Mountain Hardwear designs some of the most technically-advanced outdoors apparel and gear on the planet. I just got to spend a day working alongside their designers. This is what their process is like.
Photos: Chris Brinlee, Jr.
The invitation was intriguing enough: "Come be a Mountain Hardwear designer for a day." Having graduated with a design degree (albeit not one in industrial, product, or fashion) I've always been interested in the problem solving process of design; I use that foundation more than ever now that I regularly review outdoor gear and apparel. So, of course I'd accept.
Full disclosure: MHW flew me and a few other journalists up to San Francisco for the day, put us up in a hotel and put some food in our bellies.
From Model As to WWII tanks, the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant in Richmond has been a staple of industry in the Bay area.
We arrived at the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, part of the National Park Service's Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, and were quickly informed that Mountain Hardwear is the only US-based outdoor apparel and gear brand with its headquarters located within a National Park; a fun and probably relevant footnote.
Robert Fry, Mountain Hardwear's Global Director of Product Merchandising and Design explains to us the stoke of working closely with athletes like Ueli Steck to produce awesome outdoor products.
Once on the converted factory's second floor, we met a handful of athletes, designers, and staff - including MHW's Global Director of Product Merchandising and Design, Robert Fry (we actually interviewed Robert about the Ghost Whisperer fabric last June.) Robert introduced us to a few of the company's current initiatives (including a unique alpine climbing kit designed closely with Ueli Steck), highlighting how working closely with their athletes made MHW's design process unique. Next, we would experience that design process firsthand.
The media, athletes, and designers were split into five teams, each with a different creative brief, representing five different product categories. My team was assigned to design an accessory for the Optic 2.5 ($US240), so-named for its 180° panoramic view. The accessory had to enhance the Optic 2.5 user experience while retailing for no more than $US99. With two hours on the clock, it was time to do work.
The Optic 2.5 features a full 180-degree panorama view from inside.
We started by examining the tent, which had been set up in our workspace. At just over six pounds, the Optic 2.5 is by no means an ultralight tent, but instead was designed to maximise backpackers' viewing pleasure while camping. With that purpose in mind, we started brainstorming.
We spat ideas out onto a whiteboard as quickly as they came. Built-in dog beds, LED lighting, and suspension systems all had a chance to play. Ultimately, our team decided on a portable, inflatable, floating sleeping platform, which we dubbed the H2Optic. Imagine like one of those queen sizes air mattresses, but made from raft-gauge PVC material, with a mesh floor (kind of like a catamaran, to save weight and add drainage) with tether points so the platforms can be lashed together, barge-style.
Designers, athletes, and media all at work equals tent magic in the making.
Our logic was, "If the Optic 2.5 was designed to maximise campers' views, then the H2Optic could further expand their perspective by bringing them even closer to the horizon." With that purpose in mind, we went to work.
Once the clock ran out, all of the teams gathered around to listen to each others' presentations. Our team went first, setting the proverbial bar, while others attempted to poke holes in our design. The H2Optic, as preposterous as it sounded, remained afloat.
Prototyping our Western Burnout shirt.
After lunch we mixed things up a bit. Our teams remained the same, but each was re-assigned to a different team's project with the task of improving upon it. We were assigned to apparel this time around. Our goal: make a casual but vented hiking shirt even cooler. Thirty minutes later we were using a stapler and a Sharpie to construct a prototype.
The addition of a vented yoke, hidden pockets that doubled as vents, and pearl snaps would make our Western Burnout Shirt a surefire winner out on the trail and in the saloon. That assignment was a bit shorter; ended with the presentation of our shirt to the tune of "I'm too sexy." Another winner.
Mountain Hardwear's company store is a gear geek's heaven.
After the presentations had concluded, Chris Harges -- Head of Marketing -- took us on a tour of the old Ford Model A factory. In addition to the design studios were a handful of offices and conference rooms (which remained largely unchanged since Henry Ford commanded the building), the warranty repair room (where stacks of vintage MHW jackets were being repaired for their original owners, in-house), and a rec room complete with a bouldering wall.
Not quite 99 problems, but they needed solving nonetheless.
After the tour, everyone split up for some rec time. Most people took bicycles around the nearby waterfront trail, but I didn't waste any time chalking up and jumping on the bouldering wall, solving my last problems for the day.