James Thomas is a Senior Industrial Designer at a company that makes residential lighting fixtures. His blog is at www.bicycledesign.blogspot.com
Bike design blogger hits the spot
US blogger James Thomas gets up to 1,700 daily visitors to his bike design site, many from the industry. Carlton Reid seeks his views on the future of bicycle design... What’s your background in the bike trade? While I was a college design student in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I worked as a mechanic in a bike shop. Why did you start blogging? I started blogging on a whim in September 2005. I had been cleaning out some old renderings and models from college. I ran across an old marker sketch of a track bike that I did in the late ‘80s and at that moment I decided to make it my first post I liked the idea of blogging, but I didn’t know what I could add to the hundreds of bike blogs already out there. When I rediscovered that old sketch, it just hit me that I could blog about bikes and their designs.
How many unique visitors are you getting per day? The blog gets around 1,200 to 1,750 unique visitors a day. It surprises me that so many people read the content that I write quickly during my lunch hour. If I have 15 minutes, I just
worry a little about some of the grammar and spelling errors that were bound to occur in my posts. What kind of articles get the most views? Posts with new designs for urban or transportation-oriented bikes
and it gets linked to like crazy. I like the fact that I am often surprised by what content sparks a conversation. I really enjoy the interaction with readers and I think that is what keeps me going. I certainly don’t know everything that is
I am sure that an Apple iBike would look nice, but then I would be stuck buying the expensive proprietary Apple chain lube and tyre air! type quickly and hit the post button without editing at all. At first, it was no big deal because nobody was reading the blog anyway. As the readership started growing, I started to
tend to stay popular. Sometimes I post something that I think will be big and no one links to it or comments on it at all. Other times, I just mention something in passing
going on in the field of bicycle design, but I like the fact that my blog has become a forum for anyone who is interested in the subject. A lot of my best posts come from reader tips or
submissions, so I consider the blog to be a two-way street. I can pass along ideas that I like and I can learn from the readers about things that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The reader comments is where you can find some of the best content on my blog. Who’s reading? I know that a lot of bicycle industry people read the blog, because I see IP addresses from nearly every major bike company that I can think of in the stats. High-profile designers include Chad Lockart, a senior industrial designer at Trek, Torgny Fjeldskaar, the director of industrial design at Cannondale, and Mark Sanders, the Englishman who designed the
Strida, plus many other notable folding bikes. I know from emails that I receive that a lot of design students read the blog too. Still, I believe the vast majority of my readers are not designers or people who work in the bicycle industry. For the most part, they are just people who are really interested in all types of bicycles. I really appreciate the fresh perspective that individuals outside the bike industry or the design profession can bring to the conversation. Designers and industry marketing people should be listening, because these people who are so interested in the design of bicycles are some of their core customers. What do you say to the comment ‘Bicycle design was perfected by 1890, everything since then has been tinkering’? I would probably snicker at that comment at first, but I understand where it is coming from. I enjoy looking though Archibald Sharp’s 1896 book Bicycles and Tricycles and I mention it every once and a while on the blog. I strongly recommend that book. The late 1800s were the golden age of bicycle design and a lot of the bicycle innovations that we think of as fairly new (full suspension frames, clipless pedals, clamp-on stems, indexed shifting etc.) had their origins in the latter half of the 19th century. Material advances have made some ideas that flopped in the 1890s but are feasible today; many of the ideas from that decade were ahead of their time. Part of the reason why bikes look basically the same today as they did 100-plus years ago, has to do with the UCI’s draconian restrictions on frame design and rider position for racing. I would like to see some of the arbitrary regulations that retard the evolution of the racing bicycle revised. Many interesting designs were showing up in the early to mid nineties before the UCI’s 1996 Lugano Charter. Who is your bike design hero? The first name that comes to mind is Mike Burrows. I really like the diversity of his machines. From the Windcheetah and Ratcatcher recumbents to the Lotus bikes for Boardman and the early monocoque Giant MCRs, his designs have all been important. He also popularised compact frame geometry at Giant in the ‘90s and that one
time to time. Sometimes great products just don’t hit at the right time. Clipless pedals didn’t exactly take off when they were invented in 1895.
For futuristic bike designs, attend the Taipei Cycle Show, where the results of the International Bicycle Design competition are announced
The reason why bikes look basically the same today as they did 100 years ago, has to do with the UCI’s draconian restrictions on frame design idea influenced almost every road bike you see today. How much do you think ‘design’ has to play in getting consumers interested in bicycles? The role design plays in getting new people interested in any product is huge. If price, product quality, and performance are seen as equal or close to equal, design is the differentiator. Right now, there are lots of bikes on the market that are really quite similar in all those aspects. Cyclists may say that they choose products based on performance factors, but in reality most chose one bike over another based on less rational factors like feelings about form, colour and brand perception. To reach new customers, manufacturers need to be able to create products that people connect with emotionally and are drawn to. What could the Apple Corporation do for the bike? I am sure an iBike would look nice, but then I would be stuck buying expensive proprietary Apple chain lube and tyre air! I would love to see Jonathan Ive’s take on the bicycle. I think Biomega is one company that has successfully used designers from outside the bike industry to create products that can
potentially appeal to noncyclists. Most of the people who work in the bicycle industry, designers included, are in the industry because they really love bikes. Familiarity with the product is a good thing, but if you want to reach new markets, a different way of thinking may be required and sometimes a designer from a totally different industry can provide a fresh perspective. What are your views on design competitions which feature futuristic bikes that, in reality, will never see the light of day? People in the industry who eat, breath, and sleep bicycles may have a harder time picturing a different form factor for a bike. It is a pretty conservative industry. A design student, on the other hand, may go into the project without preconceptions about the way a bike should look. The futuristic student design may not necessarily be a better solution, but it might contain one idea that is worth exploring further. Cannondale plans to release the ON urban bike, which is based on the Jackknife student concept by Philippe Holthuizen and Rodrigo Clavel. The pair designed it as part of a Cannondale-sponsored competition while they were graduate students of
transportation design at the Elisava Design School in Barcelona. What are your views on the SRAM Smart Bar, an idea ahead of its time or a component with no natural home? I thought it was a beautiful and well-designed product when it first came out and I wasn’t the only one; the design won an IDEA award soon after it was released. Maybe as integrated lights on commuter bikes become more common, a product like the SmartBar can find a home. The timing probably wasn’t right since the market, in the US at least, wasn’t as strong for urban bikes then as it is today. SRAM may have not experienced the success they wished for with the SmartBar, but the product’s launch five-plus years ago points to the fact that they are a company that values innovation. In order to be a market leader, you have to take some calculated risks with your product development. Sometimes an innovative product may fail to meet sales expectations, but it is important to stay focused on leading and innovating. It is easy to introduce a line of safe ‘me too’ products that will do okay in the short term, but to be a design leader you have to be willing to break new ground from
How about new materials? We have all heard that the price of carbon fibre is going to continue to rise. I think that composites made from renewable materials like bamboo and flax are quite interesting. The sleek bamboo composite frame that Brano Meres showed at NAHBS caught my attention. The technology might not be ready yet, but it is worth watching. A little further out, future technologies like paint that contains self-luminous particles that generate light could be great for use on bicycle frames, wheels, and components. Microfibre nanogenerators, which will generate power from the movement of fibers in textiles, could be great for powering lights and on board electronics. It is always worth looking at materials used in other industries too. Obviously the automotive and aerospace industries can influence the materials used in bikes, but really ideas can come from anywhere. SRAM and Shimano both have hub dynamo lighting systems that affect efficiency very little. Going forward, there will probably be very little reason to ever ride around town without lights, powered by the bike’s motion. More bikes with lights, even in the daytime, could probably prevent a lot of accidents and save lives. The key is to make lights something that people want to use. What are major advances for bicycle design in the future? Racing and recreational bikes will continue to get lighter and more specialised. At the same time companies will put more design resources into transportation oriented bikes and products. In the US, racing technology has traditionally driven the industry. Even low-end bikes are inspired by the manufacturer’s top-of-the-line racing machines. I am glad to see more bike designs that are truly designed for transportation, the new longtail cargo bikes on the market for instance. I bet we will see even better hub gears and less use of derailleurs on bikes that are used to get around town. Derailleurs are great for racing, but they are often a weak point on commuting bikes.