Meet REI's senior manager of design insights, who visited 16 stores and talked to hundreds of co-workers to redesign REI employees' iconic green vests.

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Sarah Nagle

What do you do? I’m on the team that designs gear and clothing at REI. Technically, my title is senior manager of design insights, so I’m the person who helps the in-house team understand and create the gear our members need using an approach we call cooperative design thinking. That means I get to lead curious, creative researchers who hike, bike and play outdoors with our employees and members. Cooperative design is a different way of thinking about and developing gear — we engage directly with our community to make technical gear that inspires them to get outside.

How did you get started in that field? I’ve spent 10 years as a researcher in product design across a variety of industries, and have always been curious about understanding why we design the products that we do and how people’s stories and experiences can shape the products we design. I’ve found that the best insight comes from experiencing activities with people, and for us that means in the outdoors. We listen to first-hand stories of the people who use our gear and, with such an engaged community at REI, there’s constantly feedback and new ideas that help inform our design process. Plus, I love being outside, playing and exploring, so this job allows me to pair my passions.

What’s a typical day like? My job is to help people center their lives around the outdoors, so a typical day is being with people, watching and listening. I could be in the backcountry learning about our prototype designs with a group of experts, on a trail with members testing our latest gear or hosting a workshop with our design team to share insights. Each day is different. Last year, as part of our cooperative design process, I had the opportunity to visit 16 stores and talk to hundreds of my co-workers about redesigning our iconic green vests. That was a big deal. Our employees are guides for our members, so after months of listening we created a totally overhauled range of gear. Each piece was carefully designed to be more modern, technical and comfortable, while making their lives easier at work. We just rolled it out last month to 12,000 REI employees across the country.

What’s the best part of the job?
I love traveling, listening to stories and being involved in the design process from start to finish, seeing how the insights that we gather in the field help shape the finished product. That variety and unpredictability of my job keeps things interesting.

What surprises people about your work? That it’s actually a job! Most people don’t really understand how important insight is to our design process. Since we’re a co-op, we take the feedback from our members to heart because we’re talking about comfort and technical quality for people when they are out there in the wild. You’d be surprised how much time people will give if they can see their ideas come to life in a piece of gear that thousands of people will use for their adventures and keep for years.

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