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Article: Innovation for Your Everyday: A Distil Story

Distil Union is a product design team on a mission to create problem-solving products that make everyday life a little better

Innovation for Your Everyday: A Distil Story

Today we're taking a bit of a stroll down memory lane. After over a decade doing business as Distil, we thought it might be fun to look back at how we got here by following the evolution of our designs.

Have you ever thought This is so annoying! Somebody should invent something to fix this problem... Well, that's exactly why we started our own product-design firm in 2011. Products that we introduce are born out of a frustration that someone in the Distil Union orbit has been itching to solve. Yes, we know that we’re just making wallets and sunglasses and everyday carry stuff, but our core belief is that good design can make a difference in your life. #GoodDesignIsGoodForYouDistil Union cofounders working together in the studio

As designers, we're not product sellers—we're problem solvers.

Together, we believe design is about creating better experiences. We design everything we make, and we use the products that we produce. Distil products are patent-pending, problem-solving, and dare we say downright fun ways to tackle everyday frustrations.

A well-designed everyday object can help you focus on what matters instead of juggling a dozen unnecessary things– because when a worry is off your mind, you can breathe easy and enjoy life. From our very first product to our latest creation, our own lives are a little better because of an idea we've been persistent enough to bring to the market. We're not satisfied to stop at a simple hack or a prototype, because we're not in this for ourselves– we'd love nothing more than to make your life a little better, too.

In order to do this, we take a stripped-down approach to design: 

  • What assumptions can we challenge? Go back to the beginning... then, take another step back from the drawing board. Reframing the problem often generates a new perspective and new solutions, but you've also go to step even further back and ask yourself, "are we solving the right problem?" 
  • What materials or construction methods might not be considered "standard" but actually work better?
  • How can we simplify an overly complicated solution– does it need an app or battery, or will a smart, mechanical solution suffice?

This is the essence of distil in our company name: to strip away the excess and get to the heart of a problem, so we can solve it with a design that simply works. Sometimes that solution is necessarily complicated so that the user experience is better. The real goal is to make your life a little bit better. From the early days we've displayed the poster of Dieter Rams' 10 Principles for Good Design in the studio as a reminder and inspiration: Scene from the Distil Union studio with a clock and Anthony Burrill and Dieter Rams posters

1. Good design is innovative.
2. Good design makes a product useful.
3. Good design is aesthetic.
4. Good design makes a product understandable.
5. Good design is unobtrusive.
6. Good design is honest.
7. Good design is long-lasting.
8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
10. Good design is as little design as possible.
Dieter Rams


Our Super Simple Signature Move Many Distil Union Wally Wallets feature our signature pull-tab design

Wally Stick-On was our first patent-pending product. There was nothing like it on the market in 2013 when we launched Wally for iPhone as the "iPhone wallet, reimagined" on Kickstarter and raised $90,472. Though, we had used the mechanism on earlier products when we all worked at Philips Design and at DLO before that!

The Wally Pull-Tab is now our trademarked, signature move. This simple trick to reveal your cards means they stay hidden out of sight, tucked inside a wallet that's slimmer and yet more functional than traditional leather wallets. 

"It wouldn't be a Wally without the Distil Union pull-tab design. From the Micro to the billfolds, the Wally line features easily accessed, durably ribbed pull-tabs that reveal your cards from the pockets of your wallet. This feature not only keeps your cards safe when you don't want them and easily accessible when you do, it also just feels great to use, and I'll be damned if you don't catch yourself idly pulling at the tabs at least a few times while you wait in line at the cashier." –Thomas Bender, MacDirectory

Before and after of a bulky leather wallet versus a slim Distil Union Wally Bifold wallet

Solving the #1 Leather Wallet Complaint 

Our best-selling wallet design, the Wally Bifold is a great example of how we distil the construction and complexity of an age-old item; by removing the bulky leather layers in typical billfolds, the profile is significantly reduced while the pull-tabs provide access in one quick movement.

  • Problem - wallets are too thick.
  • Solution - remove the layers between each card and use a pull tab so you can still access them. 

From the start we selected grosgrain ribbon for its durability and range of colors that help you distinguish pockets for at-a-glance card organization. One reviewer described pulling the ribbon as "surprisingly satisfying"– and we agree, the subtle tactile feedback is a nice touch you just have to try for yourself. 

Solving the #2 Leather Wallet Complaint Cards stay securely inside the Wally leather wallet's MagLock pockets

It admittedly took us a while to solve the #2 complaint people have about leather wallets: lost cards due to stretched-out leather. Typically, leather will stretch with every card you add, meaning you have no choice but to hold onto everything if you don't want your cards to fall out of loose pockets. 

The first Wally wallets were constructed unlike most leather wallets. As relative new-comers to the wallet biz, this gave us a competitive advantage because we had something thinner but they could still stretch out over time: We weren't going to just accept that this is how it is, get used to it. Instead, innovations like FlexLock and MagLock work in perfect harmony with the pull-tab to reveal your cards that are stored securely inside.

"The pockets now have a bit of spring that allows them to clamp down on the cards just enough to hold them in place. Putting a bit of pressure on both sides of the pocket forces the spring open and allows you to grab the cards. Of course, thanks to the Wally-Pull Tabs you don’t need to reach in and grab your cards but that’s the point, the FlexLock keeps the cards in place until you need them." –Dan Cohen, GearDiary

Our collection of wallets continues to grow and evolve, and after years of edits (and based on thousands of reviews), the Wally Bifold 5.0 is the best version yet!


Magnets Make Everything Better 

Distil Union MagLock Sunglasses are held in place on a blue metal wall thanks to hidden magnets in the frames

After he lost a pair of pricey sunglasses after they fell from his shirt at a football game (War Eagle!), co-founder Nate Justiss had an a-ha moment. It was the year we founded Distil Union, so he disappeared into the studio workshop and hacked together a simple fix that would keep his sunnies locked on his shirt when not on his face. To this day, he still has those DIY frames. In the following years we developed a manufacturing technique to better integrate the magnets and improve the look, and did it on a larger scale. Thus MagLock Sunglasses were born. A guy and woman keep their MagLock Sunglasses on their shirt while playing cornhole

So we had magnets to solve a problem, but what makes a pair of sunglasses Distil sunglasses? They need to keep up with life (from commuting to camping) and they better last.. like, I should love them so much that if I lost them I might actually cry. Thinking outside the box for materials lead us to a winning discovery: Rubberized temples allow the neodymium magnets to connect even better, and they're also nonslip and flexible for a surprisingly comfortable fit. Why put hard plastic on your soft face?A flexible pair of Folly MagLock Sunglasses being bent in someone's hands

Complete with featherweight lenses, Distil sunnies are able to deliver a truly comfortable and worry-free experience (something we honestly hadn't set out to do when solving the initial gravity issue). And to make life that little bit better: an upgrade to polarized lenses for all our MagLock sunglasses. 

“I was surprised by how light they were. I’ve found these sunglasses to be really comfortable and functional. After using them regularly, it’d be a letdown to go back to other sunglasses." –Michael Potuck, 9to5Toys

Wallet. Phone. Sunglasses. What else do we head out the door with in the morning that could use a dose of inspiration, an innovative fix? Fussing with a messy jumble of keys isn't great, but there are key organizers galore out there already. So what does a Distil keyring look like? And what frustrations are we trying to solve? 

Keys and a USB drive fan out from a leather Ferris KeyLoop by Distil Union

Magnets, as it turns out, are a great way to organize, share, and store keys. And wrapping them in leather sure looks and feels nice (and protects your phone when they're rubbing shoulders in your pocket or bag). After over a year prototyping, testing, and fretting over details, the Ferris family of key organizers finally felt right at home with our leather Wally wallets! 

“If you find yourself getting stressed over misplaced keys, a wallet, or other items you need to grab before heading out the door, the magnetic Ferris modular organizer could be just what you need.” –Mental Floss

And there's nothing magnets love more than other magnets – so we bring it all together with a smooth steel shelf lined with cushy felt. The perfect home for all of our everyday gear.Distil Union's Ferris ModStation mounted by the door holds an iPhone, MagLock sunglasses, Ferris ModWallet and KeyLoop

If we're being honest (and we are), we didn't set out to make a Ferris ModStation years ago when we embedded magnets into our sunglasses. My mess of keys hadn't dared dream of a tidy leather wrap that would keep them on the fridge instead of strewn onto a surface I'm sure to forget... While our products are intentional, what comes next from Distil isn't certain – but it's sure to be something thoughtful, functional and well designed so you can live well.   

Cheers to that 🍻 A pair of Cooper MagLock sunglasses sit on a table with pints of cold beers while people play games in the background

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