Collaboration Spotlight: Team Littleford

(John Littleford, Aaron Kaffen, Troy Cameron)

What inspired you to collaborate for the Constructor’s Design Challenge competition?

John: The emphasis on practicality. Making useful, practical bikes is what it’s all about, and Oregon Manifest is fully behind that mentality. “Utility” has traditionally been a dirty word in the bike world, where the lightest and fastest and newest is considered the best – but those bikes aren’t practical.
Troy: I met John at the Hand-built Bicycle Show, and was immediately drawn to his bikes. We have a similar approach in our philosophy and design. My bags (Philosophy Bags) are traditional and classic, but with contemporary design to be more functional.
Aaron: Well, I ride one of John’s bikes every day, and I’ve fallen in love with it, so there was a personal connection. I’ve also had some of Troy’s bags for a while now. I really appreciate the fact that Oregon Manifest is taking a utilitarian approach to cycling that other events have overlooked.

How far along are you in the design process?

John: Conceptually, we’re done. The frame is built, and the features are half-built. Everything will come together – it’s going to be an interesting and exciting last month. I think we’re on par – there’s not a lot of time to experiment from here.
Troy: The mental part, the proof of concept is the critical thing. Now we’re into the hands-on work.

The design criteria are aimed at inspiring new solutions and flexibility – how is this influencing your thinking? Are you taking it back to square one?

Aaron: We definitely started with the platform of the traditional safety bike. Then, to take our thinking further, we took a step back: What is utility? We had to define the problem set, what our typical cyclist would use this bike for: commuting, grocery-shopping, maybe a little light IKEA shopping, but not moving an apartment by bike. The basic safety bike design provides a lot of that. There’s not a lot you can take away from a diamond frame, but when you start adding things there can be a weight problem.
We looked at various options, but we came back to the basic frame design and then started looking at specific problems: How can integrated racks be cool, and how can bags be used with those racks? We stuck with what has worked for 100 years, but we looked at the use case and tried to improve on it.

The competition stresses fresh and modern – how will that affect aesthetic decisions?

Aaron: We started with this: Whose aesthetic are we trying to work into it? Right now we’re at a point in bike history where contemporary aesthetic is based on the traditional lugged steel design. John and Troy have done a great job of looking at what people have loved in the classic style, then adding contemporary styling – creating their own look and style while totally paying tribute to traditional lugged frames. For example, the lines of the racks are elegant but very clean, and not too ornate.
Troy: I agree – traditional is contemporary today. But our bike, whether you’re looking at it from 50 feet, or 10 feet or 5 feet, you’ll know that it’s not just a throwback piece. It’s contemporary and classic at the same time; they go hand-in-hand.

What does true flexibility in a modern utility bike mean to you?

John: Flexibility and utility mean a lot to each other – the bike’s got to be able to handle me and whatever I need to bring with me, with as little cost of ownership as possible. By cost of ownership I don’t mean money; it’s how much maintenance you have to do, or the weight of the bike. Let’s say you’re going bike-camping. If you have a Swiss Army Knife, it’s got lots of tools, it fits in your pocket and it can do eight different things. Low cost of ownership. But how about a bundle of firewood? There’s nothing like a great fire at night by the campsite, but you’re not going to haul the firewood out there on your bike. It’s the greatest use with the lowest possible cost to you – not the price, but the cost to use it.

At its heart this is a competition – how do you feel about the competitive aspect? Will it drive innovation?

John: I have a hard time seeing it as us versus them – yes, it’s a contest at heart, but our team is just putting our heads together and making the best bike possible and having fun. We’re not worrying about the competition much.
Aaron: “Innovation” can become just about second-guessing what others might do – we came to the realization that we had a good idea of our user and the problems we wanted to solve for that user. Do that and the competition will take care of itself.
Troy: It’s more than the competition; we’re more excited to see what the other builders have come up with. You have artisans and their products – it’ll be fun to come together and see what we’ve all created.

With bikes, innovation seems to be incremental – shaving weight, finessing shifting – but this competition is asking for BIG innovation – do you think that’s possible?

Aaron: As you were asking that question, the iPod popped into my head: There were plenty of MP3 players around, but what Apple did was make small but important changes at the core of the product – they revolutionized the MP3 player without making giant changes in what it was. Bikes can be seen in that way: They already have lots of good things that work great; no reason to re-invent the wheel for the sake of re-inventing the wheel. But what are the small changes that can make a big change in people’s lives? Every rider has pet peeves – how can you solve them? Small changes can have huge impacts.

In a way, indie builders are the R&D lab for the cycling industry for utility bikes. Where do see yourself and Oregon Manifest fitting into this innovation?

John: It comes down to this: We develop and innovate; that’s what happens when you’re immersed in an environment – that’s what you do. Some of these innovations are patentable, and some aren’t. If it makes a better bike, everyone wins. But small fabricators – bikes, bags, whatever – should be justly rewarded for their ideas. It doesn’t always work out that way.
Troy: Independent builders are going to do what they do, no matter the outcome. Too often people come up with ideas that could be intellectually protected, but they don’t do it. Builders put their ideas out there, and big builders may them put them into their bikes, but there are profit-driven compromises for the big builders – it will be a diluted version of the idea that shows up on the mass market.

Why do you think innovation is important for the everyday citizen cyclist? How can it change why and how people ride bikes?

John: The most relevant technological developments are the small ones. The bike is already an efficient way to get around. Making bikes more attractive as transportation goes beyond the bike – infrastructure, schedules, weather, traffic. In the end, these are all more important than the features of the bike.
Aaron: There are definitely problems to be solved in cycling. In a city like Portland we’re pushing the boundaries so that cycling is not a niche form of recreation – we’re really pushing it as part of the infrastructure. Innovation is important in driving new people to bikes by solving the problems they face every day: how do I ride in bad weather, how do I ride in nice clothes without getting grease stains on them? You never know when an innovation will come along that will truly revolutionize how people approach the potential of cycling.

What about collaborating on this design challenge is the most interesting/challenging/rewarding?

Troy: The experience of getting together and working through little problems. We’ve distilled down the persona of who this rider is, what they want to do and when. We all bring different perspectives but similar thinking – and because of that it was a lot of fun merging them into one representation of what we will offer.

John: This is something I don’t get to do a lot – the customer usually has control over what I do. Our collective vision as a group is a lot bigger than what I originally had in mind.

Aaron: A lot of people have romantic notions of building something, standing up and saying, “I did this all by myself” – but the reality is that rarely do great innovations come about alone. Being able to bounce ideas off each other is truly integral to any creative project – getting challenges, feedback, suggestions. That’s something that can never be replicated working by yourself.