An Interview with the Designers
I’ve spent the last two years within earshot of the “bullpen” in our open office space. While some companies have a tetris of cubicles and mahogany corner offices, here at NEMO we’re an open environment with design at our center – both figuratively and literally. Our workstations all radiate from the heart of the company, a massive standing height table strewn with fabric swatches, marking pencils and patchwork prototypes.
It’s in this environment that I observed as our new sleeping pad line found life, from a collection of fledgling ideas (“No one should fall off their pad at night!”) to round after round of prototypes (“Hey, come lay on this and tell me what you think.”), to the line of beautiful pads we’re so proud to launch today.
I’m fortunate to have been infected by osmosis with this excitement, and it’s in that spirit that we give you a peek behind the scenes. We’ve caught up with Cam Brensinger, our Founder, CEO, and Lead Designer, as well as Spar Patton, our Product Development Manager for sleeping pads, to ask them a few questions about the process.
Cam started NEMO 17 years ago, fresh out of industrial design school. He is still lead designer and is damn quick to marker out a new solution to a puzzling design challenge.
You just launched a full new line of products this year. What’s your favorite part of the design process?
Cam: Making new things, new solutions – design that moves people and improves their experience of adventure. And I love sharing the process with people I truly respect and enjoy. We have a talented and motivated team, and a mission we can unite around. We have clear and consistent expectations of excellence, and the trust and respect needed to do our best work. Camaraderie during the journey is huge, and the shared pride and fulfillment of collective accomplishment is our reward.
Were there ideas you had to kill this year that you loved?
Cam: Yes and no. There are always ideas that don’t make it to market, but it’s usually because they didn’t deserve to. The good and lovable ones all get a chance.
Did you ever get stuck on a challenge, and what did you do?
Cam: Give it time. It happens often that I don’t have the answer in the moment. But the subconscious mind is a powerful and mysterious thing. I find if I give it a little time, the solution will often surface at random and surprising moments — the middle of the night, in the shower, or commuting home. The question might be how to best feed, nurture and listen to our subconscious minds. And if no solution can be found, sometimes the question itself can be reframed.
What do you enjoy about an average day at NEMO?
Cam: The intensity. Feeling like every minute counts.
How do you know when to step away and call a project finished?
Cam: If it’s a piece of wood working, when the last coat of poly is applied. If it’s anything to do with NEMO, it’s never finished.
Which pad are you most proud of this year?
Cam: Switchback, though a fairly simple product to produce, was a surprisingly involved one to design and there was some great teamwork between design and engineering in the process.
How has the design process at NEMO changed in the past (nearly) 17 years since you started NEMO?
Cam: It’s getting more and more fun. Our collective knowledge, talent, experience, resources, and focus continue to develop and evolve.
Spar, our sleeping pad Product Development Manager, took on the challenge of redesigning the entire sleeping pad line.
Tell us about your approach to redesigning the entire sleeping pad line this year.
Spar: Valves are a big deal. We know it’s an intimate interaction you have with the product and we wanted to design a new valve for all of our pads. Once we knew we were touching every pad, we wanted to improve the user experience in every single sleeping pad series. So we surveyed and determined the top things people wanted to change about their sleeping experience, and we tackled these.
What were some of the things people wanted most?
Spar: One of them was simple and almost universal: testers were constantly asking, “how do I stay on my pad?” People hate rolling off their pads at night, which we addressed by designing Cosmo 3D. Feeling disoriented at night or feeling the hard ground isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep. With the body-mapped baffles of Cosmo 3D we wanted to create a subtle way to say, “here’s where you’re sleeping,” and unconsciously provide that sense of place and protection that the human and animal brain needs to access deep, restorative sleep.
You also tackled the classic closed-cell foam pad. What was the design approach behind that?
Spar: Yes, this year we’re launching Switchback, a closed-cell foam pad that is realistically the first big innovation in that style of pad in decades. We tackled comfort by developing both a new foam and a new form. Pat, our Director of Engineering, has a PhD from Harvard and a background in engineering packing problems, such as how you get the most M&M’s in a sphere. He designed the hexagonal accordion nesting pattern that allows for taller and plusher nodes. And we developed an entirely new foam to optimize plushness. To be honest, the idea was solid theoretically, but the development was very difficult. Foam is a finicky substance because it’s so compliant and sensitive to pressure, heat, and humidity.
How is it to work on a product that’s all about sleep? How does it affect your own sleep and awareness of sleep?
Spar [laughing]: Well, there are a lot of nights when I’ll set my alarm for 2 a.m. and leave bed to go sleep on a pad. I don’t want to spend the entire night away from Liz [Spar’s significant other], but there’s a lot of testing to be done.
I think a lot about how I sleep; how many times I change position. I think more about sleep as affording clarity of mind when you’re doing adventurous things.
I think more about sleep as a tool to be sharper for activities that require a lot of focus the next day. If you’re tired and leading a multi-pitch climb, that’s not the headspace you want to be in. You don’t want your mind wandering when you’re going mach schnell down a trail.
Were there any products you didn’t think would make it to the finish line?
Spar: Tensor Alpine was hard. We were chasing after the highest R value we’ve ever offered in an inflatable pad, while still delivering on comfortable and quiet sleep. We took our Spaceframe™ architecture and pushed it to a different level. I discovered how much more useful the innovative Spaceframe™ baffle construction was; building on a great idea allowed us to push into a totally new product: a pad that is super warm and what hard core athletes are looking for, but also super quiet and packs so small. I feel proud of that.
You mentioned this all started with the design of a new valve. Tell us about the Laylow™ multi-valve.
Spar: We wanted to create a valve that was as minimal and multi-functional as possible. Pat did a lot of modeling in-house and we 3D printed many evolutions here while we were perfecting the design. We believe it’s the first sleeping pad to use an internal hinge that allows us to have two valves in one location with only one exposed leash.
What do you do with all your prototypes of pads along the way?
Spar: It’s hard to get all the design details right on one sample, so we end up making a lot of prototypes along the way – one might have great baffles and another might have dialed in fabric. We do a lot with prototypes: sleep on them, blow them up, pack them up, cut them up, do baffle weld testing in our heat and humidity chamber, send them out for field testing. A lot of team members take pads home at night to get different body types and types of sleepers sleeping on them. They get pretty beat up.
Ultimately, they get sold in a sample sale at Headquarters and we donate the money to Southeast Land Trust, a local land conservation organization.
Which sleeping pad will you personally use the most this year?
What’s your favorite product name?
Spar: I like “Roamer.” We had a long list of good names for that pad. The name suits the pad; it’s a couch surfer’s dream, a vanigan pad. I really wanted it to be called Gonzo, but the Muppet affiliation was too strong.
“Switchback” was also fun, inspired by the accordion fold being like the switchbacks on a trail. We had a lot of working names for that pad, such as Crosslink and Flexagon. I like where we landed.
How does it feel when you see your babies in the wild?
Spar: It’s the most rewarding thing. It’s exciting to have people go out and use them and have positive reactions similar to what we dreamed of during the design process. We’re always thinking, “How can we help people get outside and be more comfortable?”
We believe we can be a small part of creating a memory that will last forever, and empower them to get out. It’s super meaningful to everyone at NEMO.