The Unexpected Inspiration Behind NEMO’s Designs

Better design is core to the foundation of NEMO Equipment.

It was nearly 17 years ago when our founder, Cam, brought together his passions for industrial design and outdoor adventure to create a company that was completely dedicated to pinnacle design.

And while our design team is single-mindedly focused on developing products that meaningfully improve your adventure experience, they draw inspiration from many unique and unexpected places encountered through personal experience, history, evolution, and everything in between.

Powerfully inspirational moments are extremely rare … and sometimes many years may pass before we realize their significance. And it’s often the unexpected things that inspire our best designs, or even help define our entire design philosophy.

Unique or visceral experiences are etched into our consciousness and form our design palate. Whether it’s the first moment a child feels the cold weight of dad’s steel hand tool or the first time they feel the glide of their skates on the ice … there is a profoundly felt impression — a tingling sense of beauty and awe that is forever imprinted on our sense of wonder.

I asked our team of product designers to think about an example of unexpected inspiration they’ve experienced in life. Their responses were true to the beauty of NEMO.

 


Hummingbirds & Nomics

From the Hummingbird to the Nomic, there was inspiration in more than just climbing.
This progression of ice climbing axes did more for Cam than just take him to greater heights.

NEMO’s founder is no stranger to the ice wall. Cam has been ice climbing for most of his adult life and describes the sport with the Zen of a Sumi-e artist walking you through meditative movements of a brush on rice paper. The slowing of time, the mindfulness, the joy of being at height — it all blends into pure flow. And it is the countless interactions with the equipment that takes him high up an ice wall, specifically the evolution of that equipment, that has shaped the foundation for his design philosophy and the very mission of NEMO itself.

“Like any enthusiast who has pursued an endeavor for multiple decades, I’ve seen major evolutions in the equipment. But some are dramatically better than others.”

“The first time I ice climbed was on a pair of Hummingbirds which hang in my office. I saved up in college to buy a Charlet Moser Pulsar which ended up being a huge improvement — both aesthetically and in terms of clearance and ergonomics.”

“I made it the mission of NEMO to not bring anything to market that doesn’t drastically improve someone’s outdoor experience, and it has made all the difference in the level of thoughtful design we strive for as a company.”

“Years later and many other tools in between, I ended up with a pair of Petzl Nomics. The difference in the performance of these tools was pretty astonishing. It was a vivid illustration for me of how good design can improve the experience. Petzl was one of the brands I held up as a role model when I founded NEMO.”


Kepler & A Stack of Dodecahedrons

Kepler’s century-old intuition was finally proven true with a 300-page treatise that took 12 reviewers four years to review.

For some of us, math is hard. Maybe your mind starts short-circuiting as soon as you start to contemplate the idea that the Universe is infinite … or it’s possible you cringe as soon as you start seeing sin, cos, and tan in a mathematical equation. For Pat, our Director of Engineering, mathematical ideas and language, spatial relationships, and heady concepts with infinitely possible configurations are just the things that get him fired up and put a smile on his face.

“The ancient method of stacking fruits in marketplaces around the world was a great place to start.”

When asked about unexpected inspirations, Pat responded with excitement that it was Kepler’s Conjecture, a 400-year-old answer to the question what is the densest, most efficient way to pack a collection of spherical objects, was a fundamental inspiration for the node configuration of our new Switchback™ closed-cell foam pad. A solution to the design crux of our pad began hundreds of years ago. Kepler’s conjecture was that a face-centered cubic lattice, the way you see oranges stacked at a farmer’s market, was the densest way of packing spheres. Find an in depth discussion here.

The solution to the crux of this pad began hundreds of years ago.

“And true to its theory, not only did the inspiration afford us more plushness … it packed down smaller too.”

“Our node configuration is the easier-to-solve, 2D version of the 3D problem related to the stacking of oranges in a crate. But we applied the theory of Kepler’s principle to a nesting node configuration for Switchback™. The hexagonal pattern allowed us to use space more efficiently than a grid pattern and create more plushness for the end user. The point was to increase the node density to provide more points of contact with your body and to increase the support power of the pad. Our pad’s hexagonal node structure performs far better than pads that have a square node structure.”

 


Suspension Bridges & Tensioned Cables

The iconic George Washing Bridge spans nearly a mile across the Hudson River. 

Growing up in New York, Zack, our Product Development Manager, has ridden in his fair share of rides across the great bridges that span over the East and Hudson Rivers. Even as a kid, he has always been fascinated with the complex engineering of these suspension bridges. The way engineers leverage each materials’ strengths, optimize size to weight ratios, and just the aesthetic of their logic-defying spans continually spark his curiosity. But what really grabs his attention is the way they hinge on the strength and support of hanging, flexible cable in what looks like a natural and fluid curve but is much more complex.

“Using towers, or tall vertical elements as individual supports separated by a great distance, to hold up everything in between is a kind of crazy idea.”

“If you look up some early concepts for the Golden Gate Bridge, they are not elegant. Their designs overused steel beams in an unnecessary way. When the idea of a suspended cable came into the picture, it really changed what was possible … and became a lot more mesmerizing.”

 

Catenary curves keep this tent taught.

 

“The cable hanging between the towers is a catenary curve. You can create one by hanging any string like thing that has some mass. The result is very close to a parabola, but different because it accounts for the weight of the hanging part — they are a little bit pointier than a parabola. This is the phenomenon that is most interesting.”

“We use catenary curves on all our tents, along the bottom edges of the fly and elsewhere. By staking out the ends of the catenary curves, we can apply tension across the entire surface. If these were straight lines, you wouldn’t be able to apply tension in between anchor points.”

“At camp when I was 12, we had a team building exercise that forced us to re-create a suspension-like bridge structure. We didn’t figure it out, but the lesson and physics of it is deeply engrained in my mind. We applied that to our Stargaze™ chairs and we’re currently working on some new products that will use tensioned cables and could also use other concepts of suspension bridges.”

 

Similar to suspension bridges, supporting straps extend from a single upright.

Cool fact that takes this a step further:

The towers of the George Washington Bridge are approximately 1″ further apart at the top than at the base. This is because they are built plumb off the Earth and since the Earth is round, they diverge over great distance. The part you drive on also moves up or down due to the contraction and expansion of the cables in extreme hot and cold temperatures. You can read more here.

 


Hockey Sticks & Tape

Spar’s collection of hockey sticks shows the many variations of preference for something as simple as a taped handle.

Spar, who develops our pad line, has played hockey most of his life. Countless hours of ice time each winter and months of the off-season spent playing street hockey — with a stick in his hand and a puck at the blade. This lifelong pursuit has made him keenly aware of the importance of interface and greatly shaped how he approaches design.

“I have always been fascinated with how players tape their sticks, both the blade and the handle.”

“It may not seem like it at first glance, but these touch points on the stick provide high-fidelity feedback to the player and significantly impact their feel, familiarity, and confidence in the manipulation of the stick and control of the puck. How that customization influences an individual’s ability to accurately direct a puck to a teammate moving at high speed is quite a beautiful synergy to contemplate.”

“As a designer, I find this user engagement with an object to be absolutely critical to maximizing use and enjoyment of the object, as well as, fostering a relationship with and responsibility for the object.”

Spar finds inspiration in the notion that good design invites an individual to interact with their gear and participate in its customization. When designing, he thinks of ways that invite them to engage in their own design process so they directly associate the object with the joy it brings them.

“The patina an object develops through use and routine care will highlight both the thoughtfulness the designer exhibited and the participation by the user in taking ownership of the object.”

Bringing this back to his design approach at NEMO, Spar pays close attention to user touch points — pillow fabric on the face, the stiffness of a valve tab between the fingers, how easy a pad unrolls — direct experiences the user will have with the product.

“Design should be intuitive and unobtrusive. I imagine the simple repair kit pocket in our stuff sacks as not just a place for our supplied repair kit, but for other small treasures or useful pieces of a kit to be stowed. I see the dulling and discoloring of pad fabric over time as a proud story being told by the pad that its user connects with on a deep level.”

 


Bicycles, Sailing Cleats & Clothes Hangers

A collection of simple machines converge into a device that is pure fun AND inspiration for Gabi.

Gabi, who manages development of our tent line, dove right in by discussing a simple machine that has not only shaped many of his life’s adventures, but also his design philosophy — an object we’ve all loved since we were kids for the freedom it gave us when we first felt the wind in our faces.

“The bicycle is my gold standard.”

“Even ignoring its utility and mechanical efficiency, the invention of the bicycle fundamentally changed the way we experience our environment. Bicycles enabled us to push the limits of familiar territory and empowered us, both physically and mentally, to navigate our own path. The first bicycles paved the way for generations of iterations, but they’re still on the streets and trails today; good design is lasting.

“Good design is less about the product itself than how it transforms an experience.”

“Although the road to a solution is strewn with roadblocks and tangents, I’m driven by the belief that good design will simplify, solve, and, delight. And the tangents to get there are half the fun.”

Design inspirations:
  • I’ve always been sort of a knot nerd but tying and untying tiny cords can be frustrating and time consuming. It was fun to design Airpin™ as a substitute for a personal favorite: taught-line hitch.
  • Our new Flybar™ in Hornet™ Elite borrowed cues from clothes hangers, specifically the kind with extra-wide shoulders that manage to support delicate garments without creasing or stressing.

 


The Chisel & Its Many Variations

Noah’s bag of chisel variations include tools from his father and his days at RISD where he was a fellow grad student with Cam.

Noah, our Head of Product, loves to be in the wood shop. He has been building things with his hands since he was a kid. He loves the beauty, simplicity, and efficiency of hand tools … and it is the archetypal chisel that has always stood out to him as a beacon of pure functionality when fostering his product development philosophies.

“The single-edged chisel defines versatile functionality in its purest form.”

“I don’t know any other physical product that has been developed into so many other functional subcategories. When you take the basic structure of this tool — a simple piece of steel with a sharpened edge — and manipulate that into a number of configurations, you arrive at an arsenal of other useful tools, each with a unique purpose.  Put hundreds of little chisels on a thin sheet of metal and you have a handsaw. Put a bunch of tiny chisels on a round, flat piece of steel and you get a saw blade. Attached then to the side of a round shaft of steel and you have a router bit – carve them into the shaft and you produce a drill bit. Widen the chisel and put it in a block and you have a hand plane. But they all come back to the chisel. That simple and humble, single-edged piece of steel has a hand in almost everything we see in the wooden structures around us.”

“I take that chisel and the matrix of products surrounding it to my product development ideation sessions as a beacon of return.”

“I often find that product brainstorming sessions get out of the realm of expertise really quickly. People like to take products and just add new technologies and wild ideas that they might not fully understand, and you start getting away from the essence of what a product was meant to be or needs to be. Or worse, we fall into a realm of disfunction. The symbol of the chisel keeps us from going down the rabbit hole.”

“On the flip side, you can follow an inspired pattern of thinking that pushes and pulls on a single concept organically to reach some smart, functional variations and modular ideas that are quickly achievable and maintain the integrity of the original idea.”