In defense of concept bikes

Concept 14

In the four years that I have been writing this blog, I have run across a number of concept bikes that I have chosen not to post simply because they didn’t look like they would work. I guess it just depends on the timing though, because in that same four years I have chosen to go ahead and post a number of bike renderings that I thought had an element of interest, but that I knew were flawed in some aspect of their functionality. It is something that I consider on a case by case basis, but my general rule of thumb for design submissions or designs that I find on the web is that they are post worthy if some element in the design is interesting or might generate a meaningful discussion. That doesn’t mean I have to like every concept that I post, but I DO have to see some value in throwing it out there.

Why do I bring this up now you might ask? Well, last week I had a discussion (via twitter) with DL Byron of BikeHugger about some of the flashy concept bike renderings out there, which are seemingly created just to get exposure on blogs. He left a comment along those lines on a recent Treehugger post about Victor Aleman’s ECO 07 folding bike calling it, “yet another cad drawing concept making the blog rounds.” He went on to say, “ Should have an acronym for that: YACC or DBF for design blog fodder.”

No doubt some bike renderings that we see on the web are created just to get the designer a little exposure…and I don’t really have a problem with that. If a talented furniture designer like Mr. Aleman wants to design a bicycle for his portfolio, then I say more power to him. If that concept happens to spread all over the web by way of the design and lifestyle blogs, even better. I may personally have a few issues with the design of the ECO 07 bike, which breaks into many little pieces in order to fit in a case that is only slightly smaller than a folded Brompton, but I AM always glad to see conceptual bike designs getting exposure in non-bike circles. Many of the “designer bikes” that spread like wildfire around the blogosphere reach people who would probably not be looking at a bicycle otherwise. If those people have a positive reaction to a designer’s “blue sky” concept bike, I think that is a good thing.

Another concept bike, which I saw last week on Yanko Design (an excellent design blog by the way), is the Hidemax by Servet Yuksel. According to the post, the bike was “born out of the notion to enhance speed, functionality, looks, comfort, resistance and durability.” Not everyone agrees with that though. The comments on that post range from “very cool” and “beautiful” to “hideous, ridiculous, unrealistic and useless.” Personally, I tend to agree with commenter zippyflounder who said ‘This is not impossible just very inefficient. The biggest goof is every time you push the pedals you are putting tension on the chain, causing the rear forks and the crank support to bend together.” Regardless of whether the design is efficient or not, the important thing is that it has people talking. In general, concept bike renderings like these on design blogs generate more heated comments than other types of product. From a design point of view, I don’t think those strong reactions are necessarily a bad thing either. I would much rather design an object that elicits a very strong emotional response, love or hate, than one that everyone just looks at and says, “yeah, it is OK.” Again, whether you like the design or not, the discussion is the good part.

I have ridden bikes all my life, but when I started racing in the mid 80s my interest in bicycles and cycling really started to deepen. At that point, I read as much as I could about bicycle history and framebuilding. I worked as a bike mechanic in high school and college and I experimented with my own bikes to see what minor tweaks might gain me a bit of speed. My interest in bikes has never waned and eventually expanded beyond just racing bikes, so today I feel like I know quite a bit about bicycles in general and how they work. I do , however, realize that intimate knowledge of a subject can sometimes make it more difficult to accept ideas that deviate from the status quo. That is why I like seeing fresh ideas from young designers with less cycling experience that I have. I may not always agree with them, but there is usually an element of interest that makes me glad to see the design. Based on some the comments about conceptual designs that I have posted in the past though, I don’t expect everyone to agree. If “blue sky” concept bikes bother you, I am interested to know why. They are just concepts after all…no need to feel threatened by them.

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James Thomas

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14 Comments

  1. Lex October 12, 2009 at 7:11 am -  Reply

    Concept bikes from enthusiastic young (or old, enthusiasm isn't just for the young) designers don't bother me. Some of them can see a new way of doing things without getting bogged down with tradition or convention. Most of them provide a good talking point and at worst give us something to chuckle over.

    What does frustrate me (perhaps beyond reason), is car companies who use concept bikes alongside concept (or ready for market) cars. Lamborghini, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover… (the list could go on but you get the point), they've all done it in the past. Remember the Mercedes branded AMP Research bike that came in a designer case? In that situation it's blatantly less about promoting discussion or pushing the boundries of what's possible and all about generating interest in a high ticket product.

    Maybe I'm old fashioned and biased but I hate to see bicycles used in this way.

    Now, if you'll excuse me I must get back to designing my 6lb full suspension bike that will be constructed of spider silk, flax seed composite carbon fiber and recycled milk cartons.

  2. Anonymous October 12, 2009 at 9:02 am -  Reply

    We like seeing good concept bikes that have some interesting element. We don't like seeing stupid, fanciful crap that could not and would not ever be built.

    I think the main collective objection is that too many of these designs seem to come from people who know nothing about bicycles other than the approximate relative location of the wheels, handlebars, seat, and pedals. I'm not saying you need to be a staid traditionalist who can tell 631 from 853 by scent; outsiders can certainly introduce useful design ideas in almost any field. But so much of this stuff reminds you of a new, improved water glass that is 33% lighter through omission of the bottom – you have to understand how an object functions and is used before you try to design one. To plagiarize the Bike Snob, if you actually ride a bike these class project autocad wonders that could "revolutionize urban transport" but don't have fenders have to piss you off on some level, and it's not a useful or creatively productive level.

    I've enjoyed looking at some of the better concept bikes here, but a lot of them conjure memories of a friend of mine who grew so tired of seeing his fellow design students lauded for creating impractical garbage that for one of his final projects he submitted a 1500lb concrete coffee table, cast in place in the school studio. A few of the more savvy faculty got the joke without having to have it explained to them, but one earnestly approached him and expressed his concern that his project, while "just really brilliant," might be somewhat impractical in that it would be difficult to move from the space. Using lines he'd rehearsed in the mirror for hours to be able to deliver without giggling, he explained that since none of the other students' projects had any chance of ever leaving the studio, he did't see why his should be held to any different standard.

  3. Anonymous October 12, 2009 at 9:39 am -  Reply

    More often than not, when examining concept bikes, I interpret them as change for the sake of change. And I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

    "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  4. suganick October 12, 2009 at 10:32 am -  Reply

    James,

    Great wording on the thought process of seeing new concepts, whether they work or not. Having a great deal of knowledge can actually hurt as well, I found out I had too much knowledge on bicycle design already, and didn't get a industry job I applied for out of school. They wanted someone "green" to the scene to help lay a larger role on developing concepts that were absurdly different. Though I know I can design unique ideas, I understand someone that has no knowledge has few limitations with the understanding of the design process. Then again, aren't designers supposed to have a good understanding of everything they design, though difficult the better one is at research, typically the better the finalized product is.

  5. James October 12, 2009 at 6:08 pm -  Reply

    Lex, I have never liked those car company branded bikes either, but I will be very curious to see what the new Lamborghini bikes coming out next year will look like (I am guessing I won’t like them). That old Mercedes/Amp bike was probably one of the better car branded bikes though. Sure it was overpriced compared to a standard AMP B5, but at least it was a quality bike. After they had been out a while, I remember seeing those bikes for sale pretty cheap. I guess people who bought them at Mercedes dealerships unloaded them after the newness wore off, so you could pick one up cheaper than an AMP.

    Anon 10:02, I like the example of your friend’s concrete coffee table project. Good story. You point out that you like “good concept bikes that have some interesting element” but not “stupid, fanciful crap that could not and would not ever be built.” I think most people would agree with that, but I would argue that some totally impractical concepts might still have one or two interesting design elements. Over the years, I have seen quite a few bike concepts that I felt had no redeeming value and I have others that I thought were brilliant, but in reality most of them fall somewhere in between.

    Suganick, I certainly don’t believe that product or industry knowledge is ever a bad thing. It is important to learn as much as possible about any product that you work on. As a designer though, you have to be able to think about the products that you create from the point of view of different types of users. That is something that every good designer should be able to do, but it does require conscious effort when you are very close to the product. In some cases, an outside designer can offer fresh ideas in the conceptualization phase, but it is probably going to take a designer or engineer with extensive product knowledge to really turn those ideas into a viable product.

  6. GeekGuyAndy October 12, 2009 at 8:05 pm -  Reply

    I like seeing concept designs, but the problem always seems to be that they try to improve upon one small factor while ruining several others. The descriptions written about many of them just get downright silly most of the time.

  7. Eric October 13, 2009 at 12:32 am -  Reply

    I'm all for concept bikes…Bicycles are such a fertile ground for innovative design and reaching out to new markets. But the ones that really get me going are the ones I can believe in. Whether it's through innovative use of off-the-shelf components, new materials or a completely new geometry, I've got to believe that it's not only possible but relevant. Bikes that serve a new purpose or market also get me excited. Folding bikes are cool, but not if they break apart into 2 dozen pieces and take half an hour to fold. Designers need to ask themselvs if they're designing a bike, or a CAD rendering of a bike!

  8. Anonymous October 13, 2009 at 9:07 pm -  Reply

    I will give the design students a pass, time and budget forces shortcuts. The bike manufacturers or design studios,,, well hopefully just pushed by the marketing dept.

    What ever happened to that "new design" bike with the adjustable displacement bottom bracket? I see its has taken the market and racing set by storm…

  9. Scott October 14, 2009 at 1:30 am -  Reply

    The issue I have is that I think there is a real danger of Industrial Designers looking like wankers. To be frank, I haven't seen a concept bike in a generation that I thought wasn't a complete joke. Even ones that have won competitions I sit there scratching my head thinking to myself "Can't make it, can't ride it, ergonomic nightmare….this thing won a competition?".

    The first anonymous poster is right on the money with his comments.

    To my eyes it's almost like younger ID students are spending too much time learning the software and not enough time doing research.

  10. Anonymous October 16, 2009 at 8:38 am -  Reply

    My favorite part of the television program "Biker Buildoff" (where craftsmen built art motorcycles) was the segment of each show where they had the designer/builder make a three day highway ride on their completed machine.

    Who can forget the fellow who had to stop for fuel every 27 miles (for three days!), or the classic episoid where the builder crafted a dual-wall thru-the-rear-fender hidden exhaust … that set his pants on fire during the ride!

    I enjoy the bicycle concepts, but usually think, "Get back to me after you've built one and ridden it for three days."

  11. Ron October 17, 2009 at 5:00 pm -  Reply

    Two things :

    1) What I admire about all these bicycle concepts are their ability to blow everything we knew about bikes right out the water.

    2) But more often than not, the end result is something that cannot be manufactured, or too costly to make, or simply impractical from the usage standpoint.

    Feel free to disagree.

  12. Human_Amp October 20, 2009 at 5:44 am -  Reply

    I am all for new ideas, even ones that cannot be made or are impractical … the reason is , just like in the creative brainstorming process, they inspire new thinking and may lead to genuine product improvements.

    I think some of the readers here are classic 'red ocean' cycling enthusiasts, and for them the classic bicycle design as used by athletes, with use of latest materials and process' is the only way to go … in the search for speed.

    What interests me is how to get the other 90% of the population to use bicycles – not necessarily as athletic equipment to go as fast as possible, but as means of transport.

    Working partly in the bicycle industry I love to see these sometimes wacky ideas – they are like ideas in branstorming (where the rules say .. no criticism, try and BUILD on others' ideas). They have often inspired me to make some real user focused improvements.

    The same harsh words were probably said about many things that are different … Cyclone Vacuum cleaners, mountain bikes, Jet engines, Boat propellers, tiny boxes holding whole music collections, more than 640K of memory, folding bikes … all of which started out as small green, fragile ideas. Come on guys, dont stamp on these ideas before they get chance to grow.

  13. ThoperSought October 25, 2009 at 7:07 pm -  Reply

    While I certainly don't feel threatened by outlandish concept bicycles, they often do frustrate me intensely. I'm working hard to learn everything I can about what makes a bicycle good, because I want to design better bicycles. The more I learn, the more challenging I realize that it is. The trade-offs involved in even a small change may be overwhelming. As a result, when I see something that's just ridiculous, I feel like the designer hasn't bothered to even think about that.

    I'm all for "small green, fragile ideas," but I suspect (in advance of facts!) that every one of those ideas was developed by someone with more than a passing knowledge of the field. Even so, I've given up on Dahon bicycles because I just don't like the trade-offs they make anymore.

    In the comments so far, I resonate most strongly with the Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote, and the "Biker Buildoff" stories. I'd love to see the designer of that Hidemax bike standing to pedal up a steep hill.

  14. sveti jebem November 10, 2009 at 8:17 am -  Reply

    Well, it was me saying it is hideous and ridiculous. I may overreacted. I am bothered because a plain computer rendering test with very little thought to materials and functions was wrongly presented as the product design concept.

    As Scott said: To my eyes it's almost like younger ID students are spending too much time learning the software and not enough time doing research.

    The design is not only about to make thing pleasing to look at (the outcome of such designs are often useless products that turn in to trash too soon).
    I dislike bicycles being al the same as most currently are. But in general the bike in question isn't so much different.

    I argue my standpoint, that it doesn't solve any relevant or advertised problem, like "enhance speed, functionality, looks, comfort, resistance and durability" (ROFL & LOL). It is most probably heavier and less durable, the riders position is the same, it can still be stolen, you are still wet on it if it rains, if made of carbon fibbers, it would be even less environmentally sound… and so on and so forth.

    I agree with Human_Amp, that good ideas can be found in such unrestrained concepts… in this case a more general and not particularly new one to use the flexibility of the material for softer ride. To bad the author didn't noticed it and equipped already flexible frame with unnecessary springs.

    As for the blue ocean theory, I do not doubt the market. Many people like to be/look different, that is the main reason for chopper bikes to exist. I only argued the description, which was misleading.

    Is is only a discussion and I am also pleased to be a part of (or to see) one.

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