- Buyer's Guide
Dan Matsuda: a New World of EDC
You might not know the name Dan Matsuda. But it’s likely you know his work. A former TAD product designer, he’s lent his design skills to some of their most popular pieces and is now forging a freelance path with epic organizational pouches you’ll covet as soon as you see them. So popular in fact that you might have a hard time snagging one, so we recommend following Dan’s Instagram for product announcements.
Eager to learn more about Dan’s design influences, projects and tips, we asked him to share his insights…
You were a product designer at Triple Aught Design and now a freelance softgoods designer. We’d love to know why you got into design and how you got started with TAD?
I was a designer at TAD from 2006-2018, and have since moved on to pursue life as a freelance designer. 12 years is a long time to stay in a creative position like that, so despite the vast collection of design challenges it was time to move on.
My background is in graphic design. I had a lifelong interest in illustration, so it seemed like a good idea even though I had no grasp on what it meant. What really caught my attention about the design department was how process focused it was. I believe my transition into apparel and softgoods design was possible because there was a lot of crossover in the design process. It was very overwhelming at first, and I failed A LOT but that learning experience was super valuable.
I got started at TAD as a freelance designer. When I was still living in Oregon a friend called to tell me about a new shop he found in San Francisco (this was around 2004-2005 maybe?). Over time he landed a job there and I eventually had the opportunity to meet everyone at a knife show in Portland. That was my first experience with that community and it totally floored me. Custom knives and industries like it have a really well educated customer base. It felt like everyone was an expert, and being a part of it meant doing your homework and having a knowledge base (which I didn’t have). In either case we got along and I eventually started doing some freelance design work for print design and technical sketches. It was an exciting time for me as a Jr designer to flirt with a fantasy job while grinding through a 9-5. Eventually there was an offer to go full-time with the exception that I’d move to SF, which I accepted immediately.
You have a series of embroidered patches reflecting your personal creative influences. Could you tell us more about what those influences are and how they shape your design process?
I’ve always wanted to create embroidered artwork that was truly my own and free from any outside brand direction. I’ve observed the culture of patch collecting over the years and it’s been incredible to see how enthusiastic people can be about supporting artists. Selling your art is challenging, but there’s something about the tangible nature of these patches that really makes them feel personal and fun to look at.
At the moment I’ve only released two embroidered patches on my own. They’re intended as a three-part series, to which the third is currently in production. There could have easily been more than three, but the list of influences was getting out of hand so I had to audit my choices. The first release ‘Oni’ is a reference to culture and heritage. I’m Japanese American but my family (immediate and extended) are from Hawaii. Culturally my sister and I were raised in a Japanese-Hawaii household, which may sound strange but for anyone who knows what that means it’s definitely a specific culture. I struggled with this growing up. On the mainland I felt like a minority, but on Hawaii I wasn’t accepted as a local (in Japan I’m unquestionably an American). It’s hard to process as a young person but it’s also made me who I am today.
The second release ‘Astronaut’ was my love letter to sci-fi films. I struggled with this one as it felt like a generic reference, but it’s absolutely true. I think a lot of us in EDC or Carry culture have this in common, which is why I think we see a lot of similar references in the community. For me, science fiction is great at making us reflect on our own realities by forcing us to seek relatable aspects in characters, environments or props even if they’re completely foreign. I think about that approach a lot when creating something from scratch.
The third and final patch is about music, but also listening and being a good listener. This last design will also finish the red, white, and blue color sequence of skulls which is my nod to being American.
What do you prioritize and/or value in a design? What key features or qualities should it have (function, a certain aesthetic, versatility, durability etc.)?
I suppose it depends on if you’re serving the needs of a client and design brief or creating something for yourself. Many of those requirements are often dictated by the client, so for the sake of making this interesting I’ll answer for myself!
When approaching product creation (for non-life-saving or mission critical equipment), I tend to focus on the balance of functional aesthetics. Personally I find the functional components to be the most attractive, so I always try to keep some of that included with the visual language. I also find that durability is high on my list of priorities as I like to think that these products are reliable and will last longer than you’ll need them. How you accomplish this will vary, but as long as you have a good idea of its use case you’re on the right track. The last feature worth mentioning is a little unusual but I do find it important to acknowledge. How does wearing and using the bag make you feel? What’s interacting with it like? Again, if we cast aside the critical use gear aspect and assume this is an “everyday” thing, then I do appreciate looking at the user experience. It does include the literal interactions like pockets and suspension, but there’s also a bit of matchmaking that occurs when someone inspects a bag for the first time. I love the idea that donning a bag sparks a feeling of capability and confidence, even if it’s only walking a few blocks or going for a day hike.
We’re digging your personal sample series of pouches! What inspired you to start this series and what do you think the future of the series might be?
I originally made the pouch for some fishing buddies. The request was actually for a dedicated sling bag, but since I was interested in using it myself I wanted to offer multiple carry options. This is why there are multiple strap configurations including total removal if you choose to use it as a basic storage pouch. I’ve never been into these carry options before, but after using it in the proper context it’s been in my EDC pack every day. The pouch is actually part of a larger system of bags that I’ve been working on as a side project. I’d love to release the entire kit, but it’s very labor intensive and I want to ensure that the quality and features are possible for my production capabilities.
You craft your sample series by hand. Have you made gear in the past or is this your first time getting hands-on? Do you craft the pouches at home or elsewhere?
I’ve been building softgoods for around 10 years at this point. Professionally it was proof of concept, prototypes and samples but never on a production level. I never thought I’d have the patience for this type of sewing, but I’ve found it strangely satisfying as working on the same project for months has taught me a lot of new things. I have a small workshop set up at home for sample sewing which can handle just about everything. We’re very limited on space in SF, so depending on the client work or larger projects I often outsource for laser cutting. My buddy Joe at Scout Leather and Jason at Prometheus Lights have been very supportive and generous with their time and resources with this. Thanks, guys!
How does making something yourself by hand influence the design and perhaps alter it along the way from digital image or a sketch to a physical object?
Being involved in all stages of the product creation process is a major advantage. When I first started with product design, I wasn’t sewing or creating patterns which prevented me from observing functional design flaws and production issues. Although it’s possible to hand off sketches to a factory, I found that innovation was more accessible when you’re personally involved with the build. This isn’t to say that craft alone can ensure a successful product, as the design process is still an essential and unavoidable part of the workflow. It’s easy to sell someone on your ideas with beautifully rendered images, but taking the steps to build and produce it should be considered.
A big take-away for me recently has been the difference between making single pieces vs batches of 10 or 20. Things like basic pattern and construction components were adding up to 20 minutes of extra labor that I was able to eliminate by having done them repeatedly. It’s a painful but super useful lesson to learn!
Where do you source materials for your sample pouches?
For most of my materials I go direct to suppliers. There’s also an incredible Fabric Warehouse here in San Francisco that has some great finds. It reminds me of digging for records, as you can go in there with no expectations and leave with something amazing.
Upcycled materials seem to be a common feature across the series, for instance the pouches may be made from a rain jacket, repurposed Pendleton Saddle Blanket, or rice bag exterior. Is sustainability important in your design process?
Initially the repurposed material was intended as satire, but after making the first rice-bag backpack, I was impressed with how durable the material was and started to appreciate the look of the bag. I started experimenting with other durable waterproof materials and that’s how the intersection of the two occurred. I’ve come to appreciate the search for new materials to use, and since I’m working in small batches the options are more forgiving regarding MOQs.
Have any materials been particularly hard to work with or required creative solutions to implement in your designs (either in your sample series or TAD pieces)?
I made a few 50L+ external frame bags at TAD for a special event which used a heavy-weight Cuben Fiber. I had no idea how to cut this material, and it was definitely a frustrating learning experience. Most of the material restrictions I face now are due to equipment limitations. I sold my second single needle machine to make room for a cylinder arm, but this has made sewing lighter fabrics very difficult. I.e. the walking foot does 90% of the sewing these days!
Do you have a personal favorite in your sample series and if so, why that particular piece?
If I had to pick one, Article_017 stands out to me the most. This was the point where I really figured out how to work efficiently, and had all of my binding solutions really figured out. It’s so satisfying putting each piece together, and I absolutely love a seamless workflow. 017 is a personal milestone and feels like a small victory.
What’s your favorite TAD piece you’ve worked on and why?
That’s a tough question! There’s been so many products over the years it’s really hard to say. I have a lot of memories around every product I’ve worked on, but some are more interesting than others (that place could have been a reality show). The two big ones for me are the Litespeed V2 and the Parallax Messenger Bag. The original Litespeed was the first bag I’ve ever designed, so it has a lot of sentimental value but it was very outdated by the time we got around to redesigning it. This was right around the time I was learning digital pattern making and sewing, so I had the opportunity to build multiple sample bags and really engineer the important areas and address the aesthetics after. The Parallax Messenger had a long cycle of development, as this was a new product line and TAD’s first true messenger-style bag (the Dispatch bag was never really considered a messenger). It’s a very crowded market space for bags, and it was challenging to establish what our take would look like. It was a tough one but I’m really proud of that project and the experiences gained from it.
Can we get a sneaky peek at your work station setup?
Can we see what you carry in your EDC setup?
Rudy Project Ultimatum Sunglasses
Homemade sketchbook 4.75″ x 8″
Panerai 112 (*Rob Montana Pilot style strap)
Bic Ballpoint Pen *Scout Leather brass edition
Emerson Mini CQC-8 (in Noveske Green!)
TAD Transport Card Sleeve
Some days the inspiration might flow easier than others. What motivates you each day to do what you do and stay on track?
Eat That Frog! This book has been immensely helpful handling my workload. Tackling the big items on your to-do list FIRST makes the other tasks feel so much easier. I might be able to finish 10 mockups in Fusion 360 quick, but prolonging the heavy pattern work will still be there when the easy stuff is done. Inspiration is a tricky one. I used to think it was a matter of taking time off or shifting focus. For the creatively uninspired, I heard a piece of advice from Ash Thorp that I try to keep in practice. In essence the idea is to stop and go back and follow your design process. Sometimes too much creative freedom can be paralyzing, so it’s helpful to pause and look to your references, design brief and walk through the process to make sure you’re addressing the proper requirements.
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” – Chuck Close
Do you have any design mentors you look up to or people who really influenced your own design career and path?
David Carson – As a young graphic designer, David Carson showed me how I could find my own voice in an industry that I felt was somewhat safe and boring. Having a little bit of edge made design interesting and expressive in a way that I hadn’t realized was possible.
Mel Terkla – Mel’s work was some of the first that I really paid attention to when I started designing softgoods. My early years involved a lot of studying and observing, but I admired his work from a distance and have a great deal of respect for him.
Dana Gleason – Although I’ve never met him, I’ve always admired MR’s approach to bags and carry. I strive to have unique solutions with every project that’s forward-thinking, useful and aesthetically pleasing, something I believe Mr Gleason has accomplished.
Ash Thorp – Much later in my career as I was less involved with graphic design, a friend had shown me Ash’s work and podcast. His creative approach was super inspiring and revitalized my interest in the art form.
Maciej Kuciara – Maciej is a phenomenal concept artist who I discovered from Ash Thorp. The aspect I always come back to with him is the idea that we can always learn new skills. In less than a year I learned five new software programs and completely changed the way I use Photoshop.
What’s the greatest design challenge you’ve overcome, either with TAD, your own pieces or elsewhere?
It’s hard to say if you’ve truly overcome something creatively since it always feels like a learning experience. One instance that really comes to mind was the pursuit to learn 3D modeling programs and implement it into my workflow. I’m still learning, but the small steps I’ve made so far have been a major game changer for me. It’s a tool box that’s constantly expanding and offers amazing potential.
Could you share other brands you’re a fan of or who you think are doing great work in their space?
Wayfinder – I really appreciate the cleanliness and sleek build qualities of the products. I would love to see what their bag systems would look like!
Joe Caswell – I’m sure I won’t be the first to mention the name, but the design and engineering work on his knives are insanely cool and inspiring.
Ban Tang Knives – Super simple and purpose-driven tools that are equally functional and good-looking.
Skinth – It’s not a new brand to Carryology, but I still find their construction solutions to be super brilliant.
Do you have any tips or personal practices for finding that important work/life balance?
I’d love to know this answer myself! Working on my own has taught me a lot about what I value from a workplace. Without clear scheduling I used to grind out projects 12-14 hours a day, every day. That lasted for about eight months until I was totally burnt out and ran out of steam. Since then I’ve made an effort to start enjoying some hobbies that require real time away from the apartment. I recently started fishing in the bay area which has been great for this. We also got a dog which has been an awesome addition to the home and fun excuse to go for walks three times a day. I’ve also started playing video games again which has been a nice reward for an end of day hangout as well.
What’s one fun or unusual thing people might be surprised to learn about you?
I got back into playing video games a few years ago, specifically Street Fighter 4 (USF4). It was much harder to keep up with but I enjoyed the challenge. Fighting games are a lot of fun to play and give you something totally different to practice, focus and work on. From a distance it looks silly but the fundamentals and execution required to play the game require a lot of patience and can be very rewarding. But now there’s Street Fighter 5 which totally ruined it for me. Booooo!!!!!
If you weren’t a designer by profession, what would you be?
If I was starting over and couldn’t go into design, it would definitely be something in concept art for the film or game industry (which is somewhat like a design role). Is an ice-cream maker a profession? That’s what I’d do.
What’s your top advice or tips for other designers starting out in the industry?
Be productive even when you don’t have anything going on. When I got out of college I spun my wheels for months trying to get into agencies or Jr design positions. Companies wanted a minimum experience level which I didn’t have, and networking was hard when I had nothing to share but failures. What changed things for me was tasking myself with making projects that I enjoyed working on. It made me hyper focused and I found myself excited to produce content even if it wasn’t on a commercial level. That collection landed me my first design job at a newspaper.
Times are different now, but I think the practice can be the same.