On Creating Cohesive Design Language

Patrick Healy

Note: the Outbreaker Duffle and Wet/Dry Bag are retired and will not be restocked.

Have you ever walked into an REI (or visited their website) in search of a new bag and found yourself immediately overwhelmed?

I know I have and I design bags for a living. Everything on the wall looks both incredibly similar and vastly different. I mean, on the surface the backpacks all do the same job. They all allow you to carry a bunch of shit, hands free, with the weight distributed across both of your shoulders. But, I know these are all different; figuring out how they’re different is the hard part.

Which Bag is Right for You?

Things don’t get much easier when you isolate a single brand. Earlier today I was looking at a bag company’s website, a bag company I really like, and they listed 12 backpacks that look virtually the same in size, shape and function. These aren’t just different colors or different materials, but completely different bags. They are sized and shaped slightly differently. They have slightly different features.

They are all presented, however, as equally sized tiny thumbnails in 4 neatly organized rows. Sure, it looks pretty, but it makes the differences in the products nearly imperceptible.

I don’t want to blame the designers here. I know many of them. They’re really smart and talented. I know they have a specific person and experience in mind when they design each and every bag. As a consumer, though, I can’t figure it out.

Extensively researching the the things I buy is something I enjoy; it’s fun. But figuring out which bag I like shouldn’t require an advanced degree. Bags just aren’t that complicated.

Solving this problem… in addition to, you know, designing awesome products… is one of my main jobs at Tortuga. Our solution? To design collections of products around specific travel experiences. Each individual product must be awesome on its own, but also function seamlessly with the other products in the collection. The Outbreaker Collection is the first incarnation of this idea.

Design Language: Prescriptive & Descriptive

Prior to joining Tortuga, I helped run a company called Modern Industry. Our products had a distinctive look and feel. Not many people knew about Modern Industry, but those who did could recognize one of our products from a block away.

One of Fred’s first questions when we met was, “How did you do that? How do you make all of your products fit together like a family even when they are different sizes and shapes? With wildly different functions?”

My answer? “You create a design language, then you guard it with your life.” OK, maybe not your life. But you take it very, very seriously. Design language has as much importance as a feature, a function, or a benefit; sometimes more.

Design language isn’t just about what your product looks like, it’s an extension of what you stand for as a company.

How to actually go about doing this is a subject of much contention within the design community. One solution is to be prescriptive, specifying in exacting detail how each component must fit together. For example, a company might say, “Our products have rounded corners. They have a radius of 2”. We will only use 2” radius corners.”

Alternatively, you can be more descriptive, listing a series of notions or values that you wish to embody. These rules are more conceptual and much less rigid in their execution.

Both prescriptive and descriptive design languages are derived from a study of your brand, the people you serve, and the experiences you hope to inspire. A series of forms, functions, materials, and aesthetics that evoke the your values are then created.

Personally, I don’t think the best design languages are purely prescriptive or descriptive, I think they are both. Prescriptive elements are used help you to understand how to use a product intuitively or recognize a brand instantly.

Imagine having five products from the same company. Imagine that the power buttons on these five products all looked different, were located in different positions, were denoted by different icons. Wouldn’t that be frustrating? Instead of having to learn and remember how to use the button once, you have to do it five times. Not fun.

But what happens when the prescriptions fall apart? What happens when they prevent you from making your product work effectively and intuitively? What do you do? This is where descriptive design languages can become incredibly powerful because they are based upon notions or an idea. They are much more versatile. They can be adapted to many different circumstances without losing the sight of the bigger ideal.

Prescriptive design languages are like portraits that seek to document a person exactly as they are. Descriptive design languages are like caricatures that represent the idea of a person.

The best design languages have specific, prescriptive ingredients that can be repeated and applied where appropriate. They also have descriptive elements that tie a set of products to a larger ideal.

The Tortuga Design Language

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A good design language is not random, it is not an artistic expression, and it isn’t based on what a designer thinks “looks good.” Rather, it is based on a deep understanding of a brand’s mission and its vision. But it goes beyond that; good design language is an expression of the things that make an individual company unique.

At it’s core, a design language is about a perception of people. Developing an effective design language requires understanding the people behind a company. Not just the founders or the executives. A design language should be an expression of the personality of the people at every level of a company.

Taking it one step further, good design language is also about an understanding of the people a company serves. Who are they? What do they value? Why do they choose your company?

Countless conversations with customers and my teammates gave us an understanding of why people believe in Tortuga and what makes us unique. Like a caricature, it helped us understand what elements of our products should be emphasized or even exaggerated.

Every conversation I had came back to 3 basic ideas.


First, Tortuga is about being dependable. Our products must be built to withstand some of the harshest conditions we can imagine. In the event that our products fail, you can count on our concierges to make it right.

This dependability lets you feel confident in your product, in your purchase, and in your experiences.


Second, Tortuga products are ergonomic. Fred and Jeremy set out to make the most comfortable travel backpack on the market. They did a great job and, as a result, people looking for comfortable carrying experiences look to us.

By prioritizing comfort in our design, Tortuga wearers can focus on the amazing experiences they have as they travel the world, not their sore shoulders.

Elegantly Designed

Third, Tortuga products are elegantly designed. Each individual feature must work really, really well. These features must come together in an aesthetically and functionally pleasing manner. Each detail and seam exists for a reason. They all work together to maximize the value our products bring to you. Nothing is superfluous.

Our products are unobtrusive, allowing you to make the most of your travel experiences.

Tortuga Design Principles

These abstract notions formed the basis for our 8 design principles:

  1. Overall Feeling: Refined, innovative and unobtrusive, but delightful
  2. Materials: Lightweight*, durable, weatherproof materials with a premium look & feel
  3. Elegant, efficient forms with one simple focal point
  4. Discrete, restrained use of technical features to improve ergonomics & functionality
  5. Neutral, desaturated colors with strategic use of contrast to highlight functionality
  6. Craft above all else – Subtle, unexpected details with 360 degree design
  7. Clever, thoughtful innovations based on use case
  8. No durability form cliches

*Note: I know the Outbreaker backpack is not the lightest. That is a result of all of the features we’ve packed into the design. In bag design, more features = more weight. With that being said, our materials are very lightweight for the value they provide. The VX fabrics we use are a good example. They are have a very high strength to weight ratio, they are waterproof, and they are built to handle the toughest conditions. Our design choices not right for everyone, but they’re right for us.

Bringing Design Language to Life

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I’ve only included the words here, but those design principles also came with a robust imagery that demonstrates what each element means. As we built the Outbreaker collection of products, we referred back to those words and those images. They served as a constant check on all of our decisions. A solution that may make sense in a specific situation, may not live up to our ideals. We strive to do both.

Because they were the most complex, the Outbreaker 45L & 35L served as the incubator for turning our abstract ideas into tangible solutions. Which shapes are right for this collection? Which fabrics, zippers, and foams? How should pockets be oriented and constructed? All of these questions were answered by leveraging our design principles.

After we built our first Outbreaker products, we broke them down to discover ingredients that define what a Tortuga product should be. Further, they define what an element of the Outbreaker collection must be. As we built out the collection, we applied these solutions to each product allowing us to maintain a cohesive DNA across the collection.

Outbreaker Accessories

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Tortuga began when Fred and Jeremy took a two week backpacking trip across the cities of Europe. They realized most bags on the market for this kind of travel sucked, so they made their own. The Outbreaker backpack is the latest iteration of a product designed to enhance this experience. They are carry on sized bags designed to help you move through and between the world’s cities. They seek to maximize the space the airlines offer with a high level of organization.

But let’s be honest, no single product is enough to maximize that experience. Recognizing that need, we decided to build a collection of products that work together seamlessly to help people going on trips, like Jeremy and Fred, make the most of their experiences.

The Duffle

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Most of us do our best to fly with a single bag, but there probably isn’t much space in your bag when you finish packing. What do you do with all of those little things you inevitably pick up along your journey? Beyond that, most airlines let you carry a large bag AND a personal item. What wrong with taking advantage of that from time to time?

Annoyingly, most backpacks don’t actually meet the oddly shaped requirements airlines have for personal item. The Outbreaker duffle does. Plus you won’t feel ridiculous carrying 2 backpacks around. You may not need it when you start your trip, but you can always pack your duffle in your backpack and pull it out when you do.

The duffle has become my go-to bag for most occasions. If I don’t plan on bringing a computer, or trekking for miles with my bag on my back, I carry the duffle. Lightweight, and rugged, it’s surprisingly spacious. My early sample has accompanied me to weddings in Austin (with a suit, shoes, and everything else I needed for a 4 day trip inside), family trips to the beach, and “glamping” trips in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In every situation, it’s worked perfectly.

The Packing Cubes

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Some people don’t need much organization in their bags when they travel. For those people, the Outbreaker backpack will provide all of the organization they need, maybe more.

Me? I’m kind of OCD. I like everything to have it’s own special place. Organization keeps everything really easy to find and makes packing and unpacking so much easier. Beyond that, every time I squish down the lid of a packing cube and zip it up, it makes me feel like I’m able to fit that one extra shirt into my bag.

We may have gone a little overboard with our packing cubes. Most packing cubes are flimsy little things made of shitty materials with even shittier construction. Our packing cubes had to live up to the Outbreaker name. They use robust materials and zippers. They are produced with care. They remind you to live On Your Terms.

The handles, located on the top of each cube, make it easy to pack and unpack your bag. Handles on the side may look a little nicer, but they just don’t work as well in this situation. The mesh tops make seeing what’s inside super easy. This important because two sets of Outbreaker packing cubes can fit into our 45L backpacks. If you are traveling with four of the small packing cubes, you’re going to want to know what you put in each one without opening them.

They’re a little intense, but you can count on them.

The Wet/Dry Bag

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What do you do with your laundry when you travel? This is a problem, especially if I’m moving through more than one city before I want to do laundry. In that case, I’d like to pack clean and dirty clothes. Of course, I want the clean clothes to stay clean, but I still have to bring the dirty clothes with me.

Have a wet bathing suit or… worse… get stuck in the rain hours before a flight? What are you going to do with that? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my whole bag and all of my clean clothes to be soaked and gross when I get to my next Airbnb.

That’s where the wet/dry bag comes into play. Small enough to virtually disappear when you’re not using it, it’s mighty enough to spring into action at a moment’s notice. I’ve used it for everything from keeping a pair of dirty shoes away from the rest of my stuff to holding a week’s worth of dirty underwear, socks and t-shirts. The wet/dry bag is my utility infielder.

Oh, and the fabric has anti-fungal and anti-microbial coatings so it will always be fresh and clean no matter what you forget you stuffed inside.

The Daypack

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When we make new products at Tortuga, we want to make sure they actually need to be made and that we are the ones that need to make them. There are a ton of ultralight daypacks on the market. Many are beautiful. Some are not. They are all basically the same bag. We didn’t need to make another one.

We wanted to make something that provided value that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Our customers made the answer pretty clear. Most daypacks are great for carrying some food, a notebook, and extra layer of clothing, and maybe a water bottle, but you want to carry your computer in your daypack as you journey across cities as well.

For that, most daypacks are a painful solution. Built to be ultralight at all costs, they aren’t comfortable as soon as your bag starts to get heavy. The ultralight fabric means they fall apart when you carry a computer for too long. Run into bad weather? Good luck keeping the contents safe or dry. Weather protection adds weight.

We know our daypack is different. While it’s heavier than most, it’s weatherproof and allows you to carry your computer comfortably. It may not be right for everyone, but it’s the best packable solution for that experience.

The Outbreaker System

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The products in the Outbreaker collection are all designed to be great products on their own. We tried to give each bag unique value that you can’t find anywhere else. We sought to make them elegant, ergonomic, and dependable. I’m sure you’ll let us know if we succeeded.

Where they really shine, however, is when they are used together. The packing cubes fit perfectly into either Outbreaker backpack. The wet/dry bag lets you keep your clean and dirty clothes separate. The daypack lets you go to work, comfortably and stylishly, in any city. The duffle is the perfect companion for your backpack and, on it’s own, one of my favorite bags.

They’re all-stars on their own, but, together, they are a championship team. At least we think so.