Story: Nitsuh Abebe
Spend much time browsing Kickstarter, and you’re bound to notice: there are a lot of wallets happening here.
Granted, “a lot” is a relative term. As I type this, there are 4,463 projects seeking funding, and only 17 of them involve wallets — about a third of a percent. But given the millions of other things a project could hope to make, 17 is not a tiny number. Wallets are a perennial around here: one of a handful of products you’ll consistently see at least two or three of on the site, well on their way to being funded, any time you look. Minimalist wallets, leather billfolds, elastic card-holders, carbon-fiber money clips, CNC-machined metal wallets, wallets made out of everything from superlight Tyvek to fabric from vintage men’s ties. (The ties were Laura Skelton’s idea: her Jetsam wallet was the first ever funded on Kickstarter.) There are enough wallets that while we were working on this article, Businessweek called us up to ask about them, and published this.
You could just shrug at the popularity of wallet projects, and browse on into the 4,446 other things happening on Kickstarter. Or you might roll your eyes — another day, another slim wallet — about which we would not exactly blame you. Here’s the thing, though: dig into why wallet-making is so popular, and the whole thing becomes genuinely, no-kidding super-interesting. Turns out that if someone wants to learn more about creating a product and putting it in other people’s hands, making a wallet is a terrific way of getting started, for all sorts of fascinating reasons.
I spent a little while asking around about it, and learned many things — about design thinking, O-rings, the possibility of a cashless society, and humankind’s endless quest for some new and less-annoying way of carrying our stuff around. These are a few of those things.
Why make wallets?
The obvious first person to ask was Kickstarter’s own John Dimatos, who works closely with the design and technology communities. Dimatos is a longtime believer that wallet projects are more fascinating than they get credit for — especially when they’re used as a starting point for people who want to learn more about creating things. “If you wanted to make a wallet,” he asks, “do you think you’d be able to figure it out? You can figure it out, right? It’s a series of actions, one after another, that if you kind of line them up, you understand how it ends up as a product.”
That, he figures, is a huge part of the appeal. It’s not that wallets are easy to create. But they’re approachable. They tend not to involve many different materials or moving parts; they’re built from a few simple pieces, folded or sewn or banded together. That makes them one step on a path that could lead creators just about anywhere. “Maybe their first project will be that wallet,” says Dimatos. “And maybe they’ll do a second, or a third, and eventually they’ll get to one that’s riskier, more ambitious. You do the smaller things first.”
Take Stephen Greenberg, the L.A. designer behind the Yubi wallet , funded on Kickstarter last fall. This spring, he moved on to a new project called Stackerware , a system for storing and organizing food containers. It’s a lot more elaborate than the wallet, which Greenberg says he sat down at a sewing machine and manufactured on his own. He also tells me he had the idea for Stackerware before he tried funding a wallet: “I wanted to get my feet wet first,” he says, “with a less ambitious project and funding goal. And it was a good decision, since I made a lot of mistakes with Yubi.”
Stackerware, from Stephen Greenberg
Build a better
Using the wallet as a conceptual starting point isn’t just a Kickstarter thing, either. At Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka the d.school), educators developed a workshop called the Wallet Project — a 90-minute exercise for introducing non-designers to design thinking, and using creativity to satisfy human problems. How do participants learn this stuff? By pairing off, trading wallets or pocketbooks, and talking about what they could create to improve their partners’ experience. Thomas Both, the d.school fellow who designed some of the resources for the exercise, says wallets are an ideal subject because they contain so much information about a person’s everyday life and needs.
When it comes to the projects on Kickstarter, Both can immediately picture the appeal. “If you go to design school,” he says, “every student has to design a chair and a lamp — things that have a lot of different styles and interpretations, but are also just basic building blocks of things we all have. Maybe when you get into manufacturing, the wallet is the same sort of thing. There’s a lot of different possibilities to it, but it’s on a scale where someone who’s not as experienced with manufacturing can jump in and start making these things. And it’s something people care about, something people have strong opinions on. We all want a better wallet.”
The Flexy Money Clip is cut from carbon-fiber sheets
For Mike Sargent, who used Kickstarter to fund the Flexy Money Clip and the Flexy 2.0 “Un-Wallet,” the simplicity and approachability of a wallet are precisely what make it an exciting design challenge. “There are only so many different ways you can carry and organize paper money and credit cards,” he says. “So you can spend a lot of time trying to make the function absolutely perfect.”
TGT "Tight" Wallet, by Jack Sutter
You don’t need to be a full-time designer to enjoy that challenge. The most-funded wallet in Kickstarter’s history actually comes from a filmmaker, Jack Sutter — and he never even liked wallets to begin with. “Every wallet I’ve ever owned was a makeshift thing I’d done myself,” he says. “I had a duct-tape one for a while, and then I did the rubber-band thing for years and years.” One night, after noticing that he and a friend were both using rubber bands to hold their things, he started dreaming up the TGT “Tight” Wallet , a more polished leather-and-elastic version of the same central concept. People told him it “had Kickstarter written all over it,” and a few calculations later, he figured he could make a large batch if only he could raise — this felt like a long shot — $20,000 in funding. His Kickstarter project wound up with $317,424 in pledges.
“I thought I’d have to make maybe 200 or 300,” he says, “and it turned into having to make, like, 13,000 wallets. And it was based around this holiday delivery schedule — I’d told everyone they were gifts!”
Warning: This is not as easy as it looks
Jack Sutter at work
When projects explode like Sutter’s did, a lot of them fall off schedule, swamped by a larger task than they’d planned for. Sutter, sort of heroically, appears to have dropped everything, scoured the east coast for manufacturers that could work on short notice, and pulled it off. But he cautions against considering wallets “easy” — when I use that word, I can almost hear him shaking his head over the phone. “If I was making something electronic that could explode, dealing with complicated facets of production … it’s easier than that,” he says. “But no, I didn’t find it to be an easy start. If you’d never done production before, you wouldn’t know the intricacies, how many checkpoints and processes you have to be familiar with. And it’s all about relationships, which I don’t think get easier with a simpler product.”
I heard something similar from the team at Obstructures, a trio of designers who’ve used Kickstarter to fund a few different machined-aluminum products. (There’s a multi-tool, a wallet, and one very impressive implement that’s been described in this office as “the Stealth Bomber of clipboards.”) All are among the most straightforward objects the people at Obstructures have worked on: one of them is an architect, and Matt Hall, with whom I spoke, has plenty of experience making musical instruments out of aluminum. Their goal with projects like the Aluminum Plate Wallet System — two machined metal plates, opened and closed by sliding O-rings — was to feel out the process of mass-producing a design. “We thought it was going to be simple,” says Hall, “because we’d designed buildings. We’d made intricate machined guitars. I think there’s a misconception that it’s simple. You hear about people seeing wallets on Kickstarter and thinking, ‘I bet I could make that in my garage.’ But a lot of those wallets are very complicated. I’m amazed by the ingenuity. We were trying to make ours as simple as possible, and still … where we put the notches, what the durometer of the O-rings was, the tension on the plates — it was an incredible study.”
By the time Obstructures reached the Bandboard , though, the advantages of the wallet were clearer. “We were going from one size O-ring to fourteen,” says Hall. “We had precision bends. The wallet was simple in comparison.” Meanwhile, Sargent moved on from the Flexy money-clip to a keyholder called Switchy. “Switchy went relatively smoothly because of what I learned on Flexy,” he says. “I knew how long the process would take. I had a good estimate for what my costs would be. And I learned a lot about shipping.”
So why do people back wallet projects?
Ask around, and the first answer you’ll get is a straightforward one: people need wallets. Lots of people. I don’t know what percentage of humans carry their money in wallets, but it’s high — much higher than the percentage who, say, use a clipboard, or carry a backpack. And since the average wallet is relatively affordable (Sutter’s could be had for a $16 pledge, Obstructures’ for $20), it’s not a huge investment to try your luck with an interesting new design. Plus: people get wallets. “It’s an easily understood product,” says Dimatos. “People get how a wallet fits into their lives.” It’s one of the least specialized things you could make: millions of people are already using them, all day long, keenly aware of what annoys them about the experience.
And rest assured that people are annoyed. Spend enough time talking about wallets, and you’ll notice a vast, free-floating despair: the wallets of this world satisfy nobody. We spend so much time handling them that the tiniest flaw is as maddening as a pebble in your sock. We all crave the “perfect” wallet, but the perfect wallet is a unicorn — a magical, unobtainable beast, its design perfectly poised between a dozen conflicting qualities. It keeps your things secure, but easy to access. It’s light enough that you don’t notice you’re carrying it, but substantial enough to notice if it’s gone. It’s large enough to hold everything you need, but not a millimeter larger. It’s comfortable, nice-looking, interesting, charming …
… and if you walk into an ordinary department store in search of this unicorn, you will be very disappointed. “The wallets are all the same, they’re falling over, they’re in a corner of the store that nobody cares about,” says Dimatos. “And you kind of think, that’s why there are so many on Kickstarter — because this sucks!” Sargent agrees: “All the wallets you see in stores are pretty much the same. They’ve all been copying each other for the past hundred years.”
There seem to be two main things underlying our epidemic of wallet-despair, and that’s the first of them: it’s possible the traditional leather billfold and the 21st century are gradually parting ways. The classic men’s wallet found its final form in the 1940s and 50s: a fold for cash, slots for cards. But consider a wallet’s job then versus a wallet’s job today. “People are carrying less stuff,” says Sargent. “Less cash, fewer cards — the kinds of membership cards people used to carry, a lot of them just use a phone number now.” Business cards are less essential when you can trade contacts by phone. Receipts, shopping lists, pictures of loved ones — every year, more of us outsource this work from wallet to phone.
Hence, perhaps, the perennial appeal of the “slim” wallet. “That thing where you don’t have to take your wallet out of your back pocket and put it on the table at dinner?” asks Sutter. “People are grateful when that’s out of their lives.” (It can’t hurt that a more minimal wallet uses less material, making it more affordable to produce.) “People are carrying less cash than previous generations,” says Greenberg, “so minimal wallets appeal to the Kickstarter demographic. And wallets are highly representative of one’s style, similar to how one dresses. I think people were discovering wallets on Kickstarter that appealed to their sense of personal style — minimalist wallets, carbon-fiber wallets, metal wallets.”
And that — the desire for a wallet that suits you like no other — is the other thing beneath the despair. “People are very particular about their wallets,” says Sargent. “It’s something you touch and use constantly. You want it to be the right one.”
Wanting the right one: this was the logic behind the Kit Tailored Wallet. Chad and Jessica Schumacher, its makers, first came to Kickstarter as the creators of handmade pens — a practice Chad picked up from his father, and decided to dig into after the collapse of the tech firm where he and Jessica had been working. Two successful projects later, they wanted to see if they could use their equipment to work with leather, as well. In their case, the starting point actually wasn’t a wallet: “We did a notebook cover to kind of cut our teeth on leather work,” Chad says. “We wanted to feel out our processes and get better sewing equipment before tackling the wallet.”
Options for Allegory Pens' Kit Tailored Wallet
Their business, Allegory Pens, wanted to tackle a very specific problem with the mass-produced wallet. “Whenever you’re going to make thousands or tens of thousands of something, you have to shoot for the middle of the target,” Chad says. “You end up with things that might work relatively well for most people, but it never does click with each person as an individual. There’s always two or three pockets you use because they’re in there, but you wouldn’t have put them there yourself. And the way our process was set up, we could do a lot of customization, as long as we had a consistent, clear-cut way of going about it.” So the Kit let backers choose the functions they wanted from specific wallet panels — a money clip, a card slot, a key pocket — while still keeping the creation process organized. Schumacher says it paid off. “The folks that did the special edition, where they could have custom lining and all those things — a lot of those folks came back and said, ‘This is the best wallet I’ve ever owned.’ Not necessarily because we’re better at making wallets than the next guy, but because it was made to be exactly what that person wanted.”
That’s something you’re unlikely to find in the sad wallet corner of the department store. Same goes for wallets made of CNC-machined aluminum, or carbon fiber. Go into stores looking for variety in your wallet selection, and most of what you’ll find revolves around aesthetics, not function; you’ll see different fabrics, novel prints and patterns, stamps and logos. But as Greenberg says, the wallet you carry can have a lot to do with your style, taste, and identity. And if your identity includes getting a little geeky over design, function, and the process of making things — the idea that you can reach into your pocket and touch an object you sought out to work in a fascinating way, and every time somebody asks “is that wallet metal?” you’ll be able to tell them exactly why — the designs that show up on Kickstarter stand a good chances of beating the mass-produced billfolds at the nearest mall. Put it another way: if the number of slim-wallet designs on this website ever feels repetitive, just search for “slim wallet” at an online retailer.
But are wallet projects all pretty similar?
Answering this question is where we step into the realm of true maker geekdom. Wallets are ultimately all about the small details — those tiny pebble-in-your-shoe subtleties that suit one person’s needs and ruin the next person’s day. “It’s a product that has to do a lot of different things at the same time,” says Dimatos, “and you can’t push one part of it without pulling on the others. Make your wallet too slim, and congratulations, it now fits nothing.”
Scan through the history of wallet-project designs, and you’ll see the same broad strokes repeated. Zoom in on the details, though, and what you see isn’t simple repetition — it’s more like a strange form of evolution and natural selection. There are certain basic wallet forms: the slim leather billfold, the elastic sleeve, the two rigid plates. But each iteration of them tweaks one element, or optimizes another, to find its own niche, like bird species evolving to pick berries from different parts of the same tree.
Obstructures’ design for the Aluminum Plate Wallet, for instance, owes a bit to one of Kickstarter’s earliest slim-wallet hits. The picture on the left above is the Humn: two carbon-fiber plates, held together by a flexible band. One member of the Obstructures team had tried out the Humn, and noticed an issue: when he spread the two plates apart, tension on the band stayed high. If his fingers slipped, the plates could snap back together on them. So the Aluminum Plate Wallet (in the center) was designed to release the tension when the wallet was opened. Obsctructures band the plates together with two O-rings; pull the plates apart, and one ring rolls down toward the other, dropping the tension. (There’s a manufacturing perk, too: O-rings are common, easy to source, and don’t need to be cut to measure.)
This month, you could find the same notch-and-ring system in the Bracket Wallet (on the right). But the Bracket design tweaks something else: where the Aluminum Plate has a solid, substantial, elegant look and feel, the Bracket runs back toward the same breezy minimalism as the Humn, with bright, slim carbon-fiber plates.
Similar things happen to every design. The elastic sleeve keeps mutating, evolving niche features to suit different backers. “They’re all very different,” says Sutter. “Things like the Crabby versus the Slim versus TGT — they’re all using similar principles, but I don’t find them redundant.” It’s more like one big process of crowd-based personalization; wait long enough, and there’s a good chance someone will tweak the wallet in a way that suits you. “Everybody’s got their own way of innovating within that archetype,” says Hall. “The metal wallets aren’t terribly different, but they appeal to different sensibilities. Some people like more tools integrated. Some people prefer making it as compact as possible. I think there’s still a lot of room to play with it.”
Then there’s the simple thrill of making things.
Sometimes it’s easy to think of Kickstarter projects in an isolated way: you picture someone having an interesting idea, then seeking the funding to make it happen. But part of what’s interesting about wallets is how many of the creators behind them have the larger goal of simply making things — learning more about moving from design to manufacturing, showing a product to the world, and putting their work in other people’s hands. The dream isn’t the wallet itself; it’s the ability to successfully add a useful product to the world.
Plenty of these creators are already in the field of making things. Sargent, for instance, runs a business that makes aerospace parts; his Kickstarter projects were a way of learning what kinds of consumer products he could use his prototyping equipment to make. Allegory aimed to make pens with a richer meaning than the average mass-produced object, and saw leather goods as a way their equipment and processes could branch out in new directions. Greenberg’s background was actually in video games and film — he transferred his skill with making 3D models into making CAD designs for products.
These are all business moves — ways of using equipment more efficiently, serving demand, finding a market. But they also feel motivated by a simple desire to see what can be made. There’s a thrill in the notion that the simple objects we touch every day don’t have to come from some vast global chain of megafactories and superstores, designed by massive conglomerates to serve everyone in general and nobody in particular. If you have the ideas and the skills, you could create a wallet, or a pen, or a lamp, or a water bottle — any of the manufactured objects you see around you every day — rather than waiting for it to materialize from some corporate ether.
It’s a small thing, but there’s a certain satisfaction in it. “If you look at Kickstarter as a place where designers, producers, creators, and people who care about what they have in their lives can meet and agree on stuff,” says Dimatos, “then for everything that’s boring, this can happen. You know that boring thing? Well, now there’s five half-interesting ones people want to fund. And one day, maybe, there’ll be a couple really interesting ones people want to fund.”