an analysis of form

Oct 12, 2016 · 8 min read

Animals come from nature. They were not designed. All my inspiration comes from nature, whether it’s an animal or the layout of bark or of a leaf. Sometimes my patterns are very bold, and you can barely see where they come from, but all the textures and all the prints come out of nature.

Diane von Frustenberg, fashion designer

If I plan on improving the gear cyclists where when commuting, I have to consider the products that are already on the market. Most of these products are taking safety into account when choosing colors, fabrics, and reflective elements; however, they tend to focus on one piece of the safety equation and often do not allow for that equation to be fluid or customizable. For example, while it is a fact that yellow-green is the easiest light frequency for humans to perceive and they can recognize and react to it in the shortest amount of time. Nonetheless, I have only seen a small percentage of cyclists actually wearing clothes that exhibit this color. As a cyclist, myself, I find that color extremely unappealing — and it does nothing for my skin tone. That may seem like a silly point, but people really do care about how they look on their bikes. People care about their outward appearance in many situations; however, I have found the cyclists’ construction of identity particularly interesting. It involves everything from the type of bike they ride to the clothes they wear, to the accessories they or their bike carry. They have distinct identities and there seems to be a common thread (pun intended) across all of them — they are proud to be cyclists, to break the mold, to be different. Some cyclists would say they don’t care at all; however, they tend to put time into looking like they don’t care, which says quite a bit. And so, I decided to start this exploration by mapping the product ecology for the practice of commuting via bicycle.

Ecology Mapping

Using a social practice theory approach, I began thinking about bike commuting in terms of the things, skills, and meanings associated with it.

Overall map (left) and exploration of mapping forms (right)

The next day, I expanded this further on a whiteboard and added to the mapping some things I hadn’t considered the day before. I started to add in the environments practice connects, such as school, work, and home.

Overall whiteboard map (above) and detail shots (below)

From this mapping exercise, I started to see areas, particularly regarding the skills category, for which I could design. For example, hand signals are an interesting skill that is required of the cyclist to communicate with cars. What if there was a component of my cycling gear that enhance those areas (i.e. hands, arms) when they are outstretched and striving to communicate with motorists and others. I’ve also observed that not all cyclists are using the proper hand signals, creating dangerous situations for everyone around them. Maybe the design could encourage the use of (law-required) gestural communication. It is important to recognize that dangerous situations are not just the fault of the motorist, cyclists can be just as reckless.

On the subject of highlight particular parts of the cyclist through their gear, how could we vary the patterning of the gear to improve safety? I was inspired by the color and pattern analysis of the dart frogs, which showed that the patterning and color usage of these creatures changes across the body of the organism. It seems this variation allows the frogs to bring greater attention to certain parts of their body with warm colors while letting their extremities, generally cooler colors, fall back into their environments. What if cyclists drew more attention to their vulnerability? For example, when riding there is a significant concern of getting an elbow hit by a car’s side mirror if it passes too close. So, what if the elbows of the cycling outfit were brighter and warmer in hue? Also, cyclists primarily keep to the right side of the road, being passed by cars on their left, so what if the gear accounted for that. Would an asymmetrical design be easier to perceive and draw attention? Would anyone wear it?

The mapping exercise coupled with personal experience and observation of urban cyclists also has me thinking about the other pieces of gear that cyclists have on their bodies while riding, specifically messenger bags and backpacks. These components of the typical commuting outfit cover large portions of the body and potentially safety-related elements. Obviously, I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t carry anything on their backs while riding; however, it means that if I design a jacket or top that employs high contrast patterning and coloration, I have to consider that part of it will be covered. This gives me two options for approaching this: Allow their bag in its existing form to become part of the pattern or create an attachment or cover that the cyclist can put over their bag to give it the requisite patterning and coloration. In an effort to not limit the experience for the cyclist without a backpack or messenger bag, I think the best course of action is to create a separate cover for the bags that either matches the pattern of the clothing or has a different pattern and coloration that enhances the contrast and overall visibility of the cyclist. Like the dart frogs dyads and triads, maybe cyclists with backpacks transform from being a dyad exhibiting organism to a triad exhibiting one.

What’s Out There?

It’s not just cyclists who need increased visibility, runners and motorcyclists also need to consider this to be safe doing the activities they enjoy. There are a lot of products out there for cyclists who want to be as visible as possible when on their commute to work or school.

Examples of cycling safety gear

However, none of them seem to have it all in conjunction (enhanced visibility, reflectivity, plus customizability). While some are very effective at grabbing a person’s attention and others are great at providing nighttime reflectivity, none of them allow for cyclists to change the colors or patterns to better project their sense of identity.

Furthermore, when looking at the various kinds of cycling clothing, it becomes clear that certain types of cycling are more safety-focused than others. While road cycling gear includes a wide range of bright, highly saturated colors, often in high contrast patterns, paired with reflective elements, the clothing marketed to urban cyclists and commuters only exhibits dark, earth tones and black.

Example of a road cycling kit (left) versus an example of urban cycling clothing (right)

There are rarely any reflective elements and definitely no high contrast patterns. The few pieces of safety focus apparel I’ve seen are very unappealing, fluorescent yellow-green jackets that seem like an after thought in the collection — the person buying the trendy black cycling shorts and slightly distressed graphic tee are not the same people buying the dorky jacket.

Interesting, motorcycling clothing seems to have taken some cues from dart frogs, using high contrast patterning with bright colors as a way to signal their presence on the road. Perhaps this is due to the high pressure environment in which motorcyclists have to operate. Going at speeds that can surpass that of cars, they have to be seen as quickly as possible to avoid certain death.

While some of the basic concepts are used in these designs, the color range is fairly limited and there is definitely room to expand on the patterning. Additionally, motorcycles are much larger and more visible than bicycles, giving them a bigger role in helping the motorcyclist to stay visible. This a case where matching your bike’s colors could provide more protection, but with the much smaller bicycle, matching isn’t much of an advantage from a safety standpoint.

Fluidity of Form

I began investigating the idea of form-changing clothing. As I was thinking through those scenarios in which I felt unsafe on my bike, I realized that there were many cases where adding motion to my form could be of value. For example, when cars try to pass too close to me or even move into oncoming traffic to pass me, I wish I looked bigger, wider, something to get a few extra inches of space. The most disconcerting moment is when you can feel the heat of the car as it passes you. While the Pennsylvania state law states the motorists are required to give cyclists four feet when passing, in practice they rarely do and sometimes they seem to come closer on purpose. Looking bigger could hopefully give me some breathing room and even though I could potentially achieve this effect with pattern and color, it would be interesting to explore the potential for motion in the cycling gear. Another good place for dynamic clothing is when I’m stopped at a red light for a while. My cursory investigations of human perception found that humans can see objects better when those objects are in motion; stationary objects can easily go unnoticed. Considering bike/car accidents often occur at intersections, perhaps drawing attention to a stationary cyclist though motion could help.

Continuing my train of thought from the previous section, what if color and pattern was used in combination with the moving parts of the cyclist? Perhaps having vibrant colors and high contrast patterning on the back of the cyclist’s the legs could be a way to enhance their form’s dynamism.

Regarding motion and clothing, I found this piece to be particularly inspirational.

Protection Through Identity

Improving Cycling through Design Informed by Cognition, Perception, and Biomimicry


Written by


Designer. Anthropologist. Cyclist. Hiker.

Protection Through Identity

Improving Cycling through Design Informed by Cognition, Perception, and Biomimicry

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