Charge of the Light Briefcase

Solving the Schlepping Problem through Design

The meeting in DC ended and I was looking forward to the flight home. Not just getting home, but the flight home. I like traveling, as you might expect of someone who has made a career in transportation. My plans changed, however, when Simon, another attendee who also lived in Massachusetts, offered to give me a lift home… in a single-engine airplane he rented for the trip. Chances are the trip would be in instrument flying conditions. Who would say no to an opportunity like that?  ”Do you have some earplugs I could borrow?” I asked. “We can get you some,” replied Simon. “Great,” I said, “I just need to pickup my suitcase.” I used the term “suitcase” loosely; it was a small simple give-away flight bag, but it held all I needed for a short business trip like this.

Measuring about 10 by 16 inches, the flight bag fit under nearly all airline seats, giving me constant access to my stuff when in flight, and dodging the need to arm-wrestle burly ex-marines for the increasingly crowded overhead bins.

Waiting for a shuttle to take us to the general aviation (GA) side of the airport, I pulled a sectional aviation map out of my suitcase and studied it. I’m no pilot, but I work in aviation human factors. The reason for taking Simon’s offer was to observe what goes on in the cockpit on a cross-country trip, something I rarely get a chance to do. Cross-country flying means significantly greater navigation demands, so I wanted to familiarize myself with the navigation task by studying the region we’ll be flying through. Simon saw me with the sectional map and asked, “Mind if I look at that?” He had more appropriate maps in his plane, of course, but checking mine now would save some time.

When we got to the GA terminal, Simon picked up some earplugs from a vending machine, and we walked out to his aircraft. Looking through his own flight bag, Simon checked his approach plates, each a 9-by-5-inch sheet of paper with a map and instructions for each way to land at a given airport. He hadn’t the approach plates for the airport at Providence, RI. Normally he wouldn’t need them because he was flying to Bedford, MA, but I was parked in Providence, and he planned to drop me off there. Not literally; he’d land first, which is why he needed the approach plates for Providence. I thought about re-booking a flight on a commercial airline, but Simon assured me it would be no major inconvenience to drive me from Bedford to Providence.

The flight was as educational as I had hoped, with most of the trip in the clouds. At one point, I pulled my flashlight out of my suitcase so I could cross-check the plane’s radio-navigation instruments with the sectional, but it turns out planes have dome lights in the cockpit.

I learned a lot about flying and also what I should carry in my suitcase:

  • Flashlight – Yes
  • Sectional Map – Yes
  • Earplugs – Yes
  • Approach Plates – No

The last one may not seem consistent with my experience. After all, on that particular trip, approach plates would’ve been more useful than any of the other three items for which there was a viable alternative. However, in deciding what to pack, I consider not only the potential usefulness of each item, but the probability the item will be useful. The odds of me ever needing approach plates again on any trip are next to nil. On the other hand, a flashlight, earplugs, and even a sectional map get far more frequent use on trips. Flashlights are handy for everything from looking over a rental car in the dark to finding a USB or network connection under a desk or table. I have found that earplugs are great for shutting out nearby annoying neighbors engaging in a loud conversation, or an obnoxious computer game that’s constantly going “beep, beep, beep,” when, actually, one could use some sleep, having gotten up at 3:30am because all other flights at more humane hours were booked solid, thanks to some computer program deep in the bowels of American Airlines that ensures no plane is dispatched without sardine-grade passenger densities, not that I’m complaining; I like traveling. As for the sectional, I entertain myself trying to figure out where the airliner is by looking out the window at the geography. So far I haven’t been reported to the TSA for doing it, but then I generally leave my Arab Bedouin outfit at home, which probably helps.

The Capability-Simplicity Trade-off

So why not carry approach plates just in case? There’s a parallel between designing a technological product and designing your schlepping configuration. The temptation is to load up on features, tools, and materials. Whether it’s another 2-D effect in your drawing program, or an additional mode on your digital camera, or an extra pair of shoes in your suitcase, you figure you better have it just in case it’s needed. But this comes with an insidious cost: each additional item detracts incrementally from overall usability, adding clutter, complexity, weight, and bulk. When deciding to add features or anything else, it’s not sufficient to know if it will be useful. You have to determine if it will be useful enough to be worth it. Everything has a value but also a cost. Carrying a pair of running shoes on your business trip allows you the potential to keep up your exercise program, but they also add significantly to the physical weight and bulk of your suitcase. They can simply get in the way of finding other things you need. Is running that important to you? Will you even have a chance to go running? Same is true with approach plates. They are less bulky than running gear, but it’s still one more thing that makes traveling a little more difficult.

Over the years, I’ve pared back what I travel with until all I’m likely to need for one-to-three night business trip fits in the 15-by-10 flight bag. Cutting back on on things is one legitimate way to deal with featuritis and clutter. The other way is by design: which could be defined as combining and altering materials to achieve greater value or lesser cost. For just about whatever you’re designing, whether it’s a suitcase or a web application, the following are the costs to minimize in order to maximize a positive user experience:

  • Mental Effort
  • Physical Effort
  • Time
  • Money (or whatever users give you for your product)

The goal of smaller, lighter, and simpler for less mental and physical effort has driven many technological innovations that have contributed to my suitcase shrinkage. Papers and books have yielded to electronic media. Walkmen and portable CD players have given way to mp3 players. Here’s my CD player compared to my iPod Shuffle, along with equal amounts of music:

Multi-bottle or boiler-based contact lens care have fallen to three-in-one solutions, that I’ve shrunk down to a non-descript sub-three-ounce size that I don’t have to declare it to the TSA, who might at any moment decide to prohibit certain contact lens solutions, so I appreciate their efforts to promote more compact baggage, as well as my security.

A Case Study of Design

However, good design can also cut costs without cutting capability. There are also opportunities to be had through schlepping engineering -with the design of the carrying system itself. There is more to schlepping than capacity, bulk, and weight. There’s how you carry it. Using handles is fine for very short schleps of a few feet, but for going any greater distance, a load is a lot more convenient when it doesn’t occupy a hand. Going through school with the ubiquitous book bag, I couldn’t imagine having to hold a case, like a traditional attache or suitcase. Too often I need two hands (e.g., to put on a jacket, to ride a bike, to open a door while carrying a beverage, or to show my ID and my boarding pass). The hand gets cold outdoors in winter. When carrying something I’m more likely to set it down on the ground or on the roof of a car and then forget it. A carrying strap is mandatory for any briefcase or suitcase of mine.

Another pivotal issue for me was the little stuff, the office supplies and other junk, like the flashlight and earplugs, that  I carry daily when commuting as well as on more substantial trips. It’s a hassle to transfer that stuff from a commuter’s book bag or satchel to a traveler’s suitcase. There was also the problem of keeping the little stuff organized so that they could be found easily. Originally, my solution, going back over 30 years, was the Black Leather Case (BLC), a portfolio I could easily transfer from briefcase to suitcase. Below is the BLC propped up in front of my retired briefcase.

The BLC also kept the little stuff consolidated, preventing them from floating around inside a briefcase or suitcase where they would be hard to find.

When the BLC wore out (note the duck tape in the photo above), I set about designing a replacement, the New Black Leather Case (NBLC).

I wasn’t at all clear on how I would make such a thing, so in the meantime I carried the little stuff in a simple seven-inch pouch. This made me realize the value of a large NBLC wasn’t worth the cost in bulk. With the arrival of the digital age, I no longer needed to carry substantial amounts of paper. My briefcase or book bag were more for carrying lunch or gear for cold mornings or rain, rather than documents. Thus, I began designing the MBLC -the Mini BLC, intended to hold strictly for the little stuff.

Neither leather nor necessarily black, the MBLC would be much more feasible to create.

Get Out of the Case

All my thinking up until this point was rooted in my conventional habits -the BLC-based system going back decades -which was keeping me from thinking outside the case to see a better solution. Now we come to the best part of this post where I describe how I eventually broke out, providing you with a practical and inspirational lesson in practicing innovative “design thinking” applicable to your own projects. Too bad I don’t remember how it happened. However, I don’t think it was some magical insight that hit me out of nowhere. Rather it emerged progressively by observing things around me. These were observations from both the user realm (i.e., myself) and the technological realm (i.e., other schlepping innovations).

What I noticed in myself was the “bag-in-a-bag” problem. Something like a MBLC would make it easy to get to the little stuff but only after I get to the MBLC. It cost time and physical effort (often requiring two hands) to get a pouch of little stuff out of the briefcase or suitcase in order to get the little stuff out of the pouch (e.g., to get the checkbook while others stand in line behind me at the counter, or to get a flashlight in a dark parking lot).

Meanwhile, other schlepping engineers had produced their own innovations:

  • Laptop case organizers. The arrival of notebook size laptop computers spurred the arrival of laptop carrying cases as an alternative to the traditional attache case. Perhaps because laptops imply more little stuff, laptop cases featured “organizers,” a section of small pockets for the little stuff, making them accessible.
  • Load-bearing vests (LBV). It would seem technology has changed the common foot soldier so that now she or he also has to carry lots of little stuff (e.g., telecommunications devices, emergency tools, and, of course, lots of  bullets). The US Army’s solution is the “load bearing vest,” a harness-like vest on which a soldier can attach various pockets, holders, and modules of various sizes to suit the mission.
  • Modular backpack. In 1991, I purchased a Camptrails modular backpack. Fully assembled, it has enough carry capacity for a brief stint in the wilderness, complete with a mombo belt, which is key to carrying heavy loads comfortably. For day trips or afternoon excursions away from camp, one can split the case, carrying only the upper daypack portion or the smaller fanny-pack portion as dictated by the trip. This suggested to me that the MBLC could attach to the outside of a briefcase or suitcase in order to solve the bag-in-bag problem. More significantly for the ultimate design, it reinforced the idea of modularity in general.

Double Case System

At this point, you may ask, why is this a hard problem? Just have a separate briefcase and suitcase like everyone else. Carry a laptop bag whether commuting or traveling to hold business-related things, including the little stuff stowed in its organizer. When on travel, also carry a suitcase of whatever appropriate size for clothes, cosmetics, and running shoes (if so desired). I mean, why not?

Excellent question. Just the sort of thing they’d ask you on the schlepping engineering certification exam. Here’s why not: Two cases raises the multi-bag problem. For the same bulk, two bags are harder to carry than one. Two bags means occupying both hands if using handles or dealing with two carrying straps if not. It imposes a substantial mental and physical burden: two bags is twice as much to keep track of and infinitely more likely to interfere with each other when swinging from my shoulders. Besides, for one’s comfort and convenience, one is limited to two carry-on items on airliners, irrespective of their size, and I wouldn’t doubt that pizza slice counts as an item, which one only is only carrying because (a) one’ initial flight was late, and (b) if there’s any food at all on the plane, it’s (i) marginally edible, and (ii) costs more than an entire pizza on the ground. It’s better to have one case. I would not accept having to carry a suitcase and a briefcase. Whether I’m carrying a lot of a little, I wanted to be able to throw one thing over my shoulder and go.

To achieve this, I envisioned a complete modular system, with a small laptop case and its organizer as the core. The laptop case would be used for all schlepping -commuting, day trips, short and long business trips, and vacations. The organizer would hold the little stuff that I use in all those schlepping contexts, keeping them handy while also avoiding the need to transfer them from case to case. Instead, schlepping modules could be attached to the core case as needed for the context. For example one large module would double capacity to hold clothes and cosmetics for travel.

I first explored taking one very large laptop bag and splitting it into two modules.

However, when I suggested this to John, the luggage repair expert of Brett’s luggage, he convinced me it would be a lot easy to take two small laptop cases as separate modules and build a means to splice them together into one large case when needed.

With that in mind, I set about searching for a laptop bag that met the following requirements:

  • Fabric construction, rather than leather, for easy modification.
  • Preferred dimensions 16 by 10 by about 3 inches, to match my experiences with the flight bag.
  • Expandable for additional capacity/compactness control.
  • Multi-pocket organizer for the little stuff that is easy to access while carrying the case on the shoulder.
  • Easy access to the laptop bay for removing the laptop for airport security checks.
  • Semi-rigid and self-standing, so I can pull things out easily when the case sits on the floor.
  • Reasonably weather resistant, because sometimes it rains.

After scouring the web,  I couldn’t find a case that met all the requirements. I closest I could get was the Pacific Design Evolution Tote Deluxe.

It lacked expandability, but at the time I did the search, that feature was exceedingly rare for small low-profile laptop bags, despite its great usefulness (Pacific Design now makes an expandable version, which I’m considering switching to). At 11-plus inches high, it could be tight for getting under airliner seats, but being fabric, it was squishable. Unlike dispatch-style bags, the main compartment and organizer were easy to get to, and it was more or less self-standing.  And, of course, it came with a carrying strap.

Splicing the core and secondary bags together was accomplished through a combination of a short heavy zipper on top and side-release buckles on the sides.

The latter also served as compression straps, but I don’t think they get much use in that regard. In retrospect, it may have been better to exclude them and use an inverted-U zipper to achieve splice mode. The compass on the top of the core bag, by the way, was something I added. I get disoriented in urban environments, especially when emerging from a subway. A quick glance down at my case tells me where to go.

The doubled up case has capacity for a trip up to two weeks long, provided I don’t bring extra shoes. The shape remains compact enough to fit under some airline seats, at the price of my leg room; for longer flights, I’m inclined to split off the secondary case to squeeze in the overhead and keep the core case at my feet for easy access (I favor window seats; how else could I figure out where I am with the sectional?).

The Weight Eraser

Fully loaded, the doubled case can achieve considerable mass, making the single carrying strap literally a pain. The conventional solution is wheels and a long handle, but that’s literally a drag. Towing a trailer reduces the ability to maneuver in crowds and navigate minor obstacles like cobble stones, curbs, stairs, and escalators (I don’t ride escalators -I walk them; for me they’re for speeding me up; please keep right, and don’t block my way with your trailer). If you have to seriously cruise with your trailer to the next gate to make your flight, forget it. And of course, wheels and a handle means I’ve tied up a hand, which we’ve established to be unacceptable.

Book bags deal with the mass issue by having two shoulder straps. It’s an excellent solution. For light loads or short durations, one can quickly and conveniently throw one strap over a shoulder, but if the duration proves long, one can add another strap and shoulder without even breaking stride. However, even twin shoulder straps get uncomfortable after awhile. As I found with the Camptrails pack, nothing beats a good hip belt for high-mass schlepping. Backpackers will tell you that most of the load should be carried at the belt; backpack shoulder straps are primarily for stability.

So for my case system, I purchased a replacement backpack belt from REI. I replaced the belt’s original semi-rigid foam with softer and thinner quarter-inch neoprene, then attached the belt to the inside of the organizer of the secondary case. This allows me to stow the belt in the organizer when not in use.

In practice, it works better than I expected. It’s a simple click around my waist so I use it even for relatively short schleps, and thus rarely bother to stow it in the organizer.

It fixes the case directly behind me, allowing me to easily negotiate narrow airliner aisles, as long as I remember not to turn sideways. Most significantly, I barely notice the weight of the case, something one particularly appreciates when one needs to make a fast walk from one end of LAX to another, because one missed a plane by a few minutes, because the TSA line, which otherwise was not especially long, took an inordinate amount of time, because the TSA screener was so un-frigging-believably slow at checking IDs that the two x-ray machines were sitting idle most of the time, and the other guys were just standing around but don’t think to help, and, I mean, how much is there to look at on a stupid two-by-three card anyway? That’s a purely hypothetical case of course. Traveling is great.

More Modules

On some trips, a substantial amount of the bulk of my luggage can be attributed to my camera equipment since I favor the large SLR-types. Previously, my choice was either:

  • Place the camera bag inside the suitcase. This necessitated I use the Camptrails backpack or something equally large, and also introduced the bag-in-the-bag problem. The camera is often something I need to get to quickly or else I’d miss a shot, so this wasn’t an attractive option.
  • Carry the camera bag as a separate case. This introduced the multi-bag problem.

The solution was to make the camera bag a module, clicking it on to the core laptop case with a two-inch side-release buckle I added to one side. Now bringing a camera doesn’t require I stow it inside a larger case or carry a second bag. The camera is always quickly available, but it’s easy to detach the camera bag when that’s all I need to carry.

My cosmetics case is less bulky than my camera, but making it a module as well  frees up valuable space in the main compartment of the laptop bag. With this, I don’t need the secondary case for most trips, which are usually only a few business days or a long weekend.

I also find I need to access my cosmetics quite regularly when on travel. There’s the TSA checkpoint of course, where I have to take out my snack-sized Ziplock bag to prove that my half quart cosmetic case doesn’t include over one quart of terrorist-approved liquids. Putting the cosmetic case in the suitcase confronted me with a bag-in-the-bag-in-the-bag problem that mounting it outside ameliorates by one order. Then there’s taking out my contacts after what was already a long day, when I arrive at the airport to learn that some inconsiderate butterfly in Brazil forgot to cover its nose when it sneezed, thus setting off the inevitable meteorological chain reaction bringing, oh, don’t know, too much rain, too much wind, too much sunshine to North America, which completely disrupts the delicately balanced national airspace, delaying my flight for just an hour, they said, but that was three hours ago, so it looks like I’ll be sitting here in airport purgatory, and I might as well not have dry eyes, and ruin the joy of travel.

In any case, I fitted a second side-release buckle to the other end of the core bag so I can clip on the cosmetic case when needed. It’s about as easy to attach the camera and cosmetic modules to the outside of the bag as to find space inside.

Physical modularity is analogous to “soft” modularity you can include in your apps to control complexity. Since eighty percent of your users don’t use eighty percent of your features (but not the same eighty percent for everyone), you can make it easy to add and remove features from the main UI, allowing users to customize it for their idiosyncratic needs.


While I’m turning the conventional suitcase inside out, I could think of several more things that would be handier outside the case, even outside the organizer. It’s a matter of proportional design. Just as you want to make the most common commands easiest to get to in your app, I wanted to make the most common things I needed easiest to get to for my case.

This is where the Load-Bearing Carrying strap comes in. I swapped the adequate 1.5 inch stock carrying strap for a beefier 2 inch strap from EMS, and proceeded to sew or Velcro various soft points for holding the items I need easiest access to while I’m on the go. Depending on the mission, the strap holds my cell phone, LED flashlight, smart-card transit pass, GPS, and RFID card for work, making it the most technologically advanced carrying strap on the eastern seaboard.

(Yes, I’m wearing a digital watch in the photo. The mechanical one is down for servicing.)

The transparent pocket for the transit pass lets the commuter rail conductor see it easily. For airplane travel, I put a note card in the pocket with key itinerary information (e.g., flight numbers, departure times, and which rental car company I’m using this time) so I can see it at a glance while making it through the terminal. The LED flashlight is functional while still attached to the strap, so I can switch it on when navigating a dark garage with motion sensor lights that have an uncanny ability to fail to sense my motion.

With additional microschlepping goodies mostly from Aerostich, the strap can also hold my sunglasses, snacks, and water, keeping all these things conveniently available. And what is modern travel if not about convenience? Like when one is conveniently sitting on the taxiway because of a ground hold, and one can’t get a sip of water from the flight attendants because, oh no, we might takeoff at any moment, and one is thirsty because, after all, one had to blitz to the gate before they closed it right on time, so the plane could be on schedule to go absolutely nowhere for the next hour.

With that much on the carrying strap, sometimes I can leave the briefcase behind. For example, for an afternoon photographic excursions into the wilds, I can detach the camera bag, swap the carrying strap from briefcase to camera bag, and I’m set. It’s the no-case case solution.

Maybe it’s just a suitcase, but I consider it a blow for quick, comfortable, and convenient travel against the unnamed evil powers apparently bent on making the traveling user experience as frustrating, uncomfortable, difficult, and degrading as they possible can. Dammit, I going to enjoy traveling no matter what they do.

Summary Checklist

Problem: Making a versatile schlepping system suitable for commuting and travel.

Potential Solution: Modular cases with:

  • Low profile to fit under airliner seats.
  • Expandability and doubling capability for longer trips.
  • Wide padded belt to carry load.
  • Externally attached cosmetics and camera modules.
  • Load-bearing carrying strap with attachment points for things needed when moving.

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