud of are the ones that have challenged the status quo and opened up new categories for us. For example, the Agens collection was a big step for a ‘Mountain’ brand but opened the door for a bunch of exciting new lines coming down the pipe….

Do you have any favorite tips or habits for carrying better, either EDC or when traveling?

Roll, don’t fold.

You’ve been in the game for a long time. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about design and secondly about the carry industry?

Barrett touched on this in his interview, but everything is a moving target when it comes to design. Be it technology, trends or activities…everything is always jostling for position. The most important thing I’ve learned is to keep questioning your pre-conceived opinions and make sure you’re designing for the end user, not just for yourself.

What carry product (of your own creation, or anyone else’s if you feel like being generous) do you enjoy the most? What makes it enjoyable?

My buddy got an older Leica camera with the made-to-measure leather case when we were at university. I’ve always noticed them since then. The simple material choice and craftsmanship of the case means it has aged beautifully with use. I like that kind of a considered solution.

Can we see a pocket dump?

Sure. It’s pretty standard for most people I think: phone, keys, wallet, bike lock, lunch, notebook, pen.

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While you’ve got the camera out, would you mind taking a photo of your workspace, and perhaps identifying any tools or personal items that help you most in your creations? Specific drafting pencils or a lucky charm or an explanation of why your workspace is so tidy and ours is…something not describable using the terms of polite conversation?

My desk at the office is pretty cluttered but is the opposite at home. The setup is similar though – I like to have a space to draw and spread things out that is away from the computer and then pinboards etc. to collect all the clippings and new tech that comes by.

home space - edited

What bags do you run with daily?

I generally try to use one of my recent developments, to give it some field time and also because that’s usually the one I’m most excited about. Day-to-day I’m a backpack guy though, not a messenger bag guy.

What kinds of hobbies do you pursue when you aren’t creating wonderful new carry products? Have you created any carry craft specifically for that hobby, or do you intend to in the future?

When I’m not at work, you’ll find me on my snowboard in the winter and road-tripping in my van or on my bike in the summer. The options are fairly endless in this corner of the world and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface after 4 years of being here. I get to design for these activities and many more as part of my job so I feel pretty lucky to legitimately do that.

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Are there any materials you used to like, but now find impractical for your creations?

Hypalon. I used to use it a lot but the environmental impact of it means we don’t use it in our products at MEC anymore. That environmental responsibility is a huge driver for the whole team.

What wouldn’t the layperson know is essential to a good carry product? We all tend to appreciate convenient pockets, for example, but is there anything that we wouldn’t notice about an excellent carry product off-hand but a master of carryology always would?

Probably the price! A huge part of commercial carry design, and any other design, is to get that innovation delivered at the price that it needs to be. I think all carry designers rub up against that particular challenge in our industry.

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If you weren’t making carry products, what would you likely be doing for a profession? Or do you have another passion that your carry creations help you enjoy more fully?

I’d love to say I’d be some kind of athlete but realistically I think I’d be travelling around trying my hand at anything and everything. Just as long as I could be creative, I’d be okay.

What’s next for you?

Literally: off to Asia in a few days to see our factories and work on the new designs.

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