LOGAN — The outdoor products industry is huge, and Utah has long been a player in stoking the gear needs of the populace as a state with more than its share of natural assets — be it the Mighty Five national parks, some of the best ski terrain on the planet or a geographic portfolio that spans from alpine lakes to ancient red deserts.
Now, Utah State University is carving out its own territory as a feeder system for tomorrow's outdoor product professionals and earlier this month, the school's outdoor products design and development program graduated its first class.
Program Coordinator Chase Anderson said the effort, launched in 2015, was born of a collaboration with outdoor industry representatives who worked with former USU faculty member Lindsey Shirley to craft the effort's initial curriculum.
One of the few undergraduate programs of its kind in the U.S. or the world, the curriculum is aiming to arm graduates with a full set of tools to find success among the burgeoning slate of companies specializing in outdoor gear, or to take their first entrepreneurial steps in becoming the next Yvon Chouinard or Davis Smith.
"There's long been a missing piece in feeding the talent needs of the outdoor products industry," Anderson said. "We've created an on-ramp … and the hope is that our students can go and support and help grow the existing companies that are out there.
"And certainly, we expect some of our students will launch their own companies."
Much as the program's title suggests, Anderson said students are immersed in training that guides them through the full spectrum of product creation from design concept through the development stages that lead to manufacturing.
"Our students are learning the ability not only to translate the ideas in their brains onto paper or digitally, but they can go to a sewing machine or machine shop and do a prototype that they can use to gather product feedback," Anderson said. "The really unique aspect is we’re teaching both design and development alongside each other, design being the concept and the development sequence for actually getting it made."
And like Patagonia's famous mountaineer founder Chouinard and serial entrepreneur Smith, who launched Utah's own Cotopaxi five years ago, the program has made sustainability and environmental consciousness guiding tenets for the gear development journey.
"We talk a lot about the sameness that is out there in the industry," Anderson said. "We want students to be thinking about products that have value and come from a responsible process … not just another wear it or use it once or twice item."
Allie Salter, Cotopaxi director of product development, whose company is one of USU's industry partners, said students coming out of the unique program definitely have a leg up on the competition.
"Having worked with the professors on curriculum and spoken with students, I can honestly say that the outdoor product development and design students are graduating with the equivalent of one year’s work experience when compared to peers from non-outdoor specific programs," Slater said.
She also noted the curriculum's strong committment to the bigger impacts of outdoor product development, like sustainable practices, environmental considerations and labor equity, are very much a part of Cotopaxi's mission statement.
"On top of being highly technical in outdoor product education, the values of the program align with our company’s focus on making environmentally and socially conscious decisions," Salter said. "It excites me to see students leaving their university program with the drive to make change through building responsible products.
"I can’t wait to walk the floors of (the outdoor retailer's convention) in the future and see the positive impact USU alumni have had within the outdoor industry."
Among the first of 32 graduates of the program, Morgan Erickson said she was drawn to enroll because of the opportunity to combine two of her greatest loves — design and outdoor activities — and do it in an academic setting that was also focused on environmental stewardship.
"We focus a lot on sustainability in our program," Erickson said. "That’s a huge aspect."
It's a facet of the program that also came out in Erickson's senior project, a reversible jacket that was made almost entirely from leftover, or upcycled materials donated to the school. While one side of the coat features a slick, mocha-colored fabric, the reverse is a patchwork of scraps from fashion company Prana that she pieced together in a modern take on a quilting scheme.
While Erickson has already secured a job — she was recently hired to head a new design team for a Logan-based company that's looking to launch its own line of clothing — the long-term goal is to carve out some new ground of her own. She said she's inspired by companies like Outdoor Voices and the now defunct Poler that have worked to break down stereotypes about the typical outdoor enthusiast.
"Ultimately, I want to design women's clothing that is both really functional and fashionable," Erickson said.
Function was very much on the mind of Nate Larsen, another freshly minted graduate of the outdoor product program, for the senior project he completed this spring.
Larsen designed and built a top-loader backpack for his 7-year-old son, Charlie. He was inspired, in part, by the lack of well-made and thoughtfully constructed commercially available backpacks for little people.
"As a parent, I've realized that our kids always want the stuff we have," Larsen said. "The backpack he had was floppy, not well made and had very little structure.
"I wanted him to have one that looked and functioned like mine."
Larsen produced a slick video of his process in creating the pack that featured him working alongside his son on the project. The final segment shows a clearly thrilled Charlie, hiking in the foothills with his dad with his new, and very stylish, custom backpack.
Larsen said he grew up tinkering and modifying things that he thought didn't work quite right and that, alongside his love of outdoor activities like rock climbing and ski mountaineering, drew him to USU's program in 2016. Larsen, like Erickson, has already secured a job and he and his family are moving to Phoenix in June where he'll be part of an outdoor product design team for consumer products creators Danson.
Anderson noted the success Erickson and Larsen had in connecting with jobs in the industry, even before graduating, is not an anomaly. Several students were hired before completing the program and numerous other graduates will be starting new jobs in the industry in the coming weeks.
The ease with which students are finding relevant employment in the field they have prepared for, Anderson said, is reflective of both how on-target the outdoor products curriculum has been and how unique USU's program is.
"Outdoor products companies have gotten used to hiring people that maybe have some of the skills, like design, but need to be trained for the industry," Anderson said. "We're finding a great response when we place people, even at the intern level, who are job-ready from day one."
And it appears those jobs will continue to be available.Comment on this story
Recent estimates of the entirety of the outdoor industry have pegged its total yearly economic impacts at anywhere from $340 billion to almost $900 billion, depending on how foreign manufactured goods are accounted for. But a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis pegged just the retail trade segment of the industry at over $80 billion annually, with a yearly growth rate approaching 3 percent.
To learn more about USU's Outdoor Product Design and Development program, visit www.usu.edu/degrees/index.cfm?id=290.
Correction: An earlier version misidentified Chase Anderson as the program director of USU's outdoor products design and development program. Anderson is the program coordinator for the effort.