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You're the Designer: Outdoor Companies Turn to Customers for New Product Ideas

by Seth Levy
December 13, 2011
G3's "Table Top" Ski
G3's "Table Top" Ski. (photo courtesy of G3)

As gear companies compete and innovate, the race is on to develop high-quality, unique equipment for outdoor adventures.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the revival of custom gear, which enables each consumer to be the designer of a one-of-a-kind product. Customizing gear gives consumers the ultimate in personalization, but can take longer and costs more than mass production. The challenge for outdoor gear companies is how to bring customers' great ideas to market without the overhead of creating entirely custom products.

Some manufacturers are meeting this challenge head-on with a practice known as “crowdsourcing.” Loosely defined as "community based design," crowdsourcing uses the power of a community to bring unique ideas into the design process at a lower cost than “full custom” design. Here's how a few pioneering gear companies are using the wisdom of crowds to create unique products:

NEMO Equipment

When New Hampshire-based NEMO Equipment decided to launch a series of sleeping bags, the company had some tough questions to answer. While they wanted to make an absolutely unique product, NEMO had never made a sleeping bag before, so they sought customer feedback on their new designs.

NEMO Bag test.
A volunteer tester tries out a prototype sleeping bag. (photo courtesy of NEMO)

According to Director of Marketing & Public Relations Kate Ketschek, “We knew we could test in-house and go the usual route, but we felt that since this is such an innovative product we needed to reach out to a larger community. We're using an entirely new shape and some features that haven't been seen before, so it was very important to us to get feedback.” After a contest that involved submitting a written and video review, NEMO selected 13 community product testers who were assigned prototype sleeping bags to test.

Ketschek is still analyzing feedback from approximately 150 3-season bag tests, but the results are promising. For example, a waterproof-breathable foot box proved to be a hit among testers. Once the results are compiled, the designers will make changes to the product, which is scheduled to hit the shelves sometime in 2013.

 Liberty Bottle Works

Liberty Bottle Works Custom Bottle
Liberty Bottle Works Custom Bottle. (image courtesy of Liberty Bottle Works)

When Washington-based Liberty Bottle Works opened its doors in 2010, a participatory ethos was already built in. Liberty's unique approach to crowdsourcing empowers artists to submit designs to the company, which selects the best, prints them on bottles and shares the profit with the artist.

According to Liberty Bottleworks art director Ricky Pond, the program isn't just designed to produce unique-looking bottles. "People who don't have the opportunity to get their art out, we can help them get their art out," says Pond. "We've learned so much about different genres of art. We've worked with a woman who collects 100-year old magazines and makes collages. You're looking at 100-year old images that have been collaged to make a picture of a robot playing a guitar! We've worked with kids that have gotten in trouble for doing graffiti. Now, they can see something positive come out of their art, rather than going around tagging buildings. We want to give individuals with passion an opportunity!"


Skis are deceptively simple to the uninitiated.  In reality, each edge and angle affects the ultimate performance of the product, so it isn't easy to crowdsource this aspect of the design. But four years ago, ski-maker G3 launched the "Skigraphiks" program as a way to engage skiers in designing the non-technical aspects of their skis.

"When Skigraphiks first started, the goal was just to get more input from customers," says G3 spokesperson Jamie Bond. "We wanted to refresh the design of the ski. While outsourcing the technical aspects wasn't feasible, we thought that the graphics aspect would be a great way to engage skiers."

The Skigraphiks program runs four times per year, in September, October, November and December. Aspiring ski designers upload designs in specific templates, which are then judged by a panel of experts. The winning designs go on to limited production runs and the winner receives a free pair of skis with their own design. Despite only crowdsourcing the visual aspect of their skis, G3 has still learned from their foray into participatory design.

"We've seen a lot of creative ideas and our designers are inspired to 'take it up a notch,'" says Bond. "This process has opened up G3's eyes a bit. Some of our skis had a very clean design, but the contest has really freed us up to design more creatively."


Crowdsourcing is an exciting trend that promises to give all of us a chance to participate in the design process.  Join the conversation about crowdsourced gear below or on Facebook.