Words by William Tracy with images by Toby Rohrbach
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ROKA has exploded onto the scene in the past few years, offering comfortable, high-performance eyewear with unique styling. But the story of how a small wetsuit brand became one of the top sports sunglass brands began, oddly enough, with cheap gas station aviators.
The Austin, Texas, company got its start when cofounders Kurt Spenser and Rob Canales, former teammates on the swim team at Stanford University, began making wetsuits for triathlon in that oh-so-fabled workshop: the garage. Early on, they made a wetsuit for triathlete Jesse Thomas, who one day showed up to a race without his sports sunglasses and had to make do with cheap aviators. That race proved to be his first professional triathlon victory, and the aviators became a signature look for Thomas. So Spenser and Canales soon offered to build him sports-performance aviator sunglasses.
In making those glasses, Spenser and Canales didn’t follow the market or the trends. They realized performance and lifestyle are not two different things. “Performance is our lifestyle,” says Spenser. “We demand a lot from our gear, and we saw the intersection of those two things as a big opportunity.”
The brand has grown since that first sunglass design, but the original ethos continues in every new style the brand makes. When creating new sunglasses, the first step is simple enough: identify a problem to solve. Suggestions are sourced both internally and from the brand’s sponsored athletes. In the case of the Matador, the brand’s most recent sunglass, the latest low-profile, tighter-fitting helmets used by ROKA’s professional cyclists presented a fit problem with the brand’s existing sunglasses.
After a problem is identified, the next step is figuring out the inspiration for the new product. For the Matador, Spenser and his team looked at a variety of sources from recent decades—everything from snowboarding to retro cycling glasses to the automotive world—until they found the common elements they were looking for. Ultimately, for the Matador, they aimed for a modern design with a hint of nostalgia—but still clearly part of the brand’s look and DNA.
Once the inspiration for the design is laid out, Spenser hands off a project to Toby Rohrbach, ROKA’s vice president of design for hard goods. When it comes time to actually make a product, the design team starts with its intended use. Since the Matador was being developed for cycling, the team’s starting point was the tucked riding position. The team also knew it wanted a cylindrical lens because it is more optically correct for cycling—but the tightly wrapped cylindrical lens they wanted did not exist, meaning they also had to design a new lens from scratch.
To get a new process started, Rohrbach first makes chicken scratch drawings, before developing “more emotional” images he shares with his design team. His sketches focus on the various problems the team is trying to design for—including aesthetics, weight, balance and proportions. Rohrbach says the team has to do its due diligence in this phase to dial in the idea before moving on to the more tangible 3D prototype phase.
ROKA’s 3D prototype process blends the digital side of design with the analog, utilizing both computer and hand modeling. As Spenser puts it, “We come from that Apollo 13 school of design where it doesn’t matter if all you have is some paper clips, rubber bands and Magic Markers. Through bringing this thing to life in some physical form, we’re going to learn something.”
The process involves all sorts of physical models: 3D printed; clay pieces; wax-covered 3D-printed pieces. The design team will use whatever it can to move the 3D process forward and solve problems. Over the course of our conversation, Spenser held up a few of these models, each made using a different process and focusing on different parts of the design.
The designers will do a new version each day, review a new part and make refinements. Sometimes the process is smooth, and they can figure things out digitally. Other times problems are tough, and they have to dig into hand sculpture. You can only see so much in a digital screen sometimes, says Rohrbach. When you have something physical in your hands, you really see what’s going on and the nuances of the product. From there the team starts mocking up the refinements.
Despite what would seem like extra labor to make these physical models, Rohrbach—who previously worked in automotive design where clay modeling is commonly used—says this process actually speeds up the development, allowing them to see depth, texture as well as an emotional quality of the product that can be impossible to get otherwise.
Elements like the unique temple design of the Matador evolved directly through this process. The temple turned into a sort of reverse, upside-down concept, which helped solve many of their design problems.
Rohrbach estimates on any given sunglass project, his team will print and refine on average 25 to 30 prototypes on the low end, and up to 50 or 60 prints on the upper end. Spenser estimates even more, saying it could exceed 100 all said and done.
At any given time, Rohrbach estimates there are four to seven projects in the development pipeline that are close to being released, in addition to the dozens of other projects in earlier stages of development. That’s a lot of modeling.
When I ask when they decide the product is finally done, Spenser laughs, saying, “It’s never done.” Cofounders Spenser and Canales have the final say, but first the entire team reaches a point where they feel the product has accomplished its original goal, and that it is better than anything else on the market. For the Matador, all said and done, from idea to being available in stores, the entire design and development process took an estimated 18 months.
Rohrbach says that for 90 percent of the time they still see opportunity for innovation and improvement when going to market. But there’s no way to get all the insight from a product until it’s in the hands of actual customers. And at a certain point, it’s time to release it into the wild. Then the very next day they get right back to refining the product and incorporating what they’ve learned into other projects.
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