Thoughts on sport vs. industrial design

Got myself an Arc’teryx Atom, a light thermal jacket. Not what you might call cheap, but the design is good, as is to be expected, and it is very light.

The other day I realized that the seams on one of the cuffs was coming undone. I was not over the moon. I do not really see why I should have to start stitching an essentially new jacket… The reason for the seam coming undone is that there is obviously very little material in the seam and it just pulled out. Of course, if your focus is counting grammes, a couple of millimeters more or less fabric in a seam make a difference over the whole garment – also, over a whole product range it will make a difference as to the total amount of fabric you use… so there are two aspects in play here: minimal weight as a sales argument – and a second one which is an economic one, optimising the amount of fabric used in production.

The outdoor industry is very puzzling to me.

In many ways it is such a power house, generating astronomic revenue for brands, attracting a very diverse clientele that is prepared spend substantial amounts of money to identify with the brand of their choice (well, I suppose I am a good one to talk, with my Atom jacket… ). Yet there are also extremely unsavory sides that are swept under the carpet like a dirty little secret: brands fall over each other to declare their ecological credentials, yet fail to take a clear stance on the social cost of outsourced production… unacceptable labour condition, exploitation of the work force, decrepit, dangerous factories, and so the list goes on. Mind you, this does seem to be changing, although one has to suspect that it is merely the tip of the iceberg that we are aware of and that for each case exposed or remedied, there are a host of others that we will never hear about.

The point though that I am actually trying to get to is that the unravelling seam on the Atom jacket and the way it illustrates the focus on minimizing weight, really drove home to me the difference between industrial and recreational design: by and large in the past industrial designers have erred on the side of caution, factoring in the wear and tear engendered by heavy and sustained every-day use. This is a radically different approach than the one taken by sports designers, as discussed above.

Where this comes to a head in my opinion is when the same designers are working on sports and industrial products, applying the design philosophy of one to the other, leading to optimized, minimal designs. Whether these are up to handling the tough environments of tree work presents is questionable. Shaving off those grammes is all very well, but highly-optimised designs are also very specific, optimized to a very specific load configuration. As a consequence, such a piece of equipment will struggle to handle anything that is outside of that design window, as there may simply not be sufficient material to withstand forces being applied.

This is not the same as applying a “make it bomb-proof” philosophy across the board, on the contrary. But certainly one should not go too far the other way either.

In my observation, there have been a number of high-profile cases over the past few years that make one wonder whether this was a mechanism that was in play… or at least one of the factors.