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At Arc’teryx, design is about purpose, simplicity of function and minimal aesthetic. In other words, shit has to work and it needs to look good.

More than that, it has to work in the harshest environments, all while remaining unnoticed by the end user. Gear malfunctions on a ridgeline in 80mph winds can turn good ski days into potentially dangerous ski days. Making something light, simple, functional and bulletproof are all qualities that fight with one another. Combining these qualities with the idea of minimal annoyance to the end user is something Arc’teryx is a master of, but only because they understand that inspiration and creativity are born from exploration, patience, and failure.

Makers of things can be a curious bunch. On the doorstep of the Coast Mountains in North Vancouver, the team of makers at Arc’teryx encompasses a fluid group of people. They are designers and developers, tool and pattern makers, athletes and searchers, thinkers and creators. It’s not one thing for one person here, it’s everything for every person. All have an interest in making stuff work. Recently, a group of those makers flew to a remote glacier near Bella Coola, BC, living for a week, unsupported, in the middle of nowhere.

Trips like this are important; there’s a huge benefit to having a wilderness workshop right out the front door. Typical in the Coast Range, visibility on day one went from blue skies to a few feet as the crew; athletes, guides, a photographer and four mad outdoor scientists, hunkered down for a week of skiing and product testing. Thankfully, the giant basecamp tent was warm because one of those makers decided a wood stove made specifically to work in a tent on a glacier would come in handy. Who doesn’t pack a woodstove ski touring anyway? With the weather and stability gone to hell, there wasn’t much skiing, but that brought to light an important aspect of making things: time. They had lots of time.

Forrest Coots is no stranger to the mountains. One of the athletes on the trip, he is a world class ski mountaineer and lives on the slopes of Mt Shasta, in Northern California. “The coolest part of this trip was just hanging out at basecamp in the middle of nowhere. The skiing was terrible so we had time. We could talk about products and crazy design ideas with no distractions.” It may seem simple, but time is something very few companies give their people.

People need time to explore, to learn and ultimately, to fail. Design ideas are rarely about solving current problems. Instead, they’re about finding problems. And the only way to do that is to wreck gear, over and over again, until you come up with something that works, regardless of how long it takes. At Arc’teryx, they do everything in house. They can build a sample in the morning and spend the afternoon in the mountains beating the snot out of it. Having the ability to break things faster is what allows them to build stuff that can withstand the apocalypse, all with a simple esthetic and minimal design. And yes, looking good during the fall of civilization is important. Especially if you’re staying warm and dry.

So often, in the outdoor gear world, the focus is on doing, not thinking, but here, stranded on a glacier, it was the thinking that took over. What works, what doesn’t work? What sucks and needs improvement? What problems did we encounter and how can we overcome them?

Nathalie Marchand is a design developer who has a bit of a ninja reputation. Unattached to any specific department, she’s a kind of elite operator when it comes to making. She’s whip-smart and creative, but most of all, she’s given the space to tinker. “Working on multiple projects, many of which won’t make the production line gives me the chance to really experiment.” On this trip, it was a chance to see the product of her tinkering and have athletes like Forrest show her why something is or isn’t working.

Tool developer Chris Woollard is another builder of things, and was the force behind the aforementioned woodstove, which may or may not have been a fire hazard on the trip. He works in the tooling development shop, which is like the deep recesses of a gear junkie’s imagination. But the shop is something of a beacon for design. “Our shop has developed to the point where we can fail faster, if that makes sense. The more we fail, the more we learn and overcome.” The idea of failure is something that is welcomed at Arc’teryx. Screwing up is often the only way to get shit right.

Greg Grenzke was another maker on the trip. As a design manager, Greg is no stranger to the idea of failure as a means of building things. Another way to look at it is the idea of potential: “Experimenting with potential and where it can take us with a product is something we embrace. In that potential, we can obsess over the details of getting something right.” It’s in those details, where the focus is on solving problems and minimizing complexity, that Arc’teryx shines.

Perched on a glacier deep in the Coast Mountains, details become important. In the mountains, every problem is magnified. A blown pocket or badly functioning hood can go from annoyance to catastrophe all too quickly. Because of that, the design process has to be an exploration. But the other side of that is feedback. Trips like this one provide a realtime opportunity for folks like Nathalie and Greg to see and experience their ideas in action.

Athletes like Forrest are encouraged to get their tech nerd on and give detailed feedback on everything they test. They’re encouraged to destroy things.It’s in that wreckage and discussion, even with products that never make it to market, like a down suit for an athlete headed to Everest, that design ideas become award winning products.

In that continuous workshop, one that combines life in an office with life in the mountains, the get ‘er done ethos of making at Arc’teryx is fused with a sense of wonder and the willingness to completely mess up. You don’t know what you don’t know. If there is time to tinker, to explore and to fail, there is space to make, produce and create. That is what makes the difference. For the makers, it’s what fires them and keeps them going. It’s what produces gear that works, looks good and won’t burn your tent down.

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