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The Rise Of The Work Backpack

The Rise Of The Work Backpack

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The world of practical-yet-stylish work bags. These are laptop backpacks that hold everything you need to make it through a day at the office, yet still, look stylish enough to take to dinner once you’re off the clock. What makes a backpack perfect for the commute is different from the characteristics of a regular rucksack, so here are some things to look for:

1. Materials to Consider

In a work environment, what you carry needs to look the part – neutral colorways and smart, low-key designs all contribute towards creating an air of dependable professionalism -- whether it's a tote bag or a backpack.

The materials play a large part in determining the overall look and function of a bag. With a work backpack, you want to look out for materials that are very wearable; meaning that the materials themselves are a reflection of your profession and how you go about your workday.

Depending on your profession, here are some common types of materials that go well with a backpack that looks professional:


Leather is a classic material that gives any commuter backpack a premium and stylish feel. Tried and true in the business world, leather bags have been used by working professionals for years, so a leather backpack can help you fit right in with a history of elegance.

Because leather doesn’t come on a roll like other types of bag materials, it costs more to produce and make in a backpack. Bags made from leather also require more craftsmanship so if you’re looking at a leather laptop backpack, be prepared to spend more than a backpack made with knitted materials.

Nylon & Polyester

Nylon and polyester are great materials because they’re simple and durable while still feeling a premium feel. Both are traditional materials found in early uses of backpacks and bags (Prada and Longchamp have iconic nylon bags) and they'll last a while without ripping, tearing, or pilling. Tumi is well known for pioneering a type of nylon called ballistic nylon, known for its durability and deluxe strength.

Heathered & Variegated Materials

Wool and denim are both examples of this since they are both used in everyday worn items from Shirts to Pants. Going for a heathered or variegated material will fit a certain type of aesthetic and profession because it will match with the clothing that you’re already wearing, giving you a consistent head to toe look. Bag brands like Incase or Timbuk2 often feature very wearable materials.


2. Materials to Avoid

Cotton Canvas

Cotton canvas is typically seen in many daypacks or school (like Jansport, Herschel) and the casual looking material can give off a seemingly unprofessional vibe. Canvas is also not very water-resistant (although some bags do add a layer of coating to the canvas), and it’s a fabric that is very fine and therefore is more susceptible to tears or rips.

Noisy, Thin Linings

If you’re at a meeting and getting something out of your bag, the last thing you want is to draw attention to you from the crunchy sound that a backpack’s lining can make. Lining that’s made with cheaper, thinner materials lend themselves to making sounds, whereas you won’t have that issue with a lining made from thicker materials.

The ISM backpack lining is made from a polyester twill which gives it a soft hand feel, but durable exterior.

3. Features & Functionality To Look For

Padded Laptop Backpack

If you’re carrying your laptop or tablet sleeveto and from work, having a padded laptop compartment is a must-have. The best backpacks will have extra padding underneath the bottom of the laptop sleeve and plenty of room to keep your Macbook or iPad safe.

When evaluating a laptop bag, be sure to check if the padding in the laptop pocket extends all the way to the bottom of the bag or if there are a few inches of space between the laptop sleeve and the bottom of the bag.

Extra points here go to a padded laptop sleeve that lives in a separate compartment from the main compartment of the backpack, so you’ll be able to easily access your tech without having to rummage through all of your other belongings.

A separate waterproof zippered laptop compartment is one of the main features in the ISM backpack. The large backpack fits up to a 15-inch laptop, while the small backpack fits up to a 13-inch laptop.

Lightweight & Portable

Whether you’re commuting to work or strapping a bag to your carry-on, it’s important to have a bag that is lightweight yet roomy. It's one less thing to worry about having enough storage space for your gym clothes or your tote causing you back and shoulder pains.

A great daypack is ideally made with materials that are lightweight, so it’s something to keep in mind when looking for a backpack made with heavier materials, like an all-leather bag.

When you’re at the office, it’s great to have a backpack that is also easily portable, so in addition to the shoulder straps, having a secondary carry handle is a useful feature. Accessory handles on the top or side of the backpack allow you to carry your backpack like a briefcase when you’re walking into your office or in a crowded area like the subway. These bags can also double as a travel backpack, due to their versatility.

Structured Backpack

Work backpacks should have a structured look since it makes them feel more presentable and serious. This can be achieved with padding throughout the bag, and padding is also great for protecting your valuables.

Another benefit of having a structured backpack is that it will stand up straight when placed on the ground. You want to be able to put your bag down, open it, get your tablet, charger, or what you need out of your backpack so you can move on with your work. Having a bag next to you that doesn’t look all crumpled is an easy way to look more professional.

Comfortable Back Straps

Comfort is another key feature in a work backpack. While it doesn’t need to have all the padding and functionality of a hiking backpack, there are a few must-have features to allow for a comfortable carry.

One of those is having a back panel that is padded. A comfortable backing will have some sort of memory foam (EVA/EVE) or mesh padding inside of it to give your back a nice soft surface to lean on. Having breathable materials on the back straps is great for those hot summer days when you’re trying to keep sweat marks to a minimal.

Padding on the shoulder straps is also a nice feature because it decreases the pressure on your shoulders and allows for an easier carry. Unlike a single shoulder bag or tote, backpacks distribute weight evenly between two straps. The equal weight distribution provides relief on your shoulders and back caused by toting or sitting at a desk for hours on end. Adjustable straps are another essential feature in the best work backpacks.

Memory foam and mesh straps and back padding make the ISM classic backpack lightweight and comfortable to wear during any season.

Plenty of Internal Organization

For easy access, choosing a backpack that has a U shaped zipper opening is your best bet. This type of shape makes it easy to see where your stuff is while making getting things out simple. Types of backpacks to avoid if you value quick access are bag shapes like a roll top or top loader since these require you to untie a drawstring or unroll a part of the bag first before you’re able to get into the main compartment.

For staying organized and on top of your game, it’s convenient to have a bag that has at least two main compartments, with one of them being a dedicated laptop compartment for keeping your tech safe and secure. A convenient front pocket or side pocket also allows for quick access to your essentials.

In the other compartment, it can be convenient if the backpack has some dedicated space for organization, like a zippered pocket, water bottle pockets, or key rings and retractable cords. More is not always better in the case of an organized work backpack, so its best to find a bag that has all the necessary organization but not too many expandable pockets that will probably go unused and feel cluttered.

Quick Access Pockets

When you’re commuting to and from work, having easily accessible pockets comes in handy. A quick access pocket can be typically found on the front, side, or back of a backpack. Whether it’s a subway card, phone, wallet, keys, headphones,  gum, or any small item that you carry, having an easy access pocket makes getting items out much easier, especially since you won’t have to take off your backpack. If you like to carry a water bottle to and from work, then using a backpack that has water bottle pockets is also convenient.

Durable & Weather Resistant

Having a work backpack that’s weather-resistant is a nice feature since it’ll give you peace of mind that your electronics are safe if you get caught in the rain. This could be a waterproof zipper that keeps your laptop compartment secure or choosing a backpack that has been coated with a water-resistant layer.

4. What To Avoid

Heavy Branding

With a work backpack, you want the focus to be on you and not your bag so it’s best to avoid heavy branding and noisy graphics. Instead, go for a backpack with a subtle logo and clean, minimal aesthetic. When it comes to your outfit, by keeping your work backpack to a minimal aesthetic, you can highlight other accessories you might wear like a watch, socks, or jewelry.

Excessive Details

Keeping it simple and minimal is best for conveying a professional look, so try and avoid things like excessive buckles, pockets, or zippers. You want to find a backpack that has just enough detail, but not more than what’s required for a workday.


5. Final Thoughts On Finding the Perfect Work Bag

There’s no black and white way of using a work bag, it comes down to preference, what kind of profession you’re in, and where you're based (e.g. the difference in climate between San Francisco & New York.)

One thing we do recommend though is looking for a work backpack that has a sophisticated mix of materials. If you have a bag that uses all of the same material, then nothing really stands out as there is no contrast. But having a bag with a mix of two materials can give it some contrast and uniqueness that can take an all-black backpack and give it some subtle distinctiveness.

The perfect bag was something we had a hard time finding. Most functional bags were bulky. We wanted something that was both useful and sleek. To do this, we interviewed hundreds of professionals on what features they actually used every day and designed our backpack around them, while keeping a minimal and timeless aesthetic.

Meet the ISM Backpack. One bag for all-day in two sizes depending on your fit. We use premium materials and provide a lifetime warranty on the bag (it's made at the same manufacturer as TUMI, Armani, and Longchamp).