I’ve been asked a few times why and how we designed our LED backpacks – how we came up with the idea of a light up backpack, how we actually designed and sourced the backpacks and how we set up the business. So, I thought it might be useful to write a series of blog posts explaining our journey, how our LED backpacks came into being and how we set up Futliit. In this post, I’m going to start right back at the beginning when we first started looking into the idea of a light up backpack.
So where did the idea of an LED backpack come from?
The seeds of our story began when our eldest daughter started secondary school and had to walk to and from the school bus. We live in rural Warwickshire and our village has no streetlights nor pavement. As the nights drew in, it soon became clear that walking in the road in her navy school uniform, she was practically invisible to drivers (have a look at the image below and our YouTube short to understand what we mean).
A really interesting pair of photos showing what a difference clothing can make to your visibility in the dark and low light conditions - the same child is in both but wearing different clothes. Photo credit: Christian Thomas
She wanted the independence of walking to the bus stop on her own but I wasn’t so easily persuaded. She was only just about to turn 12 and had no real experience of walking along a road on her own. And no matter how sensible she was, I know that accidents happen and that made me nervous.
So my husband and I started to think about what we could do to make her more visible when walking home. The obvious solutions of a reflective luminous backpack or coat were immediately vetoed as being deeply unfashionable and to be honest, who could blame her? Who wants to be the new kid at secondary school whose mum makes her wear a dayglo jacket?!
OK we thought, perhaps we can find a backpack with lights? After scouring the internet, it became apparent that we weren’t going to find what we wanted. Could we find a backpack that would meet the teen style requirements but still had the required visibility features? No.
In the end, we attached LED bike lights to her backpack but after a little experimentation that proved to be fiddly. Although the LED lights were bright, she had to keep the bike light at the bottom of her bag all day and then stand at the bus stop after she’d got off the bus and try to attach it in the dark. It wasn’t a long term solution but we muddled through until the Spring and then didn’t really think much more about it.
Research: LED lights or EL wire?
But of course, the following winter when the evenings suddenly became really dark again, I started to think about whether it might be possible to design a light up bag myself. Surely I couldn’t be the only parent who was worried about the safety of their child walking home? So I asked myself, if I made a light up backpack for teens, how would I incorporate lights into it? And could I actually design a backpack myself and get it made?
Then in early 2020, we all know what happened.
Covid struck…and lockdown was announced…and the world changed overnight.
I suddenly found myself promoted to Head of Encouragement at School In The Kitchen, a role not without challenges! But in my free moments, with the help of Google, I started looking into whether it would be possible to design a light up backpack.
I discovered that there were two different options: LED lights and EL wire. LED lights are like the fairy lights you can put up round the room but encased in plastic tubing. EL wire is a very thin wire often used in costume design, which glows when you pass an electrical current through it. I ordered various samples and in true Blue Peter fashion, mocked up a couple of light up backpacks with tape and clips.
The selection of LED bikes lights and EL wire for our Blue Peter mock ups!
I then ran some very (un)scientific tests which involved making my husband walk up and down the lane near our house in the dark so I could see how visible he was. The results were really interesting. EL wire looks bright when you are close up but as soon as you are any distance away, it’s practically invisible. LED lights on the other hand are really bright even at a distance. EL wire also emits a buzzy whine as the current passes through, which I thought would drive everyone insane long term. So LED lights won hands down.
Research: would an LED backpack appeal to my target audience?
I had already quizzed my two young teen daughters about what they wanted in a school bag. Fortunately, by this point, lockdown was easing slightly and I was able to get together with some friends who’d got children of similar ages to talk about my idea. Would they use a light-up backpack? The overwhelming answer was yes!
The kids and their parents were absolutely brilliant with loads of ideas about what they wanted in a backpack, how they thought the lights should work, what colours they liked or disliked and features they thought I should include.
Some of my teen advisors
Top of the list of requirements were deep water bottle pockets so that your bottle couldn’t easily fall out and a key minder so you couldn’t lose your house key. They wanted LED lights that were bright and easy to turn on without needing to find a switch inside the bag. They wanted a laptop sleeve that was padded all the way round so they could chuck their bag on the floor without worrying about damaging their device. And most of all, they wanted the LED lights to be practically invisible when they weren’t in use.
The kids also had very clear views about logos and branding – all said that they hated overt branding but were happy to walk around with big logos all over their existing bags!
Next steps: getting a prototype LED backpack made
So the next step was to turn some rough drawings into a prototype LED backpack that could actually be manufactured. Initially, I was keen to have the backpacks made in the UK, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to be cost effective. After falling down many internet rabbit holes, I found a firm run by a Brit based in China who was willing to oversee the production in a small family-run factory.
Find out what happened next in Part 2.