This week, I received two separate text messages from friends containing an image of Target's new canvas and leather "lunch tote" priced at $11.99. It looks very much like the wax canvas lunch tote I designed in 2010. My friends asked me if I was frustrated by this. Interesting question.
A little back story. In 2010, I worked at PayPal's call center and needed something to carry my lunch in. PayPal had several huge commercial refrigerators for their hundreds of employees to use. We were allotted 30 min for lunch and I marveled how many of my coworkers brought their lunch in white plastic Target bags. Much of their 30 mins was spend trying to figure out which one was theirs. This inefficiency ritual happened every day for the 10 months I worked there.
I needed a unique lunch carrier but when I looked online I did not see anything that spoke to me. I love the simplicity of a brown paper sack but using them seemed wasteful. I'm handy, so I carried over the lunch sack silhouette (and dimensions) into a sewn wax canvas tote secured with a Horween leather strap and tab.
I made a prototype lunch tote on my vintage commercial sewing machine and the following day, I field tested it at PayPal. With a tingle of pride, I set my new creation among the mountain of plastic Target bags in our community refrigerator. Not a single coworker commented on my lunch tote that day, nor any day of my tenure at PayPal.
Regardless, I believed that if I had struggled to purchase a lunch tote that did not incorporate velcro, nylon, plastic, or eye punishing neon colors, there may be market potential for my design.
February 2010, I launched a shop on Etsy and listed my lunch tote along with a few other utilitarian tote designs. Over the following months sales and organic exposure grew to a crescendo which allowed me to leave my PayPal cubicle and run ARTIFACT full-time.
It was glorious to have my lunch tote design validated with product features in New York Times, Gizmodo, Uncrate, and more, but it quickly became a double-edged sword. In short time I saw wax canvas lunch totes popping up on Alibaba, in competing trade show booths, and in big box stores like Old Navy. Some of the lunch totes were logical iterations of my design. Most were straight-up copies (minus meticulous build quality, premium leather and canvas, and appropriate proportions).
It still dumfounds me how we live in a hyper litigious society, yet intellectual property rights for designs are nearly impossible to protect. Had these copycat lunch tote makers incorporated my Artifact brand mark, I would have had a leg to stand on. Well, sort of... I would have a clear case to pursue, but no legal budget to get traction.
So, am I frustrated by Target's lunch tote? Nope. They are downstream and have no idea where the genesis of the design originally came from. Nor should they care. They are not a fellow design entrepreneur with respect for other's intellectual property. Target is design telephone game, where the essence of good product design is diluted and constrained by market into a blurry mirage of its former self.
Fortunately, those seeking lasting relationships with quality products do their homework and are not be tempted by Target's seduction. I'm very happy that despite a market flooded with canvas and leather lunch totes, people are still choosing ARTIFACT's lunch tote. I'm also proud to have earned the accolade of having a design idea that now resides in the pantheon of product ubiquity, along side some of my other greatest hits (see leather y-strap aprons).