I am a product designer. Design is all about connecting the ways we create such as engineering, fashion, film, graphics, photography etc, to our value delivery systems (capitalism), to in turn provide humans with lives, products, and experiences they want. As a designer, I find myself captivated by conversations that bring insight into what kinds of lives people are asking for.

Online and In my circles, there are a few critical conversations that have been increasingly happening. To the uninitiated, current design discourse points the finger at North America’s car dominated sprawl and underdeveloped public transport system, as a cause for our lack of unaffordability, third spaces, and in turn, depression.

We have been traveling more than ever. Travel is a way to escape and discover new sights, but most of all, learn how others do it better. For young North Americans that have some interest in design, we find ourselves enamored, and jealous of the systems, lives, and experiences we find abroad.

Travel as Education

In the summer of 2022, I was visiting my friend Liam at the end of his Italian semester abroad. We went on a two week bid to explore the country and what he learned from living there. Among pizzas, pastas, and cappuccinos, the most exotic things to me were the walkable cities, and fast, cheap trains that connected them. It was my first time traveling to Italy and Germany - I was blown away by the fast, frequent, and accessible train and bus systems.

The distance between Florence and Milan is approximately 316 km. In between them, uncommon for European cities, is a track for a high-speed train that slices travel between the two cities down to 2 hours. Stepping out of the 300 km/h train that felt incomprehensible to my North American eyes, and into the station with four story high ceilings that seemed to be carved out of marble, chiseled a new understanding of design for me to bring home. 

Before my train ride between the two Italian cities, I had never traveled that distance with such speed, value, and ease. In comparison, the distance between Toronto and Montreal is double the distance, and the options to get between Toronto and Montreal are: a 6 hour drive, a 6 hour train, or a $400 flight.

Toronto and Montreal have historically been connected as the two biggest cities on this side of Canada. Communities, family trees, and businesses often have branches in both. This European trip sparked a question, could we back home in North America, commit to providing easy access to some of our sister cities?

Montreal as The Inspiration

When I arrived back in Montreal, with this exposure to this walkable style of urban planning, I was able to appreciate my city with new eyes. 

I grew up and currently reside in the city of Montreal. In urban design communities, the city is often celebrated as North America’s Best* City in these aspects thanks to our respected public transport system, and an urban sprawl supported by medium density, european-like real estate that was developed before the proliferation of the car. I Live in the newly named “Culinary district of Montreal”: named as such due to it being home to an impressive range of ethnic grocery markets, restaurants, and North America’s largest outdoor farmer’s market.

Best* is labeled with an asterisk due to the limit to which these elements span. It doesn’t take long for the medium density, bike path, metro supported cafe-filled neighborhoods to turn into suburban, expensive to travel through sprawl that litters the majority of North America.

With two metro stations, almost a dozen grocery stores, and one of the largest parks in the city nearby, a trip to the grocery store and pharmacy becomes a stroll. A chore intertwines itself with the sprinkles of life that makes living, sweet. A lady sculpts bears out of snow, remote workers tap on their laptops amidst a sea of gossip, couples go on dates to new restaurants who finish their nights with ice cream and a kiss in the park for dessert.

This small walkable neighborhood of about 6 km squared gives a taste of what life could be like in North America if we committed to designing our cities for easy access to food, work, and love. This lifestyle is not without inconveniences though.

While it’s clearly something that I am passionate about, I am not an urban designer. I am a product designer. Urban design cannot solve our problems alone. If we find solutions at a macro level, we must develop market offerings (micro) that are compatible with that vision. 

Particularly, how to carry our items in a post-automobile world?

Solutions at a Micro Level.

I first taught myself to sew in 2017 when in college I saw someone with a designer bag that I couldn’t afford - the A Cold Wall Canvas Bag. I thought that instead of buying it, maybe I could replicate it myself. By using the SSENSE product description, I found out the dimensions, the fabric that it’s composed of, and got to making it. The result was surprisingly close enough, and I quickly learned that I’ve found a calling. I’ve been studying bag design on weekends and nights since, including how the most influential bag designs affect our cultures. One might think that this meant the likes of Hermes, Louis, and Chanel, but I ended up fixated on bags far more democratic - plastic and reusable shopping bags.

Much of the world is learning that a few minutes or even seconds of convenience is simply not worth trading in the ecosystem. My home city of Montreal is home to a national plastic bag ban that roughly 100 countries around the world have welcomed. Since 2020, in an effort to curb plastic waste, anti single-use plastic laws haven’t allowed us to buy plastic bags at city shops and grocery stores. In-lieu of these bags, shoppers must supply their own ways of carrying their items home, otherwise, a “reusable” bag that costs between $0.30 and $2.00 must be purchased.

If you ask Canadians, you’ll quickly find someone who has a pile of reusable bags that they have since accumulated in their homes. They're either forgetting them at home or opting to purchase yet another one, ultimately contributing to the problem they were meant to solve. In comes me, a product designer digging deeper, in search of a better solution.

In August of 2022, I went on a grocery run after work. After failing to pack my forgettable grocery bag that morning, I refused to buy another bag that would inevitably just get forgotten. So, I stuffed my product into my work bag, and next thing you know, my lettuce was touching my laptop. That’s when I knew I had to do something about it.

Thus began the grocery bag design roast. It didn’t take me long to figure out what made these bags so flawed and forgettable. 

  1. Lack of shoulder handles - groceries can be heavy, and in a walkable neighborhood, carrying a load of groceries by hand isn’t very comfortable.
  2. Cheap, easily ripped, non-sustainable material - Even if you do manage to re-use these, they won’t last very long.
  3. And finally, they are simply ugly. This is something that I don’t think many people consider. If a product doesn’t make you feel and look good, why would you feel inclined to carry it around with you?

As I jotted down these aspects of the flawed grocery bag, I realized the biggest problem of them all. Current reusable grocery bags match the form of the plastic bag, a bag designed to be used once. 

If we want to stop using disposable objects, we need to start creating objects that are designed for long term re-use. To me, the solution isn’t an improvement of the grocery bag, it’s removing it all together. By making sure that the bags we carry everyday can also carry groceries, we ensure that we never buy another at the store. This meant designing a bag that's stylish enough to be carried around everyday, including an office, that could strongly and comfortably hold heavy loads, and be able to hold dirty items without compromising important work supplies.

The result of my month-long prototyping process was a tote-style 18x13 inch bag with 10 inches of depth. The size is large enough for a 16 inch macbook, and a few days worth of groceries. 

I also learned that when you attach the straps to the bottom of a bag, it becomes superiorly stronger, since the weight is distributed horizontally, across a greater surface, rather vertically, which causes all of the weight to be held at two small points, make the straps long enough, and it can be held over the shoulder, or across the body. 

In most bags, you wouldn’t feel comfortable carrying your valuable work supplies alongside groceries. Groceries crumble and spill. The next evolution in bag design would need to separate dirty, wet items, and be easily cleaned out. To solve this, a laptop pocket, with a main compartment that houses a snap-in removable liner made of a waterproof fabric was imagined.

I will never forget the moment when my roommate and I were looking at the prototype in our living room, and he said “out of all the bags you've made, this is the one.”

In the months since, with no formal experience, I’ve researched how to bring this idea to market. In July of 2023, I launched my store, lemilmo.com. When you design an object or tool that’s really good at doing one thing, people tend to start using it for other things as well.

I don’t think the next big brands will be built on showing off a logo. The next big consumer brands will be built around stylishly bringing a (at times delusional) optimistic vision of a better future, a future that current generations confidently want, and are asking for. A future that indiscriminately provides green ways for people to express happy, healthy, flexible lives.

Carry Life.

April 23, 2024 — Jordan Marcelino
Tags: Design travel