Does your design add value?

I was asked recently to quote on a design project. I quoted around R5,000 for the CAD design, which was a very reasonable amount considering the complexity of the job (quite complex but not a big job), the hours I would spend doing it, and the substantial base knowledge I have of the specific type of product. The tooling for the product would cost the potential customer about R120,000 to get made. Imagine my surprise when the customer let me know that they had decided that my quote was a bit much for them, so they would do the design in-house.

Now, I know with certainty that no-one at this particular company has any reasonable knowledge of the specific type of product. They also know my skill set, and acknowledge that my design will be better than their own. Nonetheless, they would rather save a little money upfront and then go ahead to spend a chunk of money on a tool in order to manufacture a product for the next few years that will not be nearly as good as it could and should have been.

This specific quote is not a big deal in the bigger scheme of things, but it typified one of my biggest pet hates in this world, both as a designer and as a businessman.

My reasoning is simple: to make a tool for a product costs what it costs, regardless of whether it is a good design or a bad design. To manufacture the actual product costs what it costs, regardless of whether it is a good design or a bad design. Yes, there could be cost differences as a result of using more expensive vs cheap material, and yes, sometime a really good design may require a more complex manufacturing process. But, for the vast majority of products on the market, the manufacturing cost is what it is, no matter how good or bad the initial design.

So, why on earth would anyone spend the money on expensive tooling to make a product to sell, if the design does not aim to be the best it can be? Some products are designed to fail to make them consumables, and this is another pet hate of mine. But, many products that were clearly not intended to be consumables tend to fail miserably after minimal use, or are simply not as practical or as user friendly as they could have been with very minor design changes – without costing a cent more to manufacture.

Every designer knows that no design is ever perfect. It can always be better. In the development of any new product, the line has to be drawn at some point where development (and the associated costs) needs to stop and the product must be put into production to start earning money. This point could be determined by a physical deadline like a trade show or a seasonal market that is about to kick in, or it may be determined by the budget (often both seem to converge at the same point!). But, every designer worth his salt will aim to reach that line with the design at 80% or 90% of what can be achieved with current knowledge and limitations.

My regular frustrations with so many products that we often use tells me that a large number of designers settle at 20% or 30%. Is this because they simply cannot do better? Is it because they do not care? Is it because their employers/clients do not care? Is there just not enough time to do things properly? What I know with certainty is that for the vast majority of products on the market, the cost of design (literally, the cost of paying a designer), is a fraction of the total costs involved in the lifespan of each product.

As I said to a friend of mine today, when we discussed this matter, there is a big difference between drawing something and designing something. Many products are just drawn, with little deep thought and little real understanding of the product. Good design costs more, but it will make the capital investment so much more worthwhile, and will actually give joy to the users of the product instead of frustration.

I often think of a speech that a lecturer in my final year at varsity gave to us, just before our final exams. Yes, that was 23 years ago, but I still remember it because it resonated with me. The main premise of his message was that it is our duty as engineers to add value. That’s quite a powerful message, and in my mind it sets the criteria for evaluating our own work. If more designers, manufacturers and brands would take this to heart, then we may see a more even spread of good, usable, durable products out there instead of pockets of brilliance and a sea of garbage.

About life-changing experiences

I often hear people talk or write about a life-changing experience. Sometimes they refer to trauma or having a child born or having a religious turn-around, but most often, at least in my larger circle of acquaintances (read: facebook friends), they refer to an adventurous experience of some sort. It could be a kayak expedition, a week in the mountains, hiking a Camino, doing a big adventure race, a month on the South Pole, backpacking through Europe, the list goes on.

I just read another post by someone who claimed to have had a life-changing experience, and it got me thinking about this phenomenon. Does it really changes one’s life? What changes? Is the change permanent, or is there a limited lifespan to this change? If so, what is the half-life of the change? And if the change is permanent, how many times can one’s life be changed by life-changing experiences?

My hypothesis is this: One’s life can only be changed in a fundamental way a couple of times over your lifespan. By definition, a fundamental change should change your outlook on life, your habits, your relationships, your chosen form of relaxation, your body image, and so on. These things don’t change easily and don’t change often. If your life changes fundamentally on a regular base, you are probably suffering from a serious mental condition.

So what to make of these life-changing experiences? Is everyone lying, or have these just become buzz-words to describe any experience that is out of the ordinary? The fact that an experience is different from your every-day life, does it mean that it changes your life?

I have been fortunate enough to have done a whole lot of different missions throughout my life that would fall in this category of life-changing experiences. I often relate the stories of a 7-day hike I did in the Drakensberg when I was 12, and the 1500km bicycle ride when I was 16. The fact that I still remember these in such clarity probably indicates that they were indeed life-changing. But did they really change me, or were these missions just the result of who I was already? What about all the other missions I did since then? Was each just a natural result of my outlook on life, or was each mission the result of the experience from the previous one?

I don’t have the answers, but I do think that some people are naturally drawn to such experiences, born with a curiosity for what lies around the corner, and with enough confidence to do something about it and find out. For people like this, it is somewhat disingenuous to call these experiences life-changing, as they are experiencing exactly what they were destined to do.

Most people, however, seem to be naturally inclined to avoid out-of-the-ordinary experiences; it could be out of fear for leaving the comfort zone or it could be out of laziness. For people like this, it can indeed be a life-changing experience if they’re put in a situation where they are physically and emotionally pushed to their limits, or even just removed very far from their normal creature comforts.

However, if you claim that such an experience was life-changing, but you never do something similar again, or if no fundamental change took place in your outlook on life, nothing has actually changed. You only had an experience that had the potential to be life-changing.

Conversely, if you do end up doing something similar again, you can’t claim to have had another life-changing experience, because you are doing it precisely because your life was changed already.

So yes, I do believe that life-changing experiences can be claimed with honesty. But use those words sparingly, otherwise they begin to sound hollow and make the experience cheap.

Full circle – Paddle with Us

My immersion in the paddlesports industry has had many facets. One of these is river guiding, and this aspect just came full circle. But first, let me start at the beginning.

My guiding career started in 1994, after a memorable trip down the whitewater section of the Vaal River just downstream of Parys with my friends Riaan Steyn, Chris Pretorius and Chris Robberts. At the time, the four of us were racing and tripping as often as possible; we were obsessed with finding new rapids to run. On this particular trip on the Vaal, with the river running at 250 cumecs (considered a very high level at the time), we bumped into Matthew Hare of Hadeda Creek and some of his guides. They also took advantage of the high water to trip the river with crocs (South African two-man rafts made by Ark Inflatables). They were quite impressed by our skills, running these rapids with our flimsy racing kayaks, and Matthew dropped a hint that he was looking for more guides. Two weeks later, Chris Robberts resigned from the SANDF (Permanent Force) and became a full-time guide at Hadeda Creek, while the other three of us, all full-time students at Potchefstroom University, started a long period of freelance river guiding for various rafting companies.

From 1994 to 1996, I spent most weekends and holidays working at rafting companies, sometimes as guide, sometimes as safety kayaker. Most of this work was on the Vaal River, which gave us valuable experience in a broad range of conditions and with a large variety of clients. From super low water levels, dealing with all sorts of raft pins, entrapments and injured clients, to high water runs with big rafts and spectacular flips. The level of expertise amongst guides on the Vaal was very high at the time; everyone was heart and soul committed to the cause; it wasn’t just a job.

In 1997, I started working at Iscor as an engineer, and suddenly I had more money to travel, which meant my kayaking and guiding took me to many more rivers in other parts of the country. Apart from many kayaking trips, I ended up guiding on the Blyde, Sabie, Umkomaas, Tugela, Orange and some other rivers. Together with my guiding and kayaking friends, we pushed our own boundaries as well as those who were fortunate enough (or maybe unfortunate for some) to end up on our trips.

Safety kayaking, Raid Gauloises 1997
Safety kayaking, Raid Gauloises 1997

I also got to be involved in some truly special events. I spent a week on a flooded Umkomaas River, doing safety for the 1997 Raid Gauloises. The first trip we did on the section below Hella-Hella, a few days before the competitors arrived, is still the highest level I’ve ever paddled the Umko. For those who know the section, the pinnacle rock in rapid 5&6 was completely covered! In 1999, I was a safety kayaker for the Camel Whitewater Challenge, held in Augrabies Gorge. In the days leading up to the competition, our group of safety kayakers got to paddle the section of rapids below Oranjekom in Augrabies Gorge at different water levels, as the water rose from around 50 cumecs to 300 cumecs. Other memorable experiences from this period include guiding on a multiday trip through Onseepkans Gorge on the Orange at 800 cumecs, being a stunt kayaker for a Coca Cola Israel advert, doing safety kayaking for a German movie that was shot upstream and downstream of Augrabies Gorge, a few safety kayaking stints on the Zambezi River, and many more.

Everything changed at the beginning of 2000, when I left Iscor to become a full-time kayaking bum. I spent more than two years paddling rivers all over Southern Africa, while writing the guidebook “Run the Rivers of Southern Africa”. This was partly financed by guiding on many different rivers while I traveled. I also got to spend a few months in Europe, kayaking all around the Alps and guiding in Austria and Italy. The steep, continuous rivers in Italy, where we took clients down in big rafts with two guides per raft, changed my perspective of what can be done commercially. Back in South Africa, I got more involved in guiding multiday trips. Four-day guided trips on the Orange River, with the experienced guides from Kalahari Adventure Centre, led to a number of multiday raft-supported kayak trips that I led down a variety of rivers in KwaZulu-Natal and the Lowveld.

Looking back, I met most of my current friends as a result of these guiding exploits. Working with so many different rafting companies gave me a good view on what clients expect, what can truly be considered as industry standards and what should really be stayed away from. Doing courses with different instructors also exposed the differences in approach and content; from my first guiding course in the mid-nineties with Graeme Addison (widely considered to be the initiator of commercial rafting in South Africa, now running Riverman), to a trip-leader course with Hugh du Preez of Whitewater Training, a raft guiding course with Andrew Kellett of Gravity Adventures, and a raft guiding course in Italy with guys that I simply can’t remember the names of.

When I started my first kayak company (Fluid Kayaks) in 2003, my guiding days became less frequent, as my focus moved to multiday kayak expeditions with a close circle of kayaking friends when I wasn’t test-paddling new kayak prototypes.

Everything changed again when I started taking my two small children on river trips. I ended up organising and leading multiday trips on the Orange and Vaal Rivers, mostly with rafts for my kids’ safety (they were both only 16 months old when they went on their first multiday trips).

Oar rafting on Orange multiday trip
Oar rafting on an Orange River multiday trip

This why I keep going back to the Orange
This why I keep going back to the Orange

When I started my new kayak company, Vagabond Kayaks in 2018, with partners who all appreciate high-performance kayaks, I set out to design recreational sit-on-top kayaks that were super stable, but faster and easier to paddle than other sit-on-tops on the market, and with all the features and fittings that make extended trips possible. Since we launched our new range of kayaks a year ago, we’ve done a number of day trips as well as multiday trips on the Vaal and Orange rivers with our new kayaks.

After our last 4-day trip on the Orange River in June (yes, two months ago, in the middle of winter!), Lisa and I realised that we already had the complete package for running our own river safaris. I have extensive guiding experience, Lisa has extensive paddling and event organising experience, we have the perfect boats for running the type of trips that we would like to offer, and we know some great sections of river that no-one else is using for guided trips.

The Orange, as seen from a Vagabond kayak.
The Orange, as seen from a Vagabond kayak.

So a few days ago, our new venture was born: Paddle with Us. Yes, if you join one of our trips you will paddle with us, Lisa and myself. We are offering two-hour and two-day trips on the Vaal River outside Parys, and five-day trips on the Orange River. This is an exiting new adventure for me; I get to put my years of guiding experience to good use, I get to show some of my favourite sections of river to other people, and I get to do that with kayaks that I designed and manufactured.

Herman and Lienkie, friends from Parys on the Orange with us.
Herman and Lienkie, friends from Parys on the Orange with us.

Ruben and Lisa sorting out our kitchen on the Orange.
Ruben and Lisa in our kitchen, Orange River style.

Ruben and others cruising through some easy rapids.
Ruben and others cruising through some easy rapids.

Did I mention that I love the Orange River?
Did I mention that I love the Orange River?

When I started guiding 25 years ago, I never had it in mind to start my own river safari company. But here we are, full circle. Back then, it was just a way of getting paid to do something I love. Now, it is so much more than just that.

Naturally, most of my time still goes into manufacturing Vagabond’s kayaks, so we will not be running trips every week or every weekend. We’ve set specific dates for trips, as listed on our Paddle With Us website. If you’re keen to join on one of our trips but really can’t make the dates that we’ve set, please get hold of us (contact details here) to see if we can arrange a trip for a different date.

Unsung heroes

Called ‘seconds’ or ‘shuttle bunnies’, these are the people that provide support for paddlers. Their role typically involves taking a vehicle to the take-out point of a trip, or in the case of river races, meeting their paddler/s at multiple points along the river to offer refreshments and spare parts. More often than not, though, their unofficial duties extend to that of being a cheerleader, cook, navigator, paramedic, psychologist, physiotherapist and emotional punch bag. The list of tasks is endless.

For these reasons, a more apt name for them would be ‘unsung heroes’. They are the true legends of the sport. Paddling can easily become a very selfish pursuit, and a very common manifestation of this is that paddlers take their seconds for granted. I mean, face it, why are they called ‘seconds’ in the first place? Second to what?

Heading for the Orange River
Heading for the Orange River

Our lives as paddlers would be quite miserable without sacrifices from shuttle bunnies. Here are some suggestions to keep the shuttle bunnies in your life on your side. Read More

Start them young

Most paddlers would like their children to paddle. Most paddlers are unsure of how to go about it, but they give it their best shot. Sadly, most paddlers fail.

Paddling is one of those rare sports that can be enjoyed from a very young age to a ripe, old age. For many, it is a lifestyle as much as it is a sport. Why do so few children get into paddling, and why do so many of those that do stop paddling when they finish school?

I have given this a lot of thought over the years, especially after my own children were born. The first question I often get asked when it comes to kids is: How young can they start?

There is no perfect age to start paddling. However, you can literally start getting them on the water as toddlers, as long as you do it safely. This may be an extreme example, but both of my kids went on their first six-day Orange River expedition – in a large raft – when they were 16 months old. For them, spending time on rivers is the most natural thing in the world.

Ruben helping me row my oar raft on a multiday trip on the Vaal River.
Ruben helping me row my oar raft on a multiday trip on the Vaal River – age 2

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Vagabond Kayaks

My blog became quiet over a year ago… It is not that I had nothing to write about. I was just completely absorbed in a mission to launch a new kayak company, and once the company was launched, it was a roller-coaster ride to put all the little things in place to turn the startup enterprise into a sustainable company. The mission is not over yet and there is much work to do still, but I figured it is time to take a break and at least update my blog.

The goal was set high: I wanted to launch the new kayak brand with 11 unique kayak models plus 4 more Angler versions of some models, giving us a total of 15 models at launch. With “us” I mean myself, Lisa and 3 other partners who are long-time paddling friends of mine. To top off the ambition goal, I wanted to develop a complete new range of fittings for the kayaks, mostly because I haven’t found off-the-shelf fittings that I really like, but also because I wanted to give Vagabond’s kayaks a unique look.

It was not easy to decide which specific 11 kayak models to start with. I have so many ideas for different types of kayaks, to narrow it down to just 11 seemed an impossible task. In the end, I think we ended up with a well-balanced selection of craft that will satisfy many recreational paddlers, anglers and naturally whitewater kayakers too.

My goal with Vagabond from the start was to bring real innovation to the market. In the recreational market, there has not been real innovation to speak of for many years. Every year I look with interest at the new rec kayaks being launched at the main trade shows, and every year I am disappointed. The focus seems to be on an ever-increasing number of fittings added to the rec boats, often without any defined purpose. Rec boats in general are not fun to paddle at all. They tend to be sluggish and unwieldy. Rec boats have become progressively wider over the years, with the main focus on stability at the expense of speed. I will not deny it, I was caught up in the same vibe when I designed rec boats in the past.

The break from the paddling industry in general and from designing kayaks in particular has allowed me to look at kayak design with fresh eyes again. It was a bit frustrating sometimes to not be able to share the cool stuff I was working on, but at the same time, it also freed me up to focus on what I was doing without outside interference.

I’m extremely proud and satisfied with what I created with my team. Head over to to see the range of kayaks, and if you like what you see, go like our facebook page too.

Paddling my new favourite kayak on the Orange River - my orange Marimba
Paddling my new favourite kayak on the Orange River – my orange Marimba

Showing off the Kasai, the first Vagabond kayak I designed.
Showing off the Kasai, the first Vagabond kayak I designed.


Moo Igloo design

The latest product that I designed for YOLO Colours just went in production. It is a calf hutch, or as YOLO calls it, a Moo Igloo.

The project was done in cooperation with the Wynn-with Dairy Farm, who approached me a few months ago and asked if I can design and manufacture a calf hutch. They needed it for their own calves, and it turned out that there is nothing like it available on the South African dairy farm market, although it is quite common in North America and Europe.

I knew right away that it is a product that will fit perfectly in the expanding YOLO range. Lisa agreed, and a few months later YOLO made its first delivery of Moo Igloos to the Wynn-with farm.

Yolo calf hutch 1

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Could Angus be the biggest con-artist in SA?

A few days ago I witnessed (via the interwebs) what was possibly the largest gathering of people ever in South Africa. Although exact numbers haven’t been released yet, the claim is that close to one-million people got together on a farm outside of Bloemfontein. To pray. And to listen to Uncle Angus, as he is fondly called by his followers.

Uncle Angus has interested me for some time already. My childhood, growing up in a religious cult, has made me very sensitive, to the point of being allergic, to con-artists of the religious type. These con-artists (short for confidence artists) are, in my opinion, more dangerous than other types. Why? Because with other types the penny drops for most of their victims at some point. But not so with this religious type. Their specific brand of conniving targets a much deeper sense of yearning that many people seem to have. It is a sense of fear and uncertainty, and, sometimes, hopelessness. And because these feelings don’t go away so easily, it creates a perfect target for conniving confidence artists.

They sell hope. They present their product, their solution, their hope, in an easy-to-understand package. The benefit of their product is purely psychological, eliminating the need for a money-back guarantee. The promises in their marketing campaign only kick in once you are dead. They entice you to keep using their product until the day you die because, lo-and-behold, great riches are waiting beyond the grave. I can’t think of a more perfect business model. Clients for life, literally. Read More

Compost Tumbler design

I’ve been working on a number of new products for YOLO Colours over the past few months. By “working” I mean designing the products, making prototypes for testing, getting tooling made (some in-house, some outsourced), sourcing suppliers for various components, and eventually manufacturing and assembling the products for YOLO.

YOLO Colours is Lisa‘s new company. Most of YOLO’s products will be rotomoulded or have a rotomoulded part as a main component.

The first of the new YOLO products to go into production is this Compost Tumbler. The model pictured here is the smallest size (45 litres), which is available as a single or double unit. It is now in full production, and it is the first of three sizes. The medium size (about 100 litres) will be launched in the next two or three weeks, with the large size (200 litres) following a bit later.

tumbler renderings

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Life after Fluid

During the past week, three different people made contact with me to ask about buying kayaks. They had no idea that I left Fluid Kayaks almost three years ago. I was surprised as the grapevine has informed most of the paddling community, in the absence of a public statement about it from me.

15 years ago, I started Fluid Kayaks. As a passionate kayaker with an engineering degree, creating the company was a dream come true. For a good part of this time I was at the helm. Not only did I run the company, I also designed all of the kayaks in Fluid’s range (20-odd of them, with some of them winning awards for innovative design) as well as all the machines that Fluid uses to manufacture these boats. I was in charge of production and marketing for most of the period too.

The years passed and an unfortunate chain of events led to a situation where I felt that I needed to move on. This was partly as a result of decisions that I made – some good and others bad. It was also just time. For my personal growth and life, it was time for me to move on.

Deciding to leave Fluid was one of the hardest decisions of my life; a decision that was slow in coming and that took years to make. My personal life and everything that Fluid was had been interwoven for almost 13 years. In paddling circles I was known as ‘Mr Fluid’ and the company and brand had become an extension of my own personality. Or maybe it was the other way around…

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