The Fresh Prince of Outdoor Design

In a pithy talk that seemed designed to convince audience members that he is still a college kid at heart, product designer, manager, and innovator in the outdoor industry Jason Belaire described his experience designing for major outdoor brands like Cabela’s, Columbia, and GoLite.

Jason Belaire, a product designer for outdoor companies. Photo courtesy of Jason Belaire.

He started with a joke, drawing a comparison between himself and Will Smith’s character in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” then launched into a critique. “We [the outdoor industry] live in a bubble, we miss out on opportunities,” he began. Capitalist goals force designers to work quickly without truly understanding products which prevents real innovations. To prove his point, Belaire displayed photos of four different jackets from four different brands. No one in the audience could confidently say who made which jackets. Slight modifications on the same design do not change the product but they do cause people to buy the year’s newest model. This creates waste that ends up in landfills without making progress in the industry. Belaire’s role in many of the companies he consults for is to make them think critically about whether the world truly needs their product. He acts as a wakeup call.

“Become the user,” advised Belaire. If one truly understands how and why a product works, then they can be innovative. Moreover, they develop empathy with the people they are designing for and better understand what about each item could or should change. Belaire also suggested being well-rounded. For example, outdoor designers applied techniques used in building backpacking packs to building baby-carrying backpacks. Because the ideas came from outside the “baby-carrier bubble,” they were revolutionary. Belaire emphasized the need to “bring other ways of thinking into the dialogue;” inclusivity helps drive change.

Tangential to outdoor design, Belaire discussed the tendency of the outdoor community to be hypocritical. “We talk about saving the outdoors, but we don’t consider the impact of the gear we use,” Belaire noted. From the chemicals in dyes used to produce that bright purple backpack they love, to the carbon footprint created producing the tent they rely on, avid outdoorsmen don’t always consider the impact of the products they use while in the ecosystems they hope to protect.

Belaire suggested that consumers need to put pressure on those in charge of gear companies to invest in others and tie their profit margin to how well their practices match conservation principles. He asks companies whether or not they are comfortable with the answer to, “Are you investing in people’s lives?” Social values and capitalism need to work in concert, rather than in opposition.

Belaire pointed out that outdoor companies such as Patagonia are releasing jackets and other items made from recycled and sustainable materials. However, he pushes for more sustainable standards. A jacket is a start, but it is not enough. Consumers need more eco-friendly options and business owners need to try to push the line. More progress must be made.

In the outdoor design industry, the desire for a profit must be sublimated to the need for sustainable products and true innovation. Belaire wants to create more disruption to push designers out of their comfort zones and be truly innovative. He advocates getting rid of excuses and creating opportunities for yourself, regardless of your situation; “Build a tribe that fits you and pushes you to be great.”

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