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It’s In The Bag January 17, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in design research, tools and methods.

Over the last several months, I’ve done a lot of travel for work. I’m not quite in Jared Spool’s league yet, but recent assignments have taken me to Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Sao Paulo (Brazil) and Tokyo (Japan). And the one constant on all those trips has been my bag.

My well-traveled bag, and a sampling of its contents

My well-traveled bag, and a sampling of its contents

It’s not so much the bag itself that I wan to talk about, although I am very fond of it, it’s more the idea of a designer’s bag having everything he needs in a simple, portable package, marrying the utility of Batman’s belt with the whimsy and magic of Felix the Cat’s bag of tricks.

Felix and his Bag of Tricks

Felix and his Bag of Tricks

The Cat and The Bat both always seem to pull out the one perfect tool for whatever their predicament, a clear sign of their fictitious roots. Today’s designer faces many challenges in his profession, often in a single day, so versatility and low weight are more valuable than bat-shaped grappling hooks.

The Batman Utility Belt

The Batman Utility Belt

First of all, I prefer a messenger-type bag to a backpack because it’s very easy to get stuff in and out even while you’re wearing it.  Mine has pouches and pockets a-plenty, great for keeping a camera, cell phone, note pad or umbrella at hand.  This is extremely important when doing ethnographic studies, especially covert ones, but it’s also helpful for those hallway conversation with a client that so often become the turning point of a project.

Whatever kind of bag you prefer, the most important thing is what’s in it when opportnuity and inspiration come calling.  Here’s what I carried on my travels, and a couple of quick notes about things I wish I had brought or left behind.

  • Netbook or other lightweight computer: Mine is an HP Mini, not a very powerful machine but since I mostly use a portable computer for writing and editing documents and presentations, I didn’t need to spend a lot of money (or weight) here.  I’m also more likely to bring it into “hostile environments” because it’s fairly easy to replace.  Wireless internet capability is essential, and you really need the laptop form-factor because not even the fastest thumb-typist in the world can effectively take notes on a mobile phone keypad.
  • USB thumb drives: I like to keep two, one that is the repository of all of my critical working documents, almost like a portable back-up memory for my hard-drive, and one that only has files on it I am wiling to share with a client.  This is really essential since my computer does not have a VGA port, so anytime I am unexpectedly pressed into presenting I am borrowing someone else’s machine.  (When I KNOW I am presenting, I bring a full-scale laptop.  And usually my own projector, power strip, and extension cord.  Semper paratus.)
  • Sketch book and notebook: I prefer to keep a separate sketch-book for drawings and quick compositions and use a steno pad for general notes and quick doodles.  The lined paper in the steno pad helps keep things orderly, but makes it hard to draw in perspective.  Whether you use two books or one, you’ll want to be able to do both notes and sketches.
  • Assorted, pens, pencils, and erasers: I’m old-school when it comes to pencils, prefering the variety of point profiles you can get with a wooden pencil over a mechanical one.  That means I have to carry a sharpener too.  And I like to bring a good eraser, whether to correct an errant line or just to clean up those inevitable smudges.  For pens, I always carry ball-point in blue, black, and red, plus a fine-point highlighter and a medium-point Sharpie.  The multiple colors are really helpful when you’re annotating a document, or when you have a variety of ideas that you want to group without re-copying the whole list.  And without sounding like too much of a shill, I’ve taken a Sharpie to hell and back and never had one leak or explode.
  • Livescribe pen: This gets its own line because it’s more than just a pen.  The built-in voice recorder is amazing, and the ability of the pen to synchronize your notes and sketches with the audio is very valuable when doing interviews or ethnography.  Add in the search functionality and the handwriting-to-text conversion, and you have a pocket-sized stenographer.  It means hauling around the proprietary notebook, but it’s worth every ounce.
  • Ruler or scale: If you’re doing product design, you may want to go for the scale, since physical dimensions in your sketches may need to be very precise.  But even for those who design in the digital medium, general scale and aspect ration are important.  And it never hurts to be able to draw a straight line when you need one.
  • Sticky notes: If I’m doing research, I always bring a variety of colors, usually as many as six, but for day-to-day use I generally just carry two pads, the standard 3″x3″ and the much-smaller, postage-stamp size that I generally use as bookmarks.
  • Camera: I like having a separate camera than the one in my phone for a couple reasons.  First, the image quality is much better.  Second, I find it is much easier to get images from my camera to a computer; for the phone, you either have to use e-mail, MMS, or the proprietary “desktop” software.  With the camera, it’s a cable and a click.  You can also deploy a camera much more quickly; on my phone, you have to unlock the device, then select the camera function, then wait while the software loads…it doesn’t sound like much, but five seconds is an ETERNITY in ethnography.
  • Business cards: Not only are these still an important tool for networking, but they are also helpful in establishing the legitimacy of on-site research.  Also, in some cultures, they are socially de rigeur.
  • Design book or magazine: Long ago I stopped counting the number of times a book or article I was reading became the key ingredient or turning point of a project.  Whatever you’re reading, bring it with you…a conversation will remind you of something, and you can quickly refer back and make your case with the supporting text and examples of the author.
  • Chargers and spare batteries: Day to day, you can get by with one or the other, but for long trips, bring both.  And make sure you have the right adapters for whatever country you are visiting.
  • The essentials: Of course you’ll also want to leave room for your mobile phone, tissues, clips, and pictures of your kids…you know, so you remember what they look like when you get back.  Because THAT would be embarassing!

I’ll never say I’ve lived a life without regret, and my bag is no exception.  Here are some things I wish I had, or could have easily done without.

  • Wireless card for laptop: I managed to get by on hotel wireless and the data plan for my phone, but it was a compromise.  One more promotion at work and I can get a company-sponsored card; until then, I’ll probably rough it.
  • Laptop with webcam: Mostly because I wanted to video chat with my kids, I hauled TWO laptops 26,000 miles, my HP Mini for its intergrated webcam and general portability and a larger machine for on-site design work.  Never again.
  • IDEO Method Cards: I didn’t bring them with me, but I wish I had.  Great value for their size, and even though I’ve probably done every method listed there’s no substitute for a well-organized library of tools.
  • Plastic bags: At the end of my travels my bag was a veritable ticker-tape parade of receipts mixed in with notes, business cards, tourist maps, and other bits of paper I can’t even identify.  Having a couple of empty freezer bags that I could easily label would have saved me a lot of sorting and guessing when I got home.  Also good for saving that half of a sandwich, in case you get hungry on the 13-hour flight from Hamburg to Tokyo.

I’m sure I’ll keep tinkering with the forumla, but that’s what’s in my design bag.

What’s in yours?



1. Jamie - January 29, 2010

Aw, I remember when you got that bag 🙂

Netbooks are so wonderful…as long as you don’t have to do any design work.

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