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NEMO: How Good Design Happens

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If legendary industrial designer, Raymond Lowey, were alive today there's a good chance he'd be working alongside Cam Brensinger at NEMO Equipment, Inc., designing tents, sleeping pads and other innovative camping equipment. Cam is the founder of NEMO, an award-winning design and manufacturing company in Nashua, New Hampshire, that produces top-of-the-line outdoor equipment.

As a camper and climber myself, I've always been interested in the latest gear so when I saw an article on NEMO in a recent issue of the Rhode Island School of Design alumni magazine I had to give Cam a call to find out how he and his company produce such cool gear.

Cam's company, NEMO, creates a wide range of gear but is perhaps best known for their Morpho 2P tent. Now what's so special about the Morpho is that it uses no poles for support. Instead, " airbeams" provide structural integrity; inflatable tubes that support the tent and allow it to withstand greater stresses without breaking like traditional aluminum poles.

I asked Cam how he came up with such a revolutionary product. His answer is a story about a good design process that includes inspiration, innovation and execution.

Inspiration

The idea for the Morpho came as many good design ideas come -- from the recognition of a need and inspiration for a great solution.

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Nature has provided the inspiration for many great ideas; Cam's Morpho AR tent for instance.

"While I was still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a friend and I went climbing on Mt. Washington. The weather closed in and we got stuck high on the mountain. We hadn't planned to spend the night but there we were: in a blizzard without a tent. Well, we dug snow caves and hunkered down. We had emergency bivouac gear, a sleeping bag and insulating pad, still, it was cold and miserable. I didn't get much sleep and as I lay there shivering, I thought how great it would be to have a kind of cocoon made out of the same material as my sleeping pad. Later, when I got back to Providence I began working on the problem."

That was the starting point for what eventually became the Morpho AR tent, NEMO's very first product.

Innovation

It's said that great design is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration and Cam's experience was no different. He had the concept now he had to make it work. He took ideas from many disciplines and applied them to the problem through a process of trial and error.

Cam's original idea of a structure made out of sleeping pad material would be warm and cozy, but he quickly realized that it'd be terribly bulky and not practical to pack. Still, it got him to thinking; what if he could create a structure that eliminated the heaviest, bulkiest parts of the tent? The aluminum poles? What if he used air instead?

There are a lot of structures that use air for support. Perhaps the simplest is the bicycle tire, and that's where Cam started. But after much trial and error he found he wasn't getting the results he was looking for. It seemed that the project might wither on the vine until one of his classmates, a kite surfer, saw what Cam was working on.

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Coming up with a great idea is only part of the job. Making it real is an integral part of the design process.

"My friend brought in one of his kites and showed me the material and the air support system it used," Cam told me. "I think that's when things began to fall into place. There was still a lot of work and design and testing of materials but I knew it was going to happen. I knew I was on the right track. Over the next couple of years I drew from a lot of different experiences and disciplines including sail design, sewing techniques, even space suit technology. I discovered things like how a deflated form translates into an inflated form. It seems simple but there's an amazing amount of math and geometry that goes into the design."

After a stint at MIT working on space suits for NASA and an internship at the mountain equipment company, Black Diamond, where he learned to sew, Cam finalized the design for his new revolutionary air supported tent, the Morpho AR.

His idea was one step closer to becoming reality.

Execution

Having solved the conceptual problems Cam had to execute his design. He had to come up with a way to get his Morpho tent into production and onto store shelves. That involved lining up suppliers for the components and finding craftspeople with the right skills. "New England used to be a center for the production of cloth and there were a lot of craftspeople who knew how to sew. But now all that has gone overseas. The specs for the Morpho are very tight and making them on a large scale calls for precise manufacturing techniques. Making one or two Morphos by hand was pretty easy but producing them in the numbers required to be economically feasible was a real challenge," Cam told me.

One answer to the puzzle came with the development of a software program specifically designed for Cam that helped him convert his design into a three-dimensional, air supported structure. Another key was aesthetics. "I had to make the Morpho look cool, too. I knew that if it's not pleasing to the eye, no one is going to want to own it."

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Aesthetics, image, brand and marketing played an important role in the success of the Morpho AR tent.

Today, NEMO is a successful, award-winning company. They supply top-quality gear to climbers and hikers all over the world. Their stuff is so good the Special Forces use it. When someone needs gear that goes above and beyond they come to Cam. "The company that handles all travel to the South Pole asked us to create special tents for use in the extreme weather they routinely experience. The gear they had been using just couldn't hold up. We designed and built special tents that can withstand the rigors of the South Pole."

But NEMO's gear isn't just for the elite. They create a line of outdoor equipment that benefits from the research and development they do for extreme conditions but is well within the reach of the weekend warrior. And that's just good design.

I asked Cam to sum up his experience creating NEMO. "I had the worst business plan in the world," he laughed, "but if you're good at what you do, everything else will fall into place."

Judging by the success of NEMO, you'd have to say Cam knows what he's talking about.

Darby Roach is a designer and a writer and heads up his own marketing agency, Orbit Direct. His most recent book, Your Three Second Window, demystifies the design process by explaining why we like the things we like, how to see and think as a designer, and what each of us can do to introduce harmony into our lives through enhanced aesthetic experiences.

Find out more about Darby and see some of his design work at www.darbyroachportfolio.com.

You can follow Darby's adventures as he rides his bicycle around the world at www.bikearoundtheworld.typepad.com.