Kris Holm owner of Kris Holm Unicycles shares his thoughts on design
Kris Holm is a world trials champion, legendary mountain unicyclist and founder of Kris Holm Unicycles. He played a key role in shaping the fundamentals of mountain unicycling (muni) and trials, becoming one of the best-known and most experienced riders in the process. In his recently published, The Essential Guide to Mountain and Trials Unicycling, Kris provides a complete instructional book for riding off-road on one wheel. There are plenty of entertaining stories, over 250 photos, plus the knowledge gained from riding adventures around the world bundled. Kris gives strait forward tips and techniques for beginners venturing off-road for the first time or more advanced riders honing their skills.
We wanted to ask him about how two legs, one wheel and a lot of skill relate to design and manufacturing; Kris was kind enough to share his thoughts.
Innate: What motivated you to design your own unicycles?
Kris: In 1998 I designed my first unicycle out of pure necessity, not for business reasons, with the help of a local machine shop called Toby’s Cycleworks. At the time, no commercially made unicycle existed that could stand up to the technical trails I wanted to ride. It was only later that I saw a business opportunity as mountain unicycling became more established and online retailing took off.
Innate: What is the driving force behind your designs?
Kris: I came into off-road cycling with the minimalist ideals of a climber. My major driving force was attempting harder trails with less dependence on gear, and riding on a single wheel felt like a better design from this perspective. Ultimately, the driving force behind my designs is riding, not the equipment itself. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one: the measure of a design’s success is whether the gear becomes part of your experience such that you forget about it. If your equipment keeps reminding you that it’s there, there’s something wrong with it.
Innate: When does design end and tinkering begin? Give us an example of an obsession for a particular design or component that you are really proud of.
Kris: In the beginning of my sport, equipment was inadequate and good design was measured by only one factor: whether or not it would break. These were the days where it truly was design, not tinkering: making basic advances compared to gear that didn’t work well at all. An obsession for me was saddles, because a unicycle saddle has the combined importance of a saddle and handlebars on a bike. KH saddles were the first mass-produced model comfortable and strong out of the box, first designed in 2001, tinkered with until 2008, and then redesigned from the ground up in 2009. To me, tinkering is taking an existing design and making it better, whereas design is more fundamental than that.
Innate: How about your suppliers of parts – what do you look for when you choose one?
Kris: KHU is a small company making small quantities of specialized gear. I need to match the needs of my supplier with that. It’s no use working with a large supplier, even if they’re good, if I can hardly meet their minimum orders and they feel like they’re doing me a favour by working with me. I want a supplier for whom I’m important as a customer. Beyond that, consistency is important, so that the actual production is just as good quality as the samples produced early in the design process.
Innate: Any advice for people interested in design?
Kris: I’d say that it’s important to think of design as one component within the larger framework of product development, which requires a team of people with different skills. There’s a world of difference between designing a sample that works compared to a marketable product that you can make over and over at good quality. It’s also worth asking yourself whether you’re designing a solution looking for a problem, or something that’s really needed. Finally, if you’re trying to bring a product to market, know your niche and remember that good design might just get you to the starting line. You still have to explain to your target market why it’s good and why that matters.
Innate: You were the first cycling company worldwide as well as being the first Canadian company to join 1% For The Planet, the umbrella organization for companies who contribute 1% of their annual sales to environmental organizations. Nicely done. Can you fill us in on how you reconcile this with some of the challenges you must face in manufacturing unicycles; what are you striving to do in your manufacturing supply chain?
Kris: On the design side, I try to limit environmental impact by designing the smallest possible range of models at high quality and versatility – the idea being that riders can buy less stuff for a wider scope of riding. Sometimes it’s possible to take small steps through particular design specs; for example on the saddles I don’t use any glue in the saddle covers and have the correct recycling symbol (#5) on the frame and bumpers for end-of-life disposal. As a rider, it’s sometimes possible to use the balance and simplicity of unicycling as a media talking point for broader issues, for example this film for Mercedes Benz. It’s not perfect, but collectively I hope it adds up to something meaningful. One thing I do like about being affiliated with 1% FTP is that, besides the financial commitment, it magnifies the small influence I have as a tiny company across a larger network.