Where Are They Now? ‘Outdoor Design’ Grads Check In After 10 Years

(Photo/UCU OPDD)
(Photo/UCU OPDD)

A patent-pending trad climbing cam that streamlines gear placement; a high-end triathlon bike frame with modular storage options; hip urban commuter bags made with repurposed elements — these are just a few of the products that have come out of Utah State University’s (USU) Outdoor Product Design and Development (OPDD) program since it started almost 10 years ago.

The 4-year undergraduate degree program was designed to give students who want to work in the outdoor industry a jump start. It began in 2015, and GearJunkie covered the program ahead of OPDD’s first spring semester. In the years since, this program has served as a pipeline. It feeds trained professionals into the industry, incubating designers, products, and startups.

“We’ve been on a good trajectory. We have about 200 students across 4 years,” Chase Anderson, industry relations manager with OPDD, told GearJunkie. About 30 students graduate every year. Many are hired by companies like Under Armour and Orvis.

“If you want to enter this industry and work in product design, this is the way to do it,” Anderson said.

Utah State Outdoor Gear Design: Training the Future

When OPDD started, there was a heavy emphasis on apparel and soft goods design. That’s no longer the case. While the program’s soft goods and apparel design courses are still available, today, students can enroll in maker space workshops, design thinking classes, machining and heavy equipment courses, and wood-based manufacturing.

Peruse portfolios of OPDD grads like Baylee Vogler, and you’ll find products like a patent-pending traditional climbing cam combining the actions of removing and setting the gear into a single motion. Not only did she design this device, but Vogler also built a working prototype.

Baylee Vogler's Patent Pending Prototyped Crescent Cam, OPDD
Baylee Vogler's Patent Pending Prototyped Crescent Cam, OPDD

Vogler’s portfolio also includes an archery release device, a belay device, a triathlon bike frame with modular storage attachments, and a dry bag that converts from backpack mode to raft mode. All of these were designed through USU’s OPDD program.

Another student, Ciera Schelling, designed and created a fashionable commuter backpack that uses retired airplane seatbelts and a line of apparel made from other recycled outdoor clothes.

University of Utah Outdoor Product Design and Development program USU OPDD
University of Utah Outdoor Product Design and Development program USU OPDD

Some students get experience in the wood-based manufacturing class pressing skateboards, skis, and snowboards. Others have made trekking poles, shoes, gloves, snow clothes, camp kitchen equipment, and other camping gear.

Life After Outdoor Product Design & Development

According to Anderson, OPDD grads don’t often struggle to find jobs when they leave USU.

“We have an 80%-plus job placement [rate] from the program, which I think is really, really strong and says a lot about what our grads are capable of,” said Anderson.

He uses Natalie Cullum, a student from OPDD’s first graduating class, as an example. Her senior capstone project was a line of fly fishing apparel that included a pair of female-specific fly fishing waders. She took them fishing out on the Logan River. Cullum photographed the testing and posted her shots to Instagram.

It wasn’t long before Orvis reached out to her with a job offer.

“OPDD helped me land my dream job!” Cullum told GearJunkie. “Today, I get to design and develop the fish and hunt apparel, including waders, at The Orvis Company. [It’s] pretty cool.”

When asked what the most valuable part of the OPDD program was, Cullum struggled to point to one thing. However, as she looked back at some of her past projects, she singled out the design process she learned during her time at OPDD.

“The ideation to creation process [OPDD] had us go through for each project was almost identical to what I do at Orvis today,” she said. “The repetition of rapid ideation sketches, refining in CAD and Illustrator, creating bills of materials and line sheets, and producing a tangible product is what gave me a leg up when I was given my first programs at Orvis.”

Aaron Wright is another success story from OPDD’s first graduating class. When he left USU, Wright was hired as an apparel designer for Under Armour.

“Without going through the OPDD program, I do not think I would be at Under Armour today,” Wright said. It taught him to marry function and fashion and to design technical garments that actually solved problems.

University of Utah Outdoor Product Design and Development program USU OPDD
University of Utah Outdoor Product Design and Development program USU OPDD

“My focus in school was always making technical garments that people actually wanted to wear in their everyday lives and non-technical pursuits. I now get to build that product at [Under Armour] working on the Outerwear and Outdoor team.”

Like Cullum, Wright called it a dream come true. Wright was eventually put on a hiring team for the brand. When he saw another OPDD graduate had applied for a job, he hired them. That’s starting to happen more and more as OPDD grads enter the outdoor industry workforce.

“We’re getting to that point where it’s starting to snowball,” Anderson said. “Our first graduating classes are getting into some of those positions of power and leadership. They are bringing some of our new students into the industry.”

Not the Only Program Like It

While USU’s Outdoor Product Design and Development program was one of the first dedicated outdoor industry college majors, it is not the only one.

Western Colorado University (WCU) partners with the University of Colorado (CU) to offer its own Outdoor Industry Engineering program. Like USU, WCU students can design and create gear using machines and labs outfitted for prototyping and testing equipment. WCU’s goal is almost identical to USU’s OPDD program — to equip students with the skills to design and enhance outdoor gear and the industry behind it. WCU also offers an Outdoor Industry Business (OIB) program.

University of Utah Outdoor Product Design and Development program USU OPDD
University of Utah Outdoor Product Design and Development program USU OPDD

The University of Arkansas has a Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program. Colorado State University offers adventure tourism and ski area management programs. Oregon State University (OSU) has its own Center for the Outdoor Recreation Economy. OSU even has single courses anyone can take, like Foundations of the Outdoor Recreation Economy (free) and the Outdoor Industry Module (also free).

Many other colleges now offer courses in outdoor leadership, education, recreation, snow sciences, and more. Programs like these and USU’s OPDD provide a clear path to enter the outdoor industry that hasn’t existed until recently.

“When we started this, I think we knew that there was an opportunity for people to come in and work in this industry,” Anderson said. “Now we can confidently say, ‘If you want to work in this industry, this is your opportunity.'”

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