Alex Turnwall designer + developer
Design, Talks

Bicycles are my design inspiration—a Rapha 5×5 talk


I was recently invited to speak at an event called Rapha 5×5: Intervals on Design at Fresh Tilled Soil, a local design consultancy. It’s a traveling series of design talks that Rapha runs in different cities, and here’s the schtick:

“5×5: Intervals on Design, a rapid-fire design talk where five creatives will talk for five minutes at a time about the intersection of design and cycling in relation to their lives.”

I tend to take prompts quite literally, so I took the “rapid-fire” to heart and really tried to cram my talk into exactly 5 minutes. Since it was dubbed an “interval” (a type of high-intensity workout) I figured it should probably feel pretty frantic (perfect for my normal presentation style anyways).

So if you can, read everything below with a super rushed, almost out-of-breath, fast-paced presenter in your mind. It’ll give you the best mental image of the night.

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The Talk:

Bicycles are my design inspiration

I guess I’m here because I like bikes, and I’m a professional designer. Unlike the other panelists, my interest in bikes doesn’t overlap with my profession—except for a handful of past projects for bike organizations—but that’s not what I’ll talk about here.

Right now I’m the Chief Design Officer at BevSpot, a local software startup. Startups are fast paced and pretty stressful, and I quite honestly don’t think I’d be able to do the job without bikes in my life. That might sound superficial, but I really mean it. Bikes have been a big part of my life, and everything about them really inspires me and my design work in perhaps unexpected ways.

So today, I thought I’d sweat out five quick “intervals” on why I draw inspiration from bikes—the act of biking, their form, their function, their history—in hopes that one of these tidbits may inspire another designer out there.

This is one of my bikes when I’m at my happiest moment: fully loaded for a tour in the middle of nowhere:

Photo of my touring bike, loaded with gear

This sort of represents everything I love about bikes—exercise, utility, excitement, beauty, travel—personalized to be exactly what I need in the moment. More on that later.

Let’s start with what I hope is an obvious benefit of biking for any cyclist in the room: it’s fun!

Interval 1: biking as fun

The act of riding is fun, duh! And having fun—taking your mind off of whatever you have going on—is therapeutic and can serve as space for inspiration, in and of itself. Clearly the folks in the room share that opinion, but let’s add some gravitas to that. Take this quote:

Quote: "When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking."

Does anyone know who said that?

Quote: "When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking." Attribution: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1896

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) said this over 100 years ago. Biking has been a fun, therapeutic inspiration for over 100 years!

I don’t know about you, but I need a mechanism for detaching from increasingly stressful days and giving my brain space to relax and just think. I really think that my commute—a combined total of about an hour and a half of biking per day—give me the head space to ground myself before a day at the office, and the recharge that I need at the end of a day to prevent burn out.

And if you’re doing it right—really only thinking about the ride that you’re taking—then maybe you won’t find yourself here:

Yep, that's me: picture of me during a mountain bike crash.

In a very Zen manner, bikes constantly have a way of reminding me about focus.

Alright, so biking itself can be inspirational, but what about the bike itself?

Interval 2: bikes as successful product

Being at a startup everyday, I’m constantly thinking about what makes a successful product.

As product designers, I think one of the things we all do is look at precedents in the market—we want to know what the success stories are—and these serve as inspiration for our own work.

Well, bikes are hugely successful on many metrics, despite what you may think of them here in the States today. First things first, they’re the most popular vehicle in the world today.

Bikes: the most popular vehicle in the world today. Chart shows 1.4 billion bikes vs. only 400 million cars.

This info comes from a fascinating 2003 Princeton study, told in infographics designed by Jonathan Harris. Still worth a look.

Worldwide, there are more than three times the number of bikes in service today than there are cars.

Not only are bikes the most popular vehicle—they’re also the best at what they do, at least based on one measurement:

Bikes: the single most efficient land vehicle (measured as the greatest distance traveled per weight per unit of energy expended). Bikes get 3,000 avg. mpg when converted from calories burned. 23 is the avg. mpg. of cars and light trucks in the U.S.

They’re incredibly efficient. Now, any engineers in the room can argue over these stats ad nauseum—but work with me here: I think we can all agree that for transporting ourselves, modern bicycles are one of the most efficient ways to do it around.

So bikes are successful in the market because they’re good at what they do. Sounds like a good product to me. But, the really great products out there aren’t just good, they’re transformational for their users. Let’s explore:

Interval 3: bikes as impactful product

In America today—where the car is the unfortunate king and biking is generally regarded as recreation—we might forget just how impactful bikes have been to our whole society in the past.

They were actually such an important form of transportation in America (and still are in many places today) that they spurred the development of many of the innovations that literally paved the way for automobiles: paved roads, the pneumatic tire, road signage, traffic regulation, mass production techniques, lightweight steel production, gearing, brakes, and more.

Working on bikes in their shop even led Orville and Wilbur Wright (bike mechanics by trade) to the development of the first airplane!

There are hundreds of technological advances, but let’s look at an even more important impact :

Quote: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood." Attribution: Susan B. Anthony

We may forget that it was the importance of bicycles as a means of transportation that lead to women being able to ditch the Draconian long dresses and actually wear the pants. This set in motion the movement that saw women leave traditional roles behind to join the workforce, travel, and find recreation that was previously reserved for men.

But it wasn’t just women as a group who were emancipated with the rise of the bicycle. Due to its relative low cost, high availability, and efficient form of transportation, bicycles were a socioeconomic equalizer, increasing the speed and availability of travel for folks from all walks of life:

“It is the great leveler, for not ’til all Americans got on bicycles was the great American principle of every man is just as good as any other man…fully realized.”

– Robert Smith, in Scientific American, 1896.

If that’s not an inspirational impact for a product, I don’t know what is.

Interval 4: bikes as a model for product adoption

Despite the success stories above, bikes weren’t exactly an overnight sensation:

Chart: showing the iteration of bicycle development over time from 1800 to 2000

The precursors of the modern bicycle started over 200 years ago, and it took almost the first 100 years to get it “right”—what you might call a “product-market fit”. The “safety bike” hit streets right around 1900, and this is the first commercial example that shares the classic frame design that we know today.

Still, it wasn’t for another half century that another innovation would make the bike a huge commercial success, something that we totally take for granted today: the derailleur:

Chart: showing the iteration of bicycle development over time from 1800 to 2000 with adoption overlay

Excuse the not-really-scientific chart here, but I think it’s worth viewing the history of how the modern bike came to be.

The bicycle’s history of iteration and adoption that looks something like how we think about modern technology adoption with the diffusion of innovations—the rough bell curve breaking the rise of product user adopters into groups of innovators, early adopters, the early majority.

It’s a reminder that, well, Rome wasn’t built in a day—things take time. And sometimes, it’s not the initial idea that’s the winner—it’s the innovations on top of that initial concept that bring a product to the masses.

Today’s modern bicycle—the multi-billion dollar industry, and agent of social reform wasn’t a smash hit until designers, inventors, innovators took the initial form and made it better for the constantly changing face of it’s users.

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So, biking is fun and it’s good for you, bikes are a successful product, their use is impactful, and they remind us of how to improve over time. But more than all of that, they’re a tool for you, personally, to use as you want.

Interval 5: bikes as tool

Alright, do me a quick favor. Think for just a second about your favorite bike. Then think about your favorite feeling on that favorite bike.

Let’s go back now to my happy bike place:

I love this bike because it allows me to travel great distances while getting exercise and being outside. It’s the accomplishment of the climb with the thrill of the descent, coupled with a self-sufficient practicality and explore-anywhere mentality that is liberating.

This might be pretty different than the bike you thought of.

You might have pictured a super lightweight, svelte road bike sprinting down the final stretch to a podium. Maybe you pictured a big dual-suspension mountain bike cranking down a tight section of single track in the middle of the woods. Maybe you pictured your stylish city cruiser, zipping past lines of cars downtown. Whatever your image, you pictured a tool that helps you get some desired response.

It’s the flexibility of that tool that I really love.

Bikes are a customizable, extendable tool system that people have been using to do what they need or want to do for over two centuries. The fact that we’re still dreaming up innovations for the core system of the bike is inspirational to me, a reminder that bikes are simple enough to make anyone feel like an inventor in their own right.

So I’ll leave you with a challenge to conjure up your inner Orville and Wilbur Wright:

Challenge: what else can you do with your bike?

This is a picture of my bike from before, but instead of being loaded for a tour, it’s loaded with a trailer behind it, pulling my kayak, ready to head to the beach.

I made that trailer to help me spend more time doing what I love—being outside. But I was inspired to build it because I saw somebody else pulling a trailer behind their bike full of furniture—they were moving by bike!

Bikes—and the people that ride and make them—inspire me and remind me to adapt my tools to what I need them to be, and to think of new ways of doing more with what we have. Bikes remind me that piecemeal changes, combined over time, can yield truly innovative and transformative designs.

What will yours be?

Thanks.

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It was a super fun night listening to the different ways that bikes have inspired other folks… so even if you missed it, hopefully this inspires you to get back on your bike, and maybe think about it just a little differently.

Happy riding.

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