In Oregon, cruising toward a better urban bicycle design

West Coast bike builders and major design firms like IDEO, Ziba and Fuseproject are working together to design a new bicycle for urban transportation.
Written by Jay Greene, Contributor

PORTLAND, Ore., SANTA CRUZ, Calif., and SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Inspiration comes in many forms. Just ask the team of designers at Ziba design consultancy in Portland, Ore., and bike builders at nearby Signal Cycles, who are working together to create the ultimate utility ride.

The group of five took a Franken-bike out for a spin this spring. It was a standard hybrid bike, the kind you see commuters pedaling to and from work everyday, with the notable exception of a sidecar, just off the right side of the rear wheel and just big enough to fit two bags of groceries.

The sidecar had no gloss, no fit or finish. In fact, it was anti-gloss. The team slapped it together quickly with wheels from a bike trailer, a rectangular bin crafted from Styrofoam and particle board, and a wood dowel duct-taped on one side to the sidecar and the other to the bike.

As the team admired its creation on a side street in downtown Portland, a homeless man rode up on his own bike.

"He was telling us how cool it was and asking about the sidecar," said Paul Backett, Ziba's director of industrial design.

And then it dawned on the group that the man was, maybe, the prototypical user. He'd jury-rigged his bike too, with backpacks hanging off the handlebars and a trash can rolling behind. It was laden with his personal belongings. There was no fit and finish to his creation either. But in many ways, it is the current state-of-the-art when it comes to utility bikes.

"All of a sudden, we were asking him how he deals with storage," Backett said.

Welcome to the Oregon Manifest 2011 Constructor's Design Challenge, a bike building competition with a twist. Like the dozens of bike building competitions, Oregon Manifest pits designers against one another to come with a novel creation that shows off the flair and ingenuity of the handcrafted bicycle-making community across the United States. Oregon Manifest, in its main competition, has invited bike builders from around the country to create the best bike for urban living.

But Oregon Manifest also created a novel category for this year's competition pairing three of the most creative independent bike builders with world-class design firms. The idea is to push the bike-building business to reconsider traditional frame design, which has seen breakthroughs in materials over the years but little innovation in decades in the shape of those frames themselves.

"Most of the custom builders are tied to a classic aesthetic," Oregon Manifest board director Shannon Holt said. "Our intent is to inspire the industry."

The winner in the design-bike builder category will be selected in a Web voting competition this fall. But the winning team gets nothing more than the pride of victory. Unlike the main competition, there's no cash prize for coming in first in the design team category.

Even so, the challenge has drawn three of the best-known names in the design world. Ziba, which worked with KitchenAid, among others, to re-create its iconic electric mixer, is working with tiny Signal Cycles from Portland. Ideo, the Palo Alto, Calif., design consultancy perhaps best known in the business world for championing a strategy "design thinking" that applies design concepts to management processes, is working with Rock Lobster Custom Cycles in Santa Cruz, Calif. And San Francisco-based Fuseproject, the firm created by design industry legend Yves Behar that ginned up the Jawbone Bluetooth headset, is paired with SyCip Bikes in Santa Rosa, Calif.

It may seem odd for these global design consultancies to give up weeks of their designers' time to a project so narrow in scope with no obvious financial payoff. But designers, like the bike builders themselves, love a competition that pits their creativity against their peers. They're also drawn to the rethinking the design of product that has changed so little over so many decades and the challenge of creating something that could reshape the way people get around.

That's the sort of project that gets designers up in the morning--the task of redefining conventional wisdom. Most people wouldn't think to bike to the supermarket, for example, because it'd be too hard or uncomfortable to lug their groceries home. And that's what the likes of Ideo and the other design firms find exciting; they get the opportunity to reconsider deep-seated American lifestyle routines.

"It's a passion," Ideo's Adam Vollmer said. "We're doing this for fun."

The design teams are bringing innovation to a part of the bike industry that's had very little over the years. Far more of the industry's research and development dollars get spent shaving grams of weight of already feather-light, carbon-fiber speedsters for professionals racing across the French countryside in this month's Tour de France and the enthusiastic Spandex-clad cyclists who follow them. In the bike industry, that's where the profit margins are highest.

But the Oregon Manifest calls for teams to create bikes on which folks can commute, run errands and maybe head out on for a weekend picnic. The winning design has to have an anti-theft system, fenders, lighting, and some sort of kickstand that allows the bike to stay upright while parked.

And, most interestingly, it has to have some sort of load-carrying system. Which brings us back to that side street in Portland.

There are lessons businesses can learn from the sidecar concocted by the Ziba-Signal team. They didn't spend days or weeks refining a brushed chrome chassis for the sidecar or concoct a whimsical basket for it made from Earth-friendly bamboo. The group cobbled together a rapid prototype, largely from found materials--the wooden dowel, duct tape and Styrofoam--lying around the shop. That way, they could quickly test the thesis that a sidecar could work.

After fabricating the sidecar, the designers pedaled around Portland. They tossed some grocery bags with a bit of weight in them to see how it affected the bike's balance. They rode in the city's ubiquitous bike lanes to see if the added width would take up too much space.

Quick-and-dirty prototypes aren't just about saving money, though they certainly do that. They are also about testing ideas before designers get too wed to them. It's difficult to be enamored with a creation made from duct tape and Styrofoam. But a beautifully crafted sidecar made from expensive materials after weeks of refinement is much harder to reject if it doesn't work.

For the Ziba-Signal team, the sidecar idea did work, and in more ways than they expected. Zipping around Portland, one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country, people noticed the sidecar and commented on it, appreciating the ingenuity and originality of the approach. Even in its raw form, it added an element of moxie, not just the workhorse feel that a trailer, dragging behind a bike, evokes.

"I hadn't really thought about what a trailer says about a bike," said Matt Cardinal, a co-owner of Signal.

It turns out, the Ziba-Signal team isn't the only group thinking about a sidecar. Sitting in the airy shop in Santa Rosa's historic downtown that once was a factory where hop harvesting machines were built, Jeremy SyCip talks about being inspired by a BMX Sidehack. That's a crazy two-person bike design, loved by some in one of cycling's many subcultures. Teams of two race over dirt tracks in Sidehacks, with the passenger standing on a platform and hanging onto a handrail off the left rear wheel of the bike. SyCip rode a buddy's Sidehack through the streets of San Francisco and couldn't shake the notion of adapting it for the Oregon Manifest competition.

"It totally fits in a bike lane," said SyCip, wearing his blue coveralls. "It's not any wider than a wheelchair."

Now he's thinking about devising some sort of origami-like mechanism that would allow the sidecar to fold over the back wheel of the bike when it's not in use.

"I have to actually build it to see if it's going to work," SyCip says.

He'll have to do it on the cheap, though, because for Oregon Manifest, money is an object. There are no deep-pocketed corporate clients paying design firms to do customer interviews, prototype multiple possibilities, and test-market their results. There are no limits on the amounts the teams can spend. But none of them is putting more than $10,000 into their work, aside from their time.

That's altered the process that the design firms typically use to create products. There's no budget to travel the country and video cyclists pedaling around town. The designers aren't researching detailed ethnographies of potential customers that try to divine their unmet needs. Even familiar planning tools, such as Gantt charts that project organizers use to plan and schedule milestones, fall by the wayside in the unconventional rush to get the bikes made.

"We had a full-on Gantt chart at the beginning and that worked for about a week," said Ziba industrial designer Dan Rowe.

So their inspiration, instead, comes from intuition. The designers all ride bikes. Some are hard-core racers. Others pedal a few miles to and from work. They all play close attention to their respective bike communities, chatting with fellow cyclists at stop lights and snapping pictures of bike racks during the day. They use their well-honed intuition to inform their design decisions.

"We're using San Francisco as an intellectual base of operation," Fuseproject creative director Josh Morenstein said. "We live in a city where there's a lot of cyclists, but it's not really a friendly cycling city."

So his team is thinking about creating a bike that's optimized to handle rides between five and eight miles over hilly terrain. And, because Fuseproject is the design team, they have even considered including a music system that might feature something like the new Jambox portable Bluetooth speaker system they created for Jawbone. The company recently featured the Jambox mounted on a SyCip bike in a popular promotion video.

The competition is freeing for bike builders who are often constrained by customer expectations. Rock Lobster's Paul Sadoff, the greybeard among the bike builders who actually taught a younger Jeremy SyCip about the craft as a Rock Lobster apprentice, is open to test entirely new approaches to see what works.

"The handlebars might be different than anything we've ever seen," Sadoff said. "If we need to do wacky handlebars, there's no reason we can't do it."

Sitting in his cramped workshop in an industrial park that cluttered with years of bike parts and memorabilia, the rumpled Sadoff, with a few days worth of whiskers and grey tufts of hair poking out from a baseball cap, has no compunction about sharing his convictions about what the bike should be.

"It'd be nice to have a bike that would fill all of the needs you want to fill without having to buy anything else," Sadoff said, listing off a run to the market and a 23-mile ride up the coast to Año Nuevo State Reserve for an afternoon outing. "I think of the person who wants this bike as a person who says, 'I don't want to have a car anymore.'"

Unlike the other design firms, Sadoff's design partner, Ideo, has some history designing bikes. Four years ago, it worked with bike component giant Shimano to create a new category of casual rides called Coasting bikes. The easy-to-use bikes that shift automatically so riders don't have to tinker with gears and stop when cyclists pedal backward, were made by industry behemoths such as Trek and Giant. Coasting bikes sold well initially but then tapered off as the marketing campaign faded.

"We learned a lot about how to get people into cycling," Ideo's Vollmer said.

One of the key lessons: reduce the intimidation that cycling often engenders in non-riders. To Vollmer, it's very clear what the bike he and his team create for Oregon Manifest won't be.

"It can't be a 15-pound race bike," Vollmer said. "It can't be a downhill mountain bike. It can't be a recumbent."

Ideo is still tinkering with Sadoff on what it can be. A few weeks ago, they were pondering whether it would have a variety of interchangeable baskets and bags that would work with a system integrated right into the bike itself. Perhaps the lighting system will be powered by a generator built into a wheel's hub. And maybe they will use some newfangled handlebar contraption.

"Prototyping will answer a lot of questions," Vollmer said. Of course, the prototypes will be the quick-and-dirty kind, the same method favored by the Ziba-Signal team.

The teams will need to get their bikes done by September 23, when they'll have to take their creations on a 50-mile ride over an undisclosed course in and around Portland. All the design teams know is that the field test will include urban riding, dirt roads, gravel, hills, and stairs. The bikes will stop at checkpoints along the way to see how they hold up.

They'll also be judged on design and execution. The best bike will have each design element, from the locking system to the storage unit, flowing seamlessly together. It's what the folks at Oregon Manifest call "curb appeal."

A panel will select a winner for the main Oregon Manifest competition, which features 34 bike builders from 11 states, as well as six design school teams in a separate student competition. The three design firm-bike builder teams, though, will battle for a "People's Choice" award to be selected by votes collected on the Oregon Manifest Web site. (The teams are also blogging about their collaborations at Core77, a widely read design industry Web site.) That winner will be announced a week later.

"They are not officially in competition," Oregon Manifest's Holt said. "But they are in reality."

And the designers know it too, making decisions that are at least partly informed by what they think their rivals are creating. Ideo's Vollmer has thought more than a bit about the collaboration from the Ziba-Signal team, which will undoubtedly be influenced by Portland's rich bike culture.

"It has to look really cool," Ideo's Vollmer said. "We're going up against people in Portland, where it's all about the visual."

He knows of what he speaks. The folks at Signal, renowned for its beautifully handcrafted bikes that can run as much as $10,000, have thought long and hard with Ziba about every visual piece of the bike, right down to the paint job they'll use. For that, they're talking about using a mottled clay tone where different hues emerge as the frame gets nicked by bike racks and parking meters as it inevitably will with urban riding.

"It's not about hiding the blemishes," Ziba industrial designer Sam Amis said, "but about celebrating them."

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