The scene is frantic. The Tortuganauts have assembled in a spacious, modern flat in a hip neighborhood in Montreal. The weather outside is dreary. A few pedestrians pass below our window, having left the comfort of their homes only because they have to.
On a Sunday in early April, the snow, still lingering on the sides of the cobblestone streets, is being washed away by the worst form of precipitation, the wintery mix. Usually, this would be one of those days where I would normally struggle to get out of bed. But today is different.
Inside the flat, the scene is a stark contrast to the bleak world outside of our window. It feels like the birth of a spring, sunny with a high of 75. Standing in front of a massive frame that holds original painting by our Airbnb host featuring a slightly overweight man, nude with the head of a bear, I observe.
Shifting into the desk chair sitting next to me, I’m playing DJ, spinning the RX Bandits hoping to set the mood for creative thought. As afternoon finds us we are recovering from our gluttonous hangover suffered at the hands Joe Beef. The rest of the team is gathered around the massive round table at the center of the room.
The feeling is a mix between musical chairs and Christmas morning. Tortuganaunts are examining their “presents” with the intensity of a scientist behind a microscope on the verge of discovering a new life form. Yesterday, we talked at length about what we’re building at Tortuga and I coached the team on how to contribute to the design process in a healthy, helpful, and effective manner. Now, our team explores a batch of freshly baked prototypes, samples from our prospective factories in China. They peel back the layers of each sample, revealing the good and bad in each design.
My hand moves furiously, writing as I observe the team. I note smiles and frowns. Signs of displeasure or joy. Some are obvious, others barely noticeable visceral reactions. This is where we learn. This is where the Tortuga V3 really starts to take shape.
A Premium Bag: On Your Terms
“Our products need to feel more premium,” Fred’s words from one of our first conversations ring in my ears. He then proceeded to tell me about the individuals who make up our team. Glowing, he told me that our team is made up of customers. Of people who believe what we believe. And now, here they were, in one room, building a bag out of collective passion and unique experiences.
This was the first time we’d met in person, but months before I’d spent a couple of hours grilling each team member about virtually every aspect of their lives. Though choppy Skype connections, I’d traveled around the world.
As we spoke, I found myself falling in love with each and every one of them. They poured out their hearts, and I felt the weight of my responsibility as a designer growing.
Belief systems were revealed:
“The ethos of minimalism is one of my core values. I try to live richly through experiences, not stuff.”
Aspirations for Tortuga were explored:
“Owning a Tortuga should make you feel like you’re a part of a special club, like owning a Mini.”
Feedback from our customers was highlighted:
“People feel a strong bond with their Tortugas. If one breaks, they don’t want a new bag, they want their old bag fixed.”
Every member of the Tortuga team sees themselves in our products. Our bags are a real, meaningful part of the lives of each and every member of our team. For some, their Tortuga is their home; the largest object that is a constant in their lives. As a designer, I have a responsibility to create a product that is respectful of who they are and exceeds their expectations in every way imaginable.
Translating Data Into a Tangible
Which is where the art comes in. From this mass of qualitative data, I had to figure out what to do. Their frustrations are problems to solve. Their dreams are opportunities to provide innovation.
In a very real way, we were able to discover the tactical changes we wanted to incorporate into a the V3. Here are a few:
- We want to elevate the product and brand in every way. A Tortuga should be a product that is both aspirational and attainable.
- We had to do something about that computer pocket. It was an afterthought in the V2, but it was a major feature for many, if not most, of our customers.
- We had to make the bag comfortably fit a broader range of people. We were turning away too many people for whom the bag didn’t fit well. That had to stop.
- Too many of our bags were failing. We had to make them more durable and more versatile.
I could go on, but you get the point. We took our raw data that painted a picture of our customer and turned that into clear, actionable items that would serve as the basis for our design exploration. These items covered the functional, emotional, and aesthetic improvements we needed to make to our products.
For the Tortuga V3, we sketched hundreds of ideas, trying to find ways to bring new value to our customers while improving on the value we already provide. One key concern was trying to make sure that we didn’t lose anything that made the V2 special. We knew sacrifices had to be made and that features would be changed, but we did our best to maintain the core value that the V2 provided while making a dramatically better product.
From our top 10 designs, we were able to narrow our focus to 4 concepts that we thought showed real promise. From here, I made refinements to the design and created a technical package, a set of instructions a factory would use to make the first sample.
Working with a factory for the first time is always challenging.
Factories don’t always understand what you are trying to communicate and vice versa. There are difficulties. Frustrations bubble up. Very quickly, you learn that the first sample is just a tool to start the process and you expect it to suck. Accept that fact so you can move to sample 2, which is hopefully good enough to validate a concept.
To make things more challenging, we were using this project as a way to test out new factories. We knew some of the issues with the V2 could only be solved with a new factory. We wanted to select a factory that was closer to Shenzhen and our powerhouse on the ground in China, Giulia. I’ve said this internally, but I think the world should know. If you like the Tortuga V3, you should thank Giulia. Without her masterful command of the prototyping and production process, the Tortuga V3 would not be nearly as good as it is.
We weren’t looking for just any factory. Some factories are good at sampling. Some factories are good at production. A surprisingly small number excel at both. We don’t have the resources to run around China any more than we have to. We needed to find an exceptional factory. Spoiler Alert: We did.
We came down to the wire, but we made it. Samples of all our concepts were ready for the retreat. Not all of them were good. In fact, some were comically bad. But they were good enough to start the conversation.
Tortuga’s Unique Design Team
Reviewing physical products as an entire company is pretty unusual. Typically only the “relevant” teams and team members are involved in the physical product development process. That typically means the management team, design, engineering, and marketing.
All too often, this process becomes very contentious, with each team fighting for influence. Each team believes that their own perspective is the correct perspective. Instead of working together to develop a better product, they are working against each other, sacrificing the vision that made the product worth building in the first place.
At Tortuga, that process doesn’t make any sense. First, every single member of the Tortuga team believes what we believe. We are committed to the same vision. Living the lifestyle that we advocate, we all work remotely, and we all travel. A lot. On some days, we’re in one country together (during a retreat). On others, we’re spread between 6 or 7. Sure, we travel to take vacations, but we also travel to live and work.
Sometimes, we do this out of necessity. For example, I occasionally have to go to China to visit our factories. Usually, we do it because we are living our lives on our own terms. That means something different to each of us, and none of us have it all figured out. Our lives are are a constant work in progress and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
This means each team member has a wealth of first hand knowledge built over years of exploring the world. They have valuable insights to bring to the conversation and, if we are going to build the kind of products that you deserve, their voices need to be heard.
With our powers combined, we did so much more than just start a conversation. We opened, wore, lifted, and packed each and every concept that was on display. Miraculously (seriously, this never happens with 8 people), we were able to able to reach a unanimous consensus on both a concept and a factory that we would proceed with. What’s more, after putting each bag through it’s paces, we agreed to a list of changes that needed to be made in the next round of samples. GO US!
If you were in design school, this is probably where the project would end. You’ve got a cool concept that everyone likes. HOORAAAAAAAY! Actually, that would be true for many companies. But, Tortuga is not like most companies. For us, this meant we were about halfway there. We still had to iron out all of the details. We had to get this thing production ready. And, oh yeah, we had to design the rest of the collection. We had a good product, but it needed to be made great.
Making the Tortuga V3 a Reality
If you’re interested in more about our trip to China, read Fred’s recap on Medium about the trip. Let’s just say that the trip was a whirlwind. About 6-8 weeks of prototyping was accomplished in 6 days. Hundreds of decisions were made on the fly. Looking back, I’m confident that at least 95% were correct.
The post China trip segment represents a bit of a failure in our process. I assumed that we would be able to wrap up the remaining details very quickly. I was wrong. This is partially due to the fact that we are doing some unusual things with some unusual materials. I should have known better and we will do better next time.
Thankfully, none of that impacts you. We perfected the designs. And the Tortuga V3 launch is till on schedule. We’re just cutting it a little closer than we intended.
The Tortuga V3 is Not Just a Bag: This is Our Vision
The story of the Tortuga V3 is not just a story of a product design. That’s easy. This is the story of the evolution of our company, our brand, and our vision.
The Tortuga V3 is the first product that our team has developed. This project was as much about developing a better product (we did) as it was about establishing a process and design culture within our company. We’re not perfect, but we’re off to a great start, and I don’t think Fred and Jeremy could have built a better team.
Somewhere along the way this team began to realize that we were serving a higher purpose. A group of industrious rebels, we’re working to change the way we live, work, and travel. A group of people dedicated to helping others live happier, healthier lives. A group of people who want to learn from the mistakes of the past to build a better future. A group of people who are living life on our own terms.
As much as building a new product, the Tortuga V3 is about a commitment to helping this group of trailblazers fulfill their mission. To see our shared vision become reality. To build to tools that make living life on your own terms easier, happier, and healthier.
In case you haven’t heard, we’re coming out with a brand new bag in the Tortuga family.
Designing it was fun. Everyone got involved. This bag represents our vision and our ethos.
Editor’s note: And also, Patrick is a rock star!
Image Credit: Danielam, Pixabay