The North Face – Kaban design Q&A

During his review of the Kaban from The North Face, Jed had a chat with the designer, Ben Guthrie, and product line manager, Randy Schwartz – here’s what they had to say.

Jed: Firstly I’ll say that I’m really enjoying using the Kaban, I think it looks awesome and carries comfortably day-to-day. Do you feel like it’s a successful design? Were there any major compromises in terms of what you wanted to do?

Ben / Randy: The design is very successful. The goal was to create a cleaner, more refined design than what we do in our core line of packs. The goal was to create a design that would resonate more with an Urban, young professional consumer.

Jed: Do The North Face’s designs work on a ‘generation’ basis? Is it just a coincidence that the older Kaban and Ka-Ban are so similar, for all their differences?

Ben / Randy: The original intent of the Kaban was to create a carry solution for the device driven consumer. Similar to the fast evolving world of tech, this pack needs to drive a faster turn in aesthetic to stay ahead of trend. The intent has not strayed, but the design needs to be able to evolve.

Jed: I can see some influence from last year’s Access Pack in the Kaban also. Does it take a big push to get something with a lot of new, dare-I-say-it risky features (as we saw in the Access) produced? 

Ben / Randy: The Access Pack was a massive project that took 11 trips to the factories in Asia to pull off. So, yes, the push was much larger than a normal design and development cycle. The benefit of making such a huge effort if being able to trickle those details down into styles like the Kaban series. We are constantly trying to evolve the basic functionality of packs in technical and lifestyle. When we discover new solutions like ejector handles and stand-up functionality, they often show up in multiple locations.

Jed: What sources do you look at for feedback on the designs once they’re out in the wild?

Ben / Randy: We do massive on-campus and off -campus consumer insight projects. We also start putting packs on our coworkers and friends from the very first proto[sic]. Oftentimes, we learn more about our packs from people who know very little about Daypacks than we do from just talking to ourselves.

Jed: How long might it take between realizing something can be improved and a new design being fully integrated and ready for production?

Ben / Randy: We usually operate on a 2-4 year product life cycle. If we discover a detail or function that needs a more urgent update, we will implement. However, we typically run 10-12 protos of a product before it hits shelves. Ideally, this sets us up to have caught any issues along that process.

Jed: Does every pack start life as an abstract brief? Do you face a lot of internal constraints in terms of what you’re able to design?

Ben / Randy: Our brief process is driven by a business need ask the Product Management team. From there the design team takes over and does the research to create the perfect product to fill that need in the market. Sometimes, we hit it on the first try and sometimes we have to run multiple rounds before the whole team feels that we are hitting the need in the best possible way. Our team is also great at encouraging the design team to run with non-briefed ideas. If a designer has a crazy idea for a product, we highly encourage going after that vision. Sometimes those projects are where the magic really comes from.

Jed: Can you shed some light on the process behind the real fundamentals, like material selection? Is it based on strength-weight ratios or malleability or something else?

Ben / Randy: Materials are completely driven by consumer need. If we are building a technical pack, we are looking for the best strength to weight ratio. If we are building an Urban technical pack, like the Kaban, we are looking for a material that first and foremost will be able to withstand the elements. These are commuter packs, so the most important aspect is protecting your goods. From there, we look to weights and determine what we will need to create the right structure and durability for the pack. We hold our materials to much higher standards than a lot of competitors, so sometimes that means heavier materials. However, we know that also means our packs will last you a lifetime.

Jed: What’s the expected lifespan on a pack like the Ka-Ban?

Ben / Randy: One of the most important features of our packs is that they have a lifetime warranty. We put this on our packs because the QA team holds to standards that will drive a pack to last a lifetime (maybe even longer!). One great benefit of this is that we are in turn creating the ultimate in sustainability. The most sustainable product is one that lasts! One of the favorite activities of our team is to travel through airports around the world and see all the old TNF packs in the wild. Sometimes we see 20 and 30 year old packs! The best part is asking folks about them and discovering they’ve never had an issue in those 30 years, and they’ve actually developed a close bond with those packs!

Jed: It seems to me that there’s a bit of disparity between the very urban function of these pack designs and the outdoor culture that TNF are a big part of. Does that weigh on your mind at all?

Ben / Randy: It doesn’t. As far as we are concerned, exploration is exploration. We build some packs to explore the outdoors and we build some packs to explore the city. As the brand grew within urban environments in the 90’s, we embraced that thought. The reason people gravitate towards our product is they know that our products will last and function in any environment, which is something we pride ourselves on.

Jed: What are some great pack designs outside of The North Face that’ve caught your eye recently?

Ben / Randy: In the Urban space, we’ve seen brands like Mission Workshop and Cote & Ciel create some really beautiful design and function. While they may be less commercial than TNF bags, we pull a lot of inspiration from the more niche brands.

Jed: Last Question, what’s your Perfect Pack?

Ben / Randy: One of the unfair advantages of working for an equipment brand is having a million bags to constantly test and use, so my perfect bag literally changes day to day. However, I can say my perfect bag serves the function of my carry needs for that day with a comfortable suspension and a smart layout. Sometimes that’s a cross body/fanny pack and sometimes that’s a 38L Kabig pack with an ejector handle. That said, I think it’s fair to admit that once I started using the Kaban proto over a year ago, it took about two months before I could pull myself off of it. It’s damn near perfect!

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