At USU, students in the country’s first program for gear designers aren’t just learning how to sew a bestselling jacket. They’re being groomed to lead the industry’s next big political and environmental fights.
Three students cluster around a laser cutter as the brilliant red light, guided by a robotic arm, bites into a chunk of green plastic. After a few minutes, the arm jerks abruptly aside and junior Bailey Purser, 22, raises the glass lid to extract two palm-size, kidney-shaped discs. It’s only a mock-up, the ghost of a belay device that’s not yet ready for the crag but could one day be as ubiquitous as the GriGri brake. Which is precisely the point of this exercise: to learn how companies like Petzl and Black Diamond turn a whisper of an idea into the bombproof gear we trust our lives with in the field.
“You have to think about dimensions, measurements, proportions,” says Andrew Deceuster, an assistant professor at Utah State University who tasked the 40 students in his junior design-studio class with creating three prototypes—the belay device, a hammock, and the outsole of an ultrarunning shoe—over the course of the fall 2017 semester. “It’s not enough to just draw something in CAD and hope it turns out OK.”
These juniors could very well end up designing climbing gear for a living. They’ll have the right degree for it. In 2015, Logan-based Utah State, tucked in the foothills of the Wasatch Range north of Salt Lake City, launched the Outdoor Product Design and Development program, the country’s first undergraduate major created expressly for outdoor-gear designers. (A few other North American universities have similar initiatives. Next year, Oregon State–Cascades, in Bend, plans to launch a product-design major a lot like USU’s. And Kwantlen Polytechnic in Vancouver, British Columbia, has a strong program in performance apparel.)
Purser and her 41 classmates will be the first to graduate from Utah State’s program, in spring 2019. The major—which now has more than 170 students—prioritizes hands-on experience. Sophomores intern at partner brands including Helly Hansen in Norway and Patagonia in California. Juniors design and make apparel. And seniors combine all the skills they’ve learned in a project of their choosing. Students also have access to the 23 industry leaders on OPDD’s advisory board—including representatives from the outdoor industry who guide and, in some instances, help fund the otherwise state-financed program. (Altra, for example, sponsors the sewing and design lab.)
The curriculum is intended to clear a more direct path for students to work in the industry. Gear brands typically recruit people with a graduate degree in industrial design, fashion, or engineering. Cobbling together the additional experience to get hired at, say, the North Face falls largely to graduates themselves. The USU undergrads are on a set trajectory from day one.
To thrive at a gear company, you need more than technical skills. That’s why the OPDD program offers courses that aren’t normally part of a design degree. “Dress and Humanity,” for instance, explores the relationship between consumers and their clothing. “Foundations of Sustainable Systems” looks at the effect humans have on the environment. There’s a course on 21st-century media—the vehicle that brands use to spread product news. And, naturally, there’s a history of outdoor-product design. Its only textbook: Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, a manifesto that encourages consumers to buy less stuff and advocates putting environmental responsibility above profit.
Unexpected curriculum choices like that come courtesy of Sean Michael, the program director. The 52-year-old has a Ph.D. in wildland recreation management; he’s also a self-described gear addict, a student of the industry whose passion was born out of frustration with the lousy equipment of the 1970s and ’80s. Shortly after I met him, he leaned over my Sorels and reverentially touched the toe seam, which he recognized from U.S. military boots used in Vietnam.
“We want to teach these students the history of products,” Michael says. “But we also want to teach them, when they’re tasked with making a new line of gear, to build something innovative.”
The goal, he tells his students, is not just to churn out the next puffy. He wants to inspire them to redesign the supply chain to make manufacturing more sustainable and cost-effective. Gear companies lose thousands of dollars by leaving fabric remnants on factory floors. Getting creative with that waste—as companies like Cotopaxi do with their scrap reuse programs—saves money, conserves natural resources, and generates street cred. According to a 2013 report from the Outdoor Industry Association, 27 percent of millennials say they’d pay more for products that don’t harm the planet. “Nowadays consumers aren’t buying a good,” says Adrian Roadman, OPDD’s program coordinator. “They’re buying a philosophy, an experience, a memory, a viewpoint.”
For years that viewpoint, it must be said, has been almost entirely male. Even at USU, close to 80 percent of the students enrolled in the OPDD program are men, almost all of them white. (The campus is in northern Utah, after all.) Most arrived through classic outdoor-recreation conduits: biking, skiing, camping, backpacking. “Adding one woman doesn’t suddenly mean you have a diverse team,” says Roadman. To help empower female students, she started a group called the Outdoor Women’s Association to provide guidance and support for working in the male-dominated industry.
If Michael and Roadman’s vision plays out, OPDD will be less a core product-design program and more an emerging-leaders accelerator. According to the OIA, the outdoor recreation industry contributes $887 billion in consumer spending annually to the U.S. economy. “Majors like this represent a coming of age for the industry,” says Black Diamond founder and former CEO Peter Metcalf. “There’s a growing recognition of the size and scale of the business.”
When the first OPDD graduates head into the workforce, Roadman expects their prospects to be strong. Already, she says, 10 to 15 percent of sophomores were offered full-time positions after their internships, and more continue to work at those companies part-time. “It’s a huge compliment,” she says. “Brands are trying to steal them.”
These days, if you want to make a difference in the outdoor industry, it’s no longer enough to love playing in wild places. The battles increasingly happen on a national stage and require strategic thinking. Witness the campaign last year, led by Black Diamond and Patagonia, to pull the industry’s marquee trade show, Outdoor Retailer, from Salt Lake City due to Utah’s openly hostile policies toward federal management of public lands. Because of what they’re learning, says Metcalf, “these students, these outdoor recreationists, are going to be the most active voice in the fight for our public lands. Utah politicians probably haven’t thought this through, but they’re sowing the seeds of discontent with their policies when they fund programs like the one at USU.”
The students are ready to carry the torch. Connor Young, a clean-cut junior who favors the de facto USU uniform of cargo pants and a puffy vest, started off convinced that he wanted to create high-end performance apparel. He has worked in outdoor retail since he was a 15-year-old in rural Idaho, where he grew up backpacking and skiing. At USU he quickly fell in love with the people side of the business. Now he’d be just as pumped about a gig at the OIA as one designing gear.
“I’ve realized I could be a mouthpiece for the industry,” Young says. “I could to be an advocate.”
“These kids should make the whole culture better,” says Michael. “The question for us is: How do we produce thought leaders in an industry that needs to be asking the hard ethical and environmental questions?”
First you get them outside. Then, into the classroom.
Axie Navas (@axie2020) is Outside's executive editor. Emmanuel Polanco is an Outside contributing artist