Interview with a designer & dad: Galen Armstrong

We love to hear how other designers approach their work, what their inspirations are, and how they support creative kids, so we thought you might be too! 

We're really excited to chat with Galen Armstrong today, he is the co-founder and designer behind pipsneaks, a Canadian company making fabulous soft-soled sneakers for babies and toddlers. He has been designing product for his entire kid AND grown-up life, with a main focus on highly-technical outdoor apparel and gear at Arc’teryx in the Law Enforcement and Armed forces division, and at The North Face for their Summit Series. He has also freelanced as a designer for a range of outdoor apparel and product companies and launched his own menswear fashion brand. He’s a busy design guy. 

Galen can make just about anything you can imagine, from dining tables crafted from felled trees to kids backpacks, he’s like the Bear Grylls of design (in a good way). So as one of the most prolific, talented and genuinely enthusiastic designers we know, we wanted to hear a bit more about his process, his thoughts on working in design, and how he encourages design thinking with his own awesome little one, Stella.  

Here we go... 

smallbooks. Hi Galen! Thanks for chatting with us!

Galen. Hi Eva! Always a pleasure!

sb. OK, we’ll dive straight in: did you like designing stuff as a kid? Anything you were particularly proud of that you remember?

G. Yeah, I used to make stuff all the time. My first sewn product was a leather Michael Jackson glove I made out of a pair of thrift store leather pants, sometime in elementary school. I used to make my own belts, and alter clothes back then quite a lot too. In grade 4, I made a wooden crossbow, with a working trigger and everything. One of my mum's friends, Robin Allan, made real crossbows, and I eventually apprenticed with him for a bit. I think that was maybe in grade 6 or so.

sb. Do you have a design process that you always follow or does it change every time? What works best for you?

G. It changes a lot with just about every product, but I always start with 'What does the current solution NOT do?' I am always trying to solve a specific problem. Most of the time I don't do a sketch until I have built a few mock-ups, as only then will I understand how something will likely be put together, which will influence the styling of it.

sb. What are some of your favourite projects and what did you like about working on them?

G. Hmm... This is a tough question. To be honest, I like any project that feels like I'm coming up with something new. I really enjoy new constructions, or finding ways to simplify the manufacturing process. I think that's actually my favourite part - making a pattern, sewing something together, and finding out which parts don't make sense in production, or an order of ops that could be easier. It's difficult for me to find any particular project that I'm still really happy with, as anything that's gone to market I've probably already spent 2-3 years on, and by the time it's released, I've thought of 15 things I'd change on it if I were to do it over again. But I guess to me that's the beauty and challenge of design: there's always a better way, no matter how good something may be already. 


sb. Tell us about a time when you really thought you f**ked up.

G. This is another tricky one. I f*ck up many times on every product! The more times you make something, the more mistakes you find, but then the more corrections you make, and then the eventual product has super minimal f*ck-ups! Until it's time to redesign it, and then you start from scratch all over again! Yay! But, I never really think of f*ck-ups as being a bad thing - they're all ways to learn valuable lessons, and sometimes you might find a solution to another problem on an unrelated product entirely.

sb. Which designers do you admire and/or follow and what’s awesome about them? 

G. To be honest, I think I'm more inspired by art than design, but here are a few names of people I follow and admire, in no particular order (and I think they are all likely artists before designers):

  1. Daniel Arsham - I love his breadth of work, his colors, and I especially love his paintings. To me, he is inspiring because it seems like he is truly creating exactly what he wants.
  2. Nigel Cabourn - Nigel is inspiring because, again, I feel like he is someone who is making/creating exactly what he wants. I love his retro/vintage workwear and military styling. He stays true to what he's all about
  3. Takashi Murakami - His colors are fantastic, and who doesn't like happy, smiling flowers?? I'm a bit of a sucker for anime style anything, and I like his unique personal style as well.
  4. Tyler Hays - is super inspirational to me. He makes just about anything and everything - Have a look at BDDW (Bury Your Dead Down Wind) and M. Crow. Tyler makes and/or designs everything in there. He made the coolest electric jeep ever... I bet there's nothing he can't do.
  5. I think I have to add Elon Musk to my list. Who says 'Space is cool - let's go there' and then makes it happen? I feel like he doesn't really have dreams, he has missions, and doesn't stop until they're completed. I feel like 'no' is just not an option to him. Tesla is ok too.


sb. You’ve got a little one who is 4 years old, right? What kind of stuff is she into right now? 

G. Stella really loves singing! She makes up all sorts of songs, about all sorts of things. She is also a huge fan of colouring, cutting stuff out with scissors, glue, tape, markers... We spend a lot of time colouring stuff and then cutting whatever it is out and sticking it/them to other stuff.

sb. Is there anything you would share with other parents on how to encourage design and design thinking into our wee ones?

G. She gets super frustrated when she tries something and it doesn't work out, and I always try to let her know that the only way to get better at something is to make a million mistakes along the way. For me, I only learn from the things I've done wrong, as I'll correct whatever it was until it's right. That's a hard lesson for a little one to understand, so usually I'll try to encourage her to not just scribble over something, but to maybe see if you can add to a 'mistake' and turn it into something else entirely, or to try redrawing something but being careful when you get to the part that 'messed up' and trying something new there. With 'bigger ideas' drawing, I'll try to help her break down the bigger thing so that she can draw a bunch of simpler shapes that when they all go together, end up making a more complex image.

sb. If you could design anything in the world what would it be?

G. This is a huge question... I wish I could redesign how capitalism and manufacturing work. I'm all for working hard, having great ideas, and then profiting off of that. But...there are so many people that helped you build that thing along the way! I wish more people up top would help the people that helped them get there. The folks who sew your garments, the people who cut out your fabrics, the people who build your prototypes, etc. I think I'm a bit jaded about corporate life, and I think there has to be a better way for everyone to win along the way. I've got a million ideas about this stuff, but maybe that's for another conversation... I'd love to create a company where everyone wins when the company does - that's one of my personal goals.

That probably wasn't the answer you were after, so here's Answer Number Two! I've always wanted to design spaces, and the things that are in those spaces. A space can be such an inspiring or demoralizing thing, so creating fun, inspiring and uplifting or just generally enjoyable spaces to be in that feed the creative juices of others would be super rewarding! Working on electric vehicles would be pretty satisfying too, but there's a company called Bollinger Motors that is doing basically my dream truck already.

E. Galen, you are awesome, thank you so much for talking to us!!!

G. No, Thank YOU!!


You can check out pipsneaks here.