If the inaugural edition is any indication, Struktur might give the outdoor industry a new hub. Billed as "the first creative conference for the active outdoor industry," the two-day conference took place at EcoTrust in Portland, OR, last Thursday and Friday. Unlike existing outdoor industry events, Struktur focused on design itself, aiming to create a forum for creative interdisciplinary information-sharing. Founders Michelle Rose and Sam Ward put together a balanced lineup of outdoor design's heavy hitters, promising newcomers and entertaining speakers, casting a wide net, from materials development and component designers to apparel design and manufacturers. Even in a relatively intimate group, we noted attendance and presentations from along that spectrum, making for a fun and energetic mix. It may be poorly spelled, but it was well executed. For those of you too skeptical, broke or Oregon-loathing to attend, here's my recap of the first ever Struktur:
The event kicked off with a presentation from Jody Turner, a PDX-based speaker who works internationally on identifying macro trends. The takeaway message: generational shift is a-comin'. Fast. Over the last two generations, values have shifted a lot. From the first teenagers and hippies, through the reactionary Gen X, to the wily and maligned millennials, success and desire look wildly different. That's all pretty familiar, but it's beginning to look like the upcoming millennial generation steps particularly far from its predecessors. With all the interconnectivity, unstable job markets and environmental catastrophe brewing, it shouldn't be surprising that tomorrow's main decision-makers are obsessed with experience over owning.
Around the world, it appears that members of Gen Y, to the chagrin of grumpier elders, are concerned with personal expression, hard work, and meaningful action rather than material symbols of status. They're less likely to identify high-paying jobs as necessary for success and happiness; more likely to think of themselves as community-minded and to choose jobs based on values. However, that individualized expression, environmental morality and emphasis on action above acquisition does come with a caveat of expected luxury. Our future market will rely heavily on meaning, story, interaction and authenticity, but high quality of life is still a given.
To balance this global-scale, generation discussion, our second speaker talked micro trends and social media. Jeanine Pesce, a professional trend tracker with a focus on active apparel brands, presented an overview of her predictions and recommendations. The subsequent panel discussion on trends, marketing and social media included Star Hoerauf of Thrive Clothing, Alex Valdman of Giro Sport, and Benji Wagner from Poler Stuff. Their collective pro tips: letting a little fashion world in isn't a bad idea—it's jumping on the bandwagon anyway; and social media is your friend, as long as you have a plan and involve your users meaningfully. With our lives becoming increasingly mediated, the ways to share pictures, info and experiences are increasing too. Harness the love people have for their hobbies or their emotional relationships with gear, and you can unearth a wealth of valuable (and shareable) information about how people interact with your stuff.
The next discussion, led by Mountain Hardware's Robert Fry and Eryn Gregory of Columbia Sportswear, was one of the conference's surprising highlights. The conversation set out to explore problems caused by the tension between business and creativity in design, a sore issue for many. An industry panel with representatives from Burton Snowboards and Icebreaker jumpstarted the conversation with some unexpected success stories. Then the audience supplied examples of seemingly golden ideas for products, campaigns, merchandising etc. that got stymied in the translation between design and market. Test cases were hilarious and surprising, and the advice was tinged with commiseration. A North Face designer recalled being repeatedly asked to come up with "a new Denali." (No big deal, right? It's only the highest selling piece of outdoor clothing ever, having miraculously gained popularity 13 years after its release.) Others groaned over seeing exceptional new designs cut from production after only a year to prove themselves among evergreen products. Still others outed themselves for falling short on the deliverable side—products too big to ship cheaply, or using materials that didn't actually meet users' needs.
After clarifying the failures and divesting ourselves of sin, we discussed points of improvement. A lot of talk centered on the importance of asking good questions and developing good communication skills—Prof. Douglas Davidson even got one of his design teams into an acting class! Keeping your eyes on mid- and long-term development was a big theme (don't wait until the Denali bubble breaks to develop new classics), as well as knowing how to back-burner until the stars align (do wait on that freaky new idea if it'll just be the unloved runt of the litter). Overall, what could have been a bitchfest turned into a fun, thoughtful conversation.
The last speaker of the day was another enjoyable surprise. William Lidwell managed to take a 90-degree room of antsy creatives at the slumpiest point in the afternoon and talk about heuristically reduced trends in the methods of designers through history... and keep everyone fascinated. The author of Universal Principles of Design (among other books on design methods and thinking), Lidwell proposed that in order to be as effective as the really great designers of the past, we ought to isolate the factors in their work and working methods and emulate them. Easily said, but he spent several years on some interesting research that eventually produced his list of the most common factors, "10 Heuristics for Better Design." Among them are some easy ones, like choosing "Elegant Simplicity" over conspicuous featurism, but others like "The Customer Doesn't Know What's Right" take more unpacking. Sure we've all thought it, but his point is that true innovation (See: Sony Walkman; Post-Its) is often far enough past MAYA that consumers can't imagine its value until forced to.
Still mulling over these themes, we ambled sweatily to the Icebreaker store for an afterparty and mingling shindig. There were good stories, good snacks, wool items pulled from the rear of a fake sheep, and a good amount of confused folks off the street wondering who all these people with expensive backpacks were. Good end to the day.
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