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Discovering The Universal Truths Of A Bicycle

While attempting to design the perfect city bike, first you need to decide what a bike is in the first place.

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There are very few objects that carry the iconic weight of a bicycle. Culturally it’s a right of passage. Learning to ride often provides our first physical manifestation of freedom; while also being touted as something your will never forget how to do.

What this icon means to each of us is as diverse and impassioned as our team (you can read our first entry here). We were eager to share our own feelings and ideas on the subject. And we did it the way designers do: we sketch, debate, and collect inspiration. Some of us jumped right into 3-D printing, while others took a lower-tech, pipe-cleaner, and popsicle-stick approach.


Close collaboration is core to the way we work at Teague. We’ve worked closely with our bike builder, Taylor Sizemore, since day one; we love sharing our “thinking through making” approach to design, but it was equally inspiring for us to learn how a true craftsman like Sizemore sets about this task. This part of the process was also important for us to truly get intimate with the subject matter; after all, you can never really know a thing until you go through the process of making it yourself.

Like most of our design work, we’re not being asked to design for ourselves, but rather to make a bike for others–more specifically, a bike that would encourage Seattleites to forgo the perceived advantages of their car and could convey safety, security, convenience and reliability.

We were given full license to rethink this contraption that has basically remained unchanged for over 150 years. We love bikes. But to be honest, we don’t sit around contemplating why we love bikes, we just do. To do this project justice we needed to deeply understand why these human-powered machines are so special to others and us. To do that, each of us designed our own initial concept and then shared it with the team. Our goal was to distill some universal truths of the bike.

At the end of a two-week churn we had five complete, but very different bike concepts. We had concepts with large wheels, small wheels, and even different-sized wheels. We had bikes that challenged the iconic look of the bike frame, in favor of pure utility, and concepts that challenged utility in favor of a new icon. This exercise wasn’t about picking a concept; it was about collective learning, getting to know the animal that is a bicycle. We found that bikes have subtle but powerful personas, and though contrary to most design logic, form and function don’t always walk in lockstep. Heck, sometimes they’re in direct conflict with each other!

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Take wheel size for instance–one of the most hotly debated subjects around our creative table–utility and function increase as you employ smaller diameter wheels, yet the perception (true or not) of such a design choice is a bike that is limited in speed and compromises rider confidence. A similar impact happens with big wheels, they give an impression of speed and road confidence, but they also carry a stigma of aggressiveness or “pro” level that we felt wasn’t right for our target audience. We found this to be a reoccurring theme for just about every detail.

There is always a way to improve something, but if you do so at the risk of degrading the perception of it, does it do more harm than good? Really, what it comes down to is not forcing a fix of something that isn’t broken, by preserving the things that make our bike a “bike” and fixing the things that make people not want to ride. How will we accomplish this? With a little bit of cutting-edge technology and a bit more of good old-fashioned innovation. Be sure to return next month when we’ll share the impact that our unique, unpredictable, and diverse city of Seattle has on our design of the ultimate utility bike.

About the author

A Senior Designer at TEAGUE, John Mabry specializes in high-fidelity design problem solving and execution. John believes in thinking though making, learning by doing, and that the best communication of ideas happens through physical creation.

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