The origins of NEMO are in design and engineering. Cam, the founder, incorporated the business when he was completing his degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design, in April of 2002. At the time, he was also working at MIT with a team of engineers, funded by the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts, to design the next generation of space suits. Cam was a passionate rock and ice climber, mountain biker, and adventurer, and he saw an opportunity to bring new technology and designs to outdoor equipment.
It took Cam two years to learn to sew and pattern, build the first working prototypes of his tent designs, and hire the first employees. NEMO’s designs weren’t unveiled until an industry trade show in the summer of 2004. It took another two years to complete manufacturing and take the designs to market. In the meantime, to fund the ongoing product development, the small team at NEMO consulted on projects at MIT, Rawlings, Segway, and others. The hands-on experience of patterning and building tensile fabric structures and designing products unrelated to outdoor adventure, for a range of clients, helped the team build a strong foundation of design and engineering skills.
Back at RISD, especially while working with engineers at MIT, Cam had learned the difference between design and engineering, and the value of both processes. Good engineers follow a more linear and deductive process, whereas designers must be able to postpone rationality and generate ideas without immediate concern for their feasibility. To create something new, the designer must be able to halt the linear evolution of an idea and move around laterally, exploring new possibilities, but then evaluate those ideas in much the same way that an engineer would, selecting the most appropriate direction, and resuming the evolution.
The first years of NEMO showed the team that the best product solutions come from a combination of design thinking and engineering. And that they are almost never delivered fully realized in an epiphany, or neatly uncovered step-by-step in a predictable timeline. For the team at NEMO, the best ideas have always begun as an answer to some shortcoming in the team’s experiences outdoors and evolved in fits and starts through a committed and enduring evolution involving dead-ends, happy accidents, and thoughtful iteration. To enrich the development process and add engineering rigor, the team built a rain chamber for year-around weather testing, apparatuses for evaluating airbeam strength, trueness, and airholding, and partnered with outside labs and consultants to understand fabric and coating sciences.
Fixing on an idea too early is sacrificing the possibility that something greater will emerge along the way. The process itself dictates the quality of the results, and this became the heart of NEMO’s design philosophy. The goal became not just to make great equipment for adventure, but to master the process.
Today, the tools NEMO uses to design and develop products reflect the company’s commitment to process and belief in the necessity of both design thinking and engineering. Ideas for new products begin with having real experiences in adventure. A passion for adventure is an absolute prerequisite for being part of the team. Observations of shortcomings in existing equipment turn into sketches back in the office. The goal of brainstorming is always to come up with ideas that will improve the experience of adventure. Ideas are refined with an iterative exchange between CAD and physical models, and a story begins to take shape as to how the product will contribute to the experience and the brand.
NEMO takes full responsibility for every detail of its products. Unlike so many brands these days, everything creative is done in house. The design team at NEMO works on these key principles: never bring anything to market that isn’t significantly better than what’s already available; own every detail; be proud of everything you do.