A few days ago, I had a great conversation with Michael Downes about the role of design in the bicycle industry. Michael is the Senior Industrial Designer at Giant Bicycle in Newbury Park, California. That means that he designs, or at least has some involvement in, 80 percent of the bikes that Giant makes for the American market and many of the models for the global market. The products he works on range from $150 entry level bikes to $4000+ racing machines. Sounds like a pretty cool job, huh? Michael interned with Giant while he was studying product design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. After graduating in 2001, he went to work for Giant full time. Prior to his design career, Michael worked as a bike messenger in London for a number of years and also as a bicycle mechanic and salesperson in various London bike shops. He has also toured by bike extensively in Europe, North Africa and Turkey. Needless to say this guy knows something about bikes. He has a true love for the elegance and simplicity of the bicycle as a nearly perfect machine that empowers people in a very direct way. Michael considers himself to be a “bicycle evangelist” (something that we both have in common).
Because of his passion for bicycles, Michael feels a great responsibility to the consumer when he is designing a new bike, especially an entry-level one. He said that he gets the most satisfaction from the types of designs that are likely to start people, who have not ridden as adults, on a lifelong journey of cycling. In fact, entry level products, while not as ‘sexy’ as the four figure performance bikes, often require more design input to achieve something unique and come in at the right price point. He expressed some frustration at bicycle magazines and their obsession with performance oriented flagship products to the exclusion of more practical and attainable offerings. “When is Bicycling going to do a Best Bike for $200 article?” he asked. In his earlier job at the bike shop, Michael mentioned a time that he sold an entry-level bike to a woman who came back to buy several more bikes at the shop over a period of a few years. She went from a novice to a dedicated cyclist and even went on to compete in triathlons. When selling, he felt that it was important to help each customer to envision themselves riding the bike; to build a story about how they would use it and how that experience would fit into the wider context of family and community. That idea carries over to his design philosophy, to create products that resonate with the user on an emotional level. “The bicycle is above all an aspirational product.”
Due to his interest in bringing new people into cycling, Michael particularly likes bikes that are simple and low maintenance. The typical commuter bikes found throughout Europe are good examples of designs that are accessible to the average cyclist and offer genuine functionality (built in lights, fenders, carriers, etc…) grounded in their everyday experience. He is a believer in the upright riding position. If you need proof of that, check out his personal fixie at the Fixed Gear Gallery (http://www.fixedgeargallery.com/2005/may/MichaelDownes.htm). While we were on the subject of comfort bikes, Michael mentioned the Revive, a bike launched by Giant a couple of years ago. Although the bike was great from a functional and brand building perspective, it may have been too radical a departure from the accepted norm to gain wide acceptance. He feels that bikes like the Suede and the women’s specific Vida (both pictured here) are the types of designs that will get better market penetration and draw new people into bicycling. Giant and several other companies in the industry are embracing flat-foot comfort bikes with feet forward geometries. Michael is glad that the industry is finally waking up to what consumers (or at least non-enthusiast consumers) really want from a bicycle. They want to put their feet flat on the ground when stationary, have an upright position so they can see straight ahead without straining their neck and shoulders, and enjoy a relaxed geometry that rides and steers easily. Bikes like this are not as intimidating to the average consumer and retailers like the fact the frames come in one size. “Because they are more comfortable, the owner is encouraged to ride more often and get the most out of their purchase instead of allowing it to collect dust in the garage. From this solid base the consumer is more likely to trade up to lighter, more performance oriented product as the ‘bicycle bug’ bites them.”
“That is not to say that designing a $4,500 DH bike like the Glory isn’t fun”, he states, “it’s just that as the price point and performance quotient increases, the design real estate tends to shrink. The all out race machines tend to be, and rightly so, the territory of engineers with design taking a secondary though no less important role.” We talked a bit about how bicycle design has changed over the past few years. Not all that long ago, a bicycle designer could only work with available standard tube sets. In fact the term ‘bicycle designer’ was something of an oxymoron as one essentially designed a geometry and somebody else chose a spec. Today, with carbon fiber technology and aluminum hydroforming capabilities, bike designers can create frames using previously unimaginable shapes. Working with 3d computer software, a designer can manipulate the subtle highlights on a bike frame in much the same way that an automotive designer would on a sports car. Michael’s employer, Giant, is vertically integrated in its manufacturing so they have 100% control over these processes. The Maestro mountain bikes are good examples of, not only their hydroforming capabilities, but also what Michael refers to as Giant’s “engineering prowess”. The company has also been known for some time for its work with composites. Currently, they weave much of their own composite from scratch to ensure that they have complete control of the final product’s quality. Michael said that designing composite frames presents a particular design challenge; “how to communicate through the form the unique qualities of the material and manufacturing while staying true to the aesthetic tradition within the Giant brand and the wider industry so as not to alienate core consumers?” Michael eschews the more fanciful offering from some of the Italian brands in favor of “understated edginess” as evident in bikes like the TCR Advanced and OCR Composite. “Mies van de Rohe’s oft paraphrased statement ‘less is more’ is particularly apt in the context of bicycle design.” Michael states that there has never been a better time to work in this industry and at Giant in particular. He is particularly proud of playing a part in the transformation of Giant from a fourth tier value brand to a major design and innovation brand (arguably #2 in the US and #1 worldwide).
As I have said in earlier posts, I am a fan of several of the products that Giant has introduced in the past. Giant has a history of innovation that includes the monocoque road frames of the nineties (MCR’s and the like) as well as the early compact road frame designs. After talking with Michael, I am looking forward to seeing what new designs they will come out with in the future. You can check out Giant’s latest product offerings on their website.