Eric Rice always wanted to be an industrial designer–or so he thought. It was what he had studied, and when he graduated he moved to Chicago to work for a small design firm. It was seemingly a dream job: He got to design a wide range of products, from store exhibits to cameras. And yet, the honeymoon phase soon wore off. “I kind of lost interest in it pretty fast because I didn’t have a passion for what I was designing,” he recalls. The straw that broke the camel’s back, in 1991: a Bart Simpson telephone.
Rice moved back to Michigan, where he did some design consulting and other odd jobs. Then he got a job that was, well, odd. Learning of a position as an assistant manager at a North Face store that had just opened nearby, Rice went in and applied. He didn’t care about retail, but he did care about the out-of-doors, and he had come to suspect that if only he could be paid to design products he used and admired himself, he would find his love for design again. He applied for the job, being honest with them that someday he’d love to design outdoor products for the company. “We can’t make any promises,” they said. And indeed, he went on working in retail for two and a half years.
Until he got his big break: A position opened up in apparel design at North Face. Rice had never designed a jacket or fleece in his life, but at least it was a design job, so he applied–and got it. Surrounded by passionate colleagues who taught him everything there was to know about designing performance apparel–and finding, surprisingly, that it had much in common with industrial design after all–Rice grew to love his job. Outdoor apparel design “became my passion,” he says. Patagonia hired him away a few years later, where he’s been ever since.
To understand what makes the Nano-Air special, try to remember (or imagine) the last time you climbed a snow-capped mountain. In all likelihood, you were quite cold at the foot of the mountain–so at that particular moment, you wanted a jacket that was heavily insulated. However, by the time you reached the top, you were probably working up a sweat–so at that particular moment, you were wishing you had a jacket that “breathed,” that let a certain amount of air pass through to help your sweat evaporate.
The Nano-Air jacket is made with polyester synthetic “fill,” or insulation–designed to keep you very warm. The problem with this particular kind of insulation, though, is that it takes the form of tiny, hair-like structures that would slip around in the jacket, if you tried to make the jacket’s weave loose enough to be breathable. Enough slipping around of the insulation and the jacket would become clumpy, and lose durability. For this reason, until now, designers of polyester synthetic jackets chose to make them not breathable at all. “You would be climbing wearing your synthetic insulation jacket, and it’d overheat,” says Rice.
But Rice and his team used their design magic to engineer a jacket that holds those hair-like bits of insulation in place, even when surrounded by breathable fabric. “This has enough insulation to keep you warm in cold conditions, but at the same time, if you’re working really hard, you’re dumping that heat through the fabric,” says Rice. Asked whether he changed the properties of the fabric weave, or whether he changed the properties of the synthetic insulation, Rice prefers to remain general to protect trade secrets. (“It’s just the way that it’s constructed keeps it from migrating through,” he says, a little tautologically.)
Has Rice’s hypothesis remained correct–that a love for the products he designed would make the difference in his career satisfaction? The best way to answer that question is to say how long he’s been at Patagonia: 17 years.
How does he remain inspired? “For me, it’s really because I’m designing things that I have such a passion for. When I go climbing, whatever I’m wearing or using, I’m thinking, ‘How can this be better?’” He’s not saying that’s the only way. “I envy people who can design products they’re not passionate about,” he says. (Even if the market for Bart Simpson phones has probably shrunk a lot since 1991.)
It’s just not Rice’s way. Of designing outdoor products, Rice says: “Because I’m so passionate about it, I’m always thinking about it. And that’s where the inspiration comes from.”