Gear School: ‘Outdoor Product Design’ Now University Degree

At Utah State University, a new Bachelor of Science degree (the ‘Outdoor Product Design & Development’ program) is tailor-made for outdoor enthusiasts, product designers, and gear junkies looking to begin a career in the outdoors world.

Prospectus: ‘Outdoor Product Design And Development’ program

Last week, students at Utah State University absorbed a lecture on primitive snowshoes and the baidarka, a watercraft created by the native Aleut people. The lesson was a part of a class, the three-credit “History of the Outdoor Product Industry,” that builds toward a first-of-its-kind degree focusing on outdoors gear.

“We were looking at the Native roots of modern [outdoors] products,” explained Sean E. Michael, Ph.D., who teaches the History of the Outdoor Product Industry session. “It fueled some great learning moments for the students.”

New this semester (spring 2016), Utah State University’s Outdoor Product Design & Development program is a 120-credit bachelor of science degree.

Through a four-year series of classes, students will gain a comprehensive base of knowledge to kick off a career at Mountain Hardwear, Petzl, Black Diamond Equipment, The North Face, REI, or any number of the thousands of companies that make up the multi-billion-dollar outdoors industry.

Outdoor Product Design And Development Program

So far, about 100 students have committed to the degree. The first graduates will earn the degree as soon as 2019 after completing a diverse course load of classes focused on the business, legal, design, art, and engineering facets of making gear for outdoor recreation.

Classwork supplemented with time outdoors using gear in the field

Lindsey Shirley, an associate professor, created the program in part to “address the lack of trained professionals in the outdoor product industry.” Students hoping to get a job designing outerwear, tents, backpacks, or ice axes often enter the work world with no specific training.

The Outdoor Product Design And Development program was built to give aspiring gear designers a jump-start. Classes throughout the four years range from basics like Introductory Sewing to highly-focused requisites like Digital Design Technologies for Outdoor Products.

The degree gives a broad view with required courses on Biodiversity and Sustainability, Clothing Production Principles, and Color Theory & Design.

Gear Studies: A Four-Year Degree

The coursework finishes with more hands-on sessions like the Outdoor Product Design & Development Studio class.

Throughout the multi-year program, students will be exposed to the outdoors through off-campus trips and via connection to outdoors-gear brands in Utah and beyond.

Utah State University campus in Logan, Utah

Outdoor Industry: Demand For ‘Trained Workforce’

In an explanation on the origin of the degree, Utah State University notes it is responding to a “demand for a trained workforce by the outdoor product design and development industry.” The school’s answer is through the creation of an the “industry-inspired degree program,” the Outdoor Product Design And Development degree.

Not only is the industry calling for a trained workforce, the USU document cites, but “the demand for new and innovative outdoor products continues to rise.”

The document continues, According to the Outdoor Industry Association, more than 140 million Americans make outdoor recreation a priority. This fact is illustrated by the over $646 billion that was spent on outdoor products in 2012. Outdoor recreation is a growing and diverse economic super sector that is a vital cornerstone of successful communities that cannot be ignored.


Utah State University’s program strives to connect students to industry leaders and “has been developed with assistance from the world’s leading technical designers, world’s largest fabric manufacturers, and heads of outdoor product companies,” the document notes.

Utah, Outdoor Industry Mecca

Utah State University is in Logan, a city northeast of the Great Salt Lake and on the edge of a vast mountain wilderness that defines a swath of the state.

Like much of Utah, the town and the college are within spitting distance of world-class climbing, skiing, trail running, hiking, watersports, and more.

Utah alone is a major force in the outdoors world, with more than 1,000 companies tuned toward outdoor recreation and a cited $5.8 billion draw for the state economy. Tens of thousands of people work in the outdoors industry, and major gear brands call the Salt Lake City area home.


A prospectus for the Outdoor Product Design & Development degree notes: “If Utah is the premiere place for outdoor recreation, then it should be the premiere place to prepare future technical designers.”

The degree at Utah State University looks to be an amazing place for aspiring gear designers to start. We caught up with Lindsey Shirley for a quick Q&A on the degree as the students began the kick-off semester this month.

Interview: Lindsey Shirley (Utah State University)

Is USU the first school in the country to offer an outdoor product design degree?

Lindsey Shirley: Yes, we are the first university to launch a Bachelor’s of Science in Outdoor Product Design and Development (OPDD). The degree program is unique because it focuses on a multidisciplinary approach to training future professionals for the outdoor-product industry.

The other programs across the nation might only focus on industrial design, engineering, fashion design, etc. The program at USU is an integrated program that brings together design, engineering, outdoor recreation, sustainability, business, and many other concepts important in the supply chain of outdoor products.


Students enrolled in the program will have the opportunity to take design concepts to production and test their product ideas. Alongside the design and development processes, students will work on marketing and merchandising strategies for the products that they develop.

How many students are enrolled in the program? How many do you anticipate will enroll in the coming years?

We are bursting at the seams! We have an official enrollment of 100 in our inaugural semester of the OPDD professional seminar course with a list of approximately 50 more students that are planning to transition to the program. On average, our advisor works with 3 – 4 prospective students a day. We are still working on our strategic plan to identify our future goals for enrollment.

Does the university have other courses tied to the outdoor industry?

We have added 13 new courses to the university catalog that have an emphasis on the outdoor industry and outdoor products. Some of the existing courses that we have integrated into the program will have unique sections for OPDD students that have an emphasis on outdoor products. For example, the introductory sewing class will prepare students to construct outdoor products while learning the introductory techniques required in a traditional sewing class.

Their projects consist of gaiters, duffel bags, messenger bags, and backpacks. For the most part, we are using a theme of bag construction — upon completion of the class, students will have at least four different products to add to their professional portfolio.

When will the outdoors industry see the first graduates enter the workforce?

We officially launched OPDD-specific courses this spring 2016 semester. There were students who began taking other required courses for the program in the fall. We have many students who are pursuing a second bachelor’s degree and have already completed some of the coursework that falls into the general education requirements at USU. There is a possibility that we will have students complete the program in as little as 2.5 years.

–See a future for yourself in the outdoors world? Learn more from the prospectus or the main page for the Utah State University’s Outdoor Product Design & Development degree.

Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.