Simple designs are easier to understand, cheaper to make, less likely to fail, and easier to fix than complicated designs. Yet, in my industry--making bags--complexity rules. This is because, for more than two decades, manufacturing at most companies has been outsourced to low-cost locations such as China, which has reduced the cost of adding numerous pockets, zippers, buckles, doodads, and whatnots. Companies are engaged in a veritable arms race to see who can add the most stuff to a single bag design.
When I started my company, Rickshaw Bagworks, seven years ago, I had neither the resources nor the interest in competing on those terms. As an entrant to this crowded market, I needed another way to position my product. My goal was to offer infinitely customizable bags for individuals and corporate clients, build them to order in my own domestic factory, and provide fast delivery and low-minimum-order quantities.
My challenge was figuring out how to do it and make a profit.
The answer was simple, literally. Rather than rolling with the "more is better" ethos, I decided that for Rickshaw, less was better. For us, designing the simplest bag possible was the key to offering our customers choice.
But simplicity wasn't just a design decision. It was an operational imperative. If I was going to manufacture my own bags in one of the most expensive labor markets in the world, I needed to make my bags quickly.
To guide my team during our early days, our design mantra became "Keep it super simple." We applied this principle to our best-selling Zero messenger bag by abandoning features and stripping the design to the bare essentials--no buckles, no zippers, just two pockets. Our other designs have only minimal additions. Remarkably, and importantly, our customers love our simple designs.
Over the years, I've expanded our KISS discipline to every aspect of our business, including products, processes, and policies. We design with pencil and paper: simple tools for simple designs. We predominantly sell direct and build to order, avoiding finished-goods inventory, forecasting, and waste. We source most of our materials and components domestically, to keep our supply chain short and facilitate just-in-time material delivery and fast turnaround. We avoid rules and legalese. Our short, plain-language guarantee states "No reasonable request denied." Our customer service policy is "We're not happy if you're not happy." We have no order minimums. We let customers buy only what they need, when they need it. Most important, we're completely transparent, because there's no simpler way to be.
I've found that maintaining simplicity is deceptively difficult. I'm not a psychologist, but it seems humans have a natural tendency to drift toward complexity. Organizations, especially big ones, behave the same way. Over time, they create layers of complexity, and this creates opportunities for smaller, simpler, nimbler competitors. At Rickshaw, it's OK to brainstorm wildly complex ideas. But at the end of the day, we say, "How can we simplify this and make it work under our set of constraints?"
We have found one of the best ways to identify complexity is to ask our customers. When they told us we were offering too many color choices in our bag customizer, we reduced the options. This improved the customer experience, streamlined order fulfillment, and simplified our user interface. At Rickshaw, our passion for simplicity is not just a source of design innovation and brand differentiation. It is our means of survival. It's that simple.