Patrick Buckley grew up in a family of publishers, and he was always tinkering with Legos instead of doing his homework. So it’s not that surprising that when Steve Jobs announced the iPad in 2010, Buckley would combine his family history of books with his own interest in building to create a case for Apple’s groundbreaking product.
Buckley’s DODOcase became an instant hit. Reminiscent of the old-school artist notebooks, the DODOcase is a protective and beautiful home for an iPad. It didn’t matter that the iPad was an entirely new product category or that people made fun of the name — Buckley forged ahead, using wood and borrowed tools to handcraft a prototype.
“We’re fans of the artist notebook look, and we had a feeling there were a lot of people in the Apple community who like that clean simple aesthetic, so that’s where we started,” says Buckley, DODOcase’s co-founder.
The case almost immediately went on backorder, and now, two years later, DODOcase has its own bookbindery and about 20 full-time employees, though the company doesn’t disclose its sales numbers. Unlike the extinct bird it’s named after, DODOcase is going strong — and in doing so, helping to keep the art of bookbinding alive.
Mashable spoke with Buckley about how the DODOcase was designed, whether you’ll see DODOcases for other products and where he looks for inspiration. Do you have a DODOcase? Do you like the aesthetic? Let us know in the comments below.
Q&A with Patrick Buckley, Co-Founder of DODOcase
What was the inspiration for DODOcase?
The idea for DODOcase came along right after the announcement for the iPad. The inspiration was to make a beautiful case that made people feel like they’re holding a book for their iPad. There’s a rich history of print and binding industries in San Francisco, so we wanted to work with local artisans to build the product and keep that art form alive. So it wasn’t just making a product that looked like a book, but it was also giving it the spirit of its heritage and being true to the craft of bookmaking.
Did you work with Apple to get specs, or just design on the fly?
Apple’s very tight-lipped about this stuff, so they certainly weren’t talking to us — it was literally me in the living room of my house, so I didn’t have any pull with Apple! They released photos of it, so I was able to make a rough prototype. We worked with a local bookbinder to make the cover, and I worked on designing the tray that held the iPad in place. We made real physical samples, and we were really confident the design would work, it was just a question of tweaking the size. I waited in line like everybody else and I took the iPad back to the workshop and tweaked and tuned the design so that we knew what we shipped to customers would work.
Part of the beauty of the DODOcase is that it’s so simple and elegant. Do you feel pressure to innovate and create cases for even more products and to make the design more complex?
We looked at a lot of the products out there — there’s so many people trying to make devices to compete with the iPhone and iPad, and we’ve been very disciplined and focused about making sure we’re building our business in a way that works. So we’ve focused on the iPad primarily because there’s been such demand for it that we haven’t wanted to make any compromises in the quality of how we make it just to make other products, too. We focus on making the best iPad case we can, and when we see some other products that we think we can make a really great case for (like the Kindle), we do that as well. But we don’t want to overextend ourselves.
What were you doing before the iPad came out? Did you have your heart set on making a device case? And did you just have a gut feeling that this new tablet device would go mainstream?
I’d been trying my hand at some entrepreneurship for a few years, but nothing had really stuck. I was definitely in the mindset that I wanted to build my own business, so I had been doing some web stuff, but I’m trained as a mechanical engineer, so I wanted to get back to building physical things with my hands. So the iPad came out, and I did instinctively think, “This is going to be a huge success. These devices are beautiful, the iPad is going to be to the book what the iPod was to music — it was going to transform this whole media.” I saw that opportunity and I didn’t slant or even consider that the iPad could not be a success. I just charged ahead — I felt that it’d be a big enough opportunity for me to give it a shot. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I made a prototype to put out to the world, and if they like it great, if not, I’ll try something else. The cost of making things has come down so dramatically that you don’t need to do all that upfront research to justify making something — you should just built it and give it a shot and see if people like it. And if they do, you can keep improving on it.
Tell me about your approach to design. Do you just grab a bunch of materials and start building, or do you sketch things out?
The DODOcase approach of building things in San Francisco has been partially motivated by my own selfishness and wanting to have more tools to play with so I could build more stuff. Having access to tools can create a lot of possibilities. And when we started DODOcase, I didn’t have any tools myself, but I had a membership to TechShop, and that access to tools really enabled the first prototypes of our product to be built. We had 30 or 40 iterations of the DODOcase, and a big part of the design process for us is having access to those tools right at our fingertips to we can just test something out — try it, build it and play with it. If you’re just using CAD software, it’s hard to get a sense of whether it’s really going to work because it’s so ephemeral and you can’t hold it in your hand and turn it around and feel it. We do use CAD software, and that’s an important part of the process, but in the initial phase, there’s no substitute for having a physical prototype built. Pen and paper is just so free, you can sketch stuff out and you don’t need to know how to use this complex tool. Once you’ve settled on the designs, dimensions and specs, that’s where CAD really shines.
What’s the biggest challenge of the design process?
The biggest challenge is making sure all the materials and the shape of what you’re designing work. We use a bamboo material in our tray, and every material has its own unique things about it that make it challenging to work with. Wood and bamboo are particularly challenging because every piece of that material is slightly different, based on how the grain is and how much water that tree got. All of the variability in the material mean there’s a lot of trial and error — like, if I cut it this way, it’ll chip. If you’re dealing with a more homogenous material, like a plastic or a metal, you don’t have to worry about that stuff. But for us, that’s a real challenging set of design problems.
How do you strike a balance between protective strength and aesthetic appeal?
We’re really upfront with people — if you’re in the market for an Otterbox kind of case, you really shouldn’t get a DODOcase. But if you’re in the market for a case that is designed to have an incredible emotional experience while you’re sitting on the couch, and you want to feel like you’re holding a book and have something in your hands that has all these rich textures to it, that’s what the DODOcase focuses on. We try and create a luxury experience for our customers and have strength and durability that will meet everyday needs — but it isn’t going to be a military-grade roll-over-it-in-a-car kind of thing. Although we’ve had at least five customers tell us how they had their DODOcase on the roof of the car and it flew off or they ran over their backpack and their iPad survived.
What inspires you in your day-to-day life?
I have some blogs that I like to visit — I love perusing Kickstarter. And I’ve always been a big boat enthusiast, so I’m a member of the South End Rowing Club by Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s a beautiful fleet of wooden boats, and there’s a weekly boat repair night where you help fix these old boats and eat dinner. I love the beauty of old wooden boats, so that’s something I’m always looking at.
Do you have any advice for aspiring designers?
Everyone has a unique place that they’re coming from, in terms of inspiration, so just be yourself and something that you appreciate — let that be your inspiration. There’s probably a lot of other people in the world who have a similar appreciation, so if you can connect to those people, then you’ll have some level of commercial success. Just put something out into the world and see what comes of it.