How a Non-Designer Designed an Amazing Watch
Confession: I’m a watch geek. And I’ve long been on the hunt for a durable timepiece with multiple time-zone functionality for travel … one that doesn’t look absurd, or so gigantic that it resembles a Medieval gauntlet.
So when I saw Manhattan-based Elbert Chu’s lovely COURG project exploding on Kickstarter, I wanted to find out more. Here, Elbert talks how he created the watch, the power of Kickstarter, and how, exactly, as of press time he has exceeded his $30,000 goal by some $425,000.
What’s your background? I’m a science and health journalist and am on staff with the medical news team at MedPage Today.
Do you have any background in product design? I’ve always aspired to design products and even thought about pursuing industrial design, but never took any classes or training. So, let’s just say I admired from a distance and as a DIY hack mostly. … I started as a watch fan—almost exclusively vintage timepieces.
How did the project begin? Although I really appreciated the fine details and distinctive qualities of vintage watches, I found myself often breaking them and perpetually worried that I’d damage them. In recent years, I’ve been drawn to the iconic designs that emerged from pilot and military (watch nerds call this Pil/Mil) constraints. And everything I found was way too large or way too branded to be honest to the original intent of these mission critical instruments.
I’m very particular about the products I own. For example, I commissioned custom mahogany speakers from a maker, I personally selected a slab of black walnut for our coffee table, found a guy who made custom tube-amps for our stereo, and don’t even get me started on my bicycles.
At the time, I was also reading 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss and brainstorming with my wife about an interesting side project to tackle. So eventually—couldn’t find it; made it.
How long, in total, have you been working on the project? I started brainstorming and gathering elements of watches I liked around last July/August. So roughly a year of intentional development. But it’s been stewing for a while before that, so that’d probably count as research—perhaps two years.
Why did you decide to Kickstart it? The traditional retail watch business is really messy and there are so many middlemen taking their cuts. Kickstarter offered the best combination of direct-to-market connection and also hosts its own massive community of backers who mostly understand the adventure they’re embarking on when they jump on board a campaign.
Tell me about some of its unique design elements. We’re fans of the Bauhaus variant. The date function was essential to me, as through the years I’ve found I use it often throughout the day. But I never really liked it when the date would get mashed up inside the negative space of the dial, so I designed it within the hour circumference. Most pilot watches have massive crowns at 3 o’clock inherited from the original designs when pilots used heavy leather gloves, which today have a tendency to dig into the wrist. We don’t have that problem. So, I moved the crown to 4 o’clock and also designed a crownguard that took cues from the round case and flowed around the crown.
For the bezel and crown teeth, I was inspired by the gears and pinions found on planes and other machines. I almost wanted them to look and feel like they were interlocked. I also added a screw-down crown inspired by dive watches to protect the stem and provide more water resistance. There’s just been a somewhat strict line between pilot watches and dive watches that I felt we could merge.
I also designed lugs that counterbalanced the round case, so I went with clean lines that don’t have any weird curves or embellishments. I have always loved the design of WW2 aircraft with their round shapes that were accented with sharp angles and contrasting lines.
Each variant is near and dear to me since I spent so many hours bringing them into the 39mm size and yet maintain some sense of negative space.
That said, I have a special spot for the Bauhaus variant because it took a lot of design sweat to figure out the weights and typography implementation that would create a harmonious expression that was still faithful to Bauhaus without it being some ugly step-child mashup, which it could have easily become. I also wanted to lend a sense of vintage finish to the dials, so I worked with the manufacturer to create numbers that incorporated some engineered “imperfections” to balance the precision with a dash of handmade.
What makes this watch stand apart from others on the market? First, I like to think the COURG has a voice and identity by virtue of its design that people resonate with and don’t find elsewhere. Next, the COURG is the lightest watch in its class. There’s no other watch design out there that integrates a robust automatic movement, ultralight titanium case with sterile iconic dials, and fuses it with the diver functionality in a reasonable size.
Were you going for aesthetics or functionality? Which took precedence? My initial designs focused on capturing the essence of the pilot watches and bringing them into the 39mm framework. I had always spec’d this automatic movement because I wanted that functionality, so that defined the robust dimensions of the case. As I continued to refine the case, I realized I would find a bezel very helpful for the multiple functions it offered, and that in turn informed much of my thinking around the crown shape and design. The bezel and the crown needed to be easy to grip and so that added a more mechanical aesthetic that was absent in my initial ideas. So in a way I started from the inside out, and ultimately I’d say the functionality drove more of the design priorities in the end, which made the COURG distinctive.
… I’m not a trained designer so I’ve had to learn a lot of rules along the way that I think would have helped guide my process more. My wife is a graphic designer, so she does her best to impart some wisdom on this hack. That said, I don’t really know if I broke any “design” rules. That said, I’ve heard some scary stories of people who designed wonderful ideas on 3D printers or CNC machines only to find they wouldn’t scale in production. So, I worked with our manufacturer to make sure what I designed could actually be made.
How soon after launching was it funded—and did you ever expect a response this big? I’ve been totally shocked and humbled at the response of our backers. We funded in 3 hours, with over 1,500 backers at 1500% above our goal.
It seems you’re still tweaking the design and different elements as the campaign progresses. There’s a very agile methodology to it. I’ve seen a lot of crowdfunded watches where it’s sort of this “take it or leave it” attitude, which I respect. It’s very, very difficult to steer the Kickstarter flight while trying to manage design refinements. I’ve always wanted to hear what our backers like and don’t like and what their priorities are. I see them as our earliest investors, so I really value their voice.
That said, I agree with many of our backers who say they signed up for the vision they saw in my initial designs and want me to stay true to that. There’s so many good ideas and so it’s still up to me to navigate and make sure we stay the course and not get distracted by things that’ll just add drag to the project. I made a difficult decision not to move forward with a larger 42mm version of the COURG right now and focus on the 39mm, so it’s been sad to see some backers bail, but it’s the best decision for the overall project at this point.
The logistics of how we’re working together definitely need some work and there’s probably a better way to do this, but Kickstarter surprisingly does not really have a great comment system. It’s quite rudimentary, and then I have to shuffle between messages and comments and juggle the two.
What do you see as the value of crowdfunding platforms today? It’s a wonderful community of makers and people who appreciate makers. So while designers get to see if there’s a market for their products/projects, backers enjoy massive discounts for helping us get off the ground. And hopefully the backers that we start with become friends and long-term true fans that can really get behind a creators’ larger vision beyond the one campaign. I’ve already experienced such a great community of people who encourage us and keep us going during difficult decisions and some outlandish requests.
Would this watch have been possible without Kickstarter? The COURG would have only existed on my wrist, and perhaps three others who would have gotten the first prototypes if I felt like sharing. We would not have reached this scale within such a short amount of time if we had tried to go the conventional retail routes or stayed only within my own network.
Have you hit any major snags? Not yet! The biggest obstacle in the beginning was identifying a manufacturer we could work with. The Venn Diagram between titanium, low-minimum order quantity, and willingness to provide a reasonably priced prototype was very, very slim—in fact, there were only two companies I could find.
What are the next steps for the project? We’re right at the halfway point, so the plan is to finalize stretch goals such as upgrading the titanium to a harder and lighter grade, and boosting water resistance rated for scuba diving. We’ll also finalize design refinements in the dials and hands. I’m negotiating with our suppliers (five of them!). Once the campaign is over we’ll have one more round of production prototypes and once those are approved we move to full production mode on watches, packaging, waxed canvas rolls, and straps.
What do you see as the key to a successful Kickstarter? Distinctive design, thoughtful branding that’s translated into graphic assets, making friends with influencers, sharing ideas early to get responses, quality photography/video.
What do you want to make next? I have too many ideas, I have a whole list! I’ve made and have been working on an ultralight backpack for a few years and I’m on the 4th prototype on that. I’m a cyclist, so I want to work on a new pannier design as well. Then there’s the folding kayak on the back burner. If I lived somewhere other than Manhattan, I’d have a workshop, and a lot more machines to fabricate with! Let’s just say my wife is very patient.
Final Deadline: August 7, 2015