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Design Heads :: Interview with Barrett Willet (REI)

Design Heads :: Interview with Barrett Willet (REI)

by , March 25, 2014
In today’s segment of ‘Design Heads’ we venture out into the realm of outdoor recreation and sporting gear, and talk to the lead pack designer of REI.
A company that began by humbly importing a single ice axe and swelled into one of the biggest carry retailers in the US. The man in question? Outdoor enthusiast and all-round rad dude, Barrett Willet. We shot him some questions and he came back with the insights that we know you’ll dig… 

Which carry product are you the most proud of and why?

Probably the Flash 62 multiday pack (coming soon).  I was really satisfied that we can deliver such a lightweight pack without compromising on the load carriage.  The structure in that sub 3 lb. pack is identical to our expedition grade packs.


What are your main channels for your creative inspiration?

I find footwear especially inspiring as their designs follow many of the same principles as packs. Fitting something reasonably rigid and unforgiving close to the body without sacrificing comfort is where a lot of the design work lives.

Where is your most creative space and why?

It changes to meet the demands. Sometimes I need to be around the team so we can have one of those impromptu sessions where we start throwing stuff down on the floor and work through a problem. Other times it’s my dining room at home with its big south-facing window and antique oak table. I do a lot of my mind mapping work at home.


Any unusual places or circumstances where you got an idea for a new innovation in carry? Do you get a lot of ideas in the shower or the corner market foraging for organic dragon fruit?

All the real good solutions come while we’re in the field.  We have an access zipper that allows you to get into the top lid when the pack is open that one of the team suggested while we were on an early season testing trip on the Olympic coast. It’s those moments I remember most, when it hits you, you just know it is right.

We noticed you have a pretty cool Pinterest page that has boards like ‘colour inspiration’ and ‘positive and negative’. Can you run us through how these images help when designing?

I love Pinterest! It’s such an easy place to explore and catalog. It helps me tweak my perspective on form and detailing.


What’s your daily bag? And why is it the duck’s nuts?

Right now, I’m carrying a prototype of a re-released 1976 REI design available in Fall. It’s closely modeled after that original pack which is great homage, but I’ve laced it with some contemporary treatments, like a concealed LED clip point as to not rob from the feel of the pack.

Do you have a go-to travel bag? And why does it suit you?

My “go-to” is whatever our travel design team needs testing. I don’t think I’ve ever carried the same bag twice during trips. I plan my piece based on the amount of downtime during transport, number of connections and tendency to travel light. For overnights and weekends I use a pilot’s helmet bag because it’s sleek and I love the two long outer pockets.

Can we see a pocket dump?

Sure. You’ll notice my EDC stretches into the prepared dad world as we run around with our 4-year old and 4-month old.


While you’ve got the camera out, would you mind taking a photo of your workspace, and perhaps identifying any tools or personal items that help you most in your creations? Specific drafting pencils or a lucky charm or an explanation of why your workspace is so tidy and ours is . . . something not describable using the terms of polite conversation?

I tend to be a tool geek. Love my rOtring 600 pen and pencil collection, something about the mass of those instruments just feels right. My Klein Electrician’s scissors are so amazingly precise and equally strong.  My space tends to ebb and flow from tidy to disarray depending on what’s going on in my world. I love my big pin board for housing all those cool things we come across that we can’t wait to use.


Who else is doing rad things in the world of carry and why do you think they’re important?

I appreciate the return to craftsmanship we’re experiencing from so many brands. I think it’s healthy for realigning people’s expectation about what they truly need.

More specifically, I like that Clik Elite and f-stop are bringing legit packs to the action sports camera carry market.  A little closer to home, I have done most of the renovation myself on our craftsman bunglaloo, so if you’re into carpentry like me you can’t help but drool over Occidental Leather tool bags.  Customer focused, informed by experts, finest materials. So good.

What’s next for REI?

I feel like we’re in a good spot where we have ideas and designs that are being developed outside of any timeline and will be introduced when we think we’ve got it dialed.


How different would your designs be if you were designing for yourself rather than for REI?

Not that much.  I love efficient designs and designs that help enhance the experience.  I fold that philosophy into my designs because I think it’s appreciated by everyone.

How similar are the designers in your team? Do you guys shoot for consistency or diversity?

We’re a pretty diverse group, and I think that makes us stronger.  Each of us brings something a little different to the conversation.

What motivates you most with REI? Why do you keep doing new stuff?

I get to make toys.  I’m just glad I’m not building toasters.




How many styles do you not release?

There are some designs that don’t work out. Our buyers don’t have to buy our product, so if there’s not a desire by our customers our design may not be picked up.

Are there mistakes you see lots of carry companies making?

I would like to see more careful consideration to the structure and suspension of all packs.  A little goes a long way here.

Any favorite carry hacks?

Trying to use every pack or bag around the house instead of my wife’s designer diaper bag for the last four months.  

You’ve been in the game for a long time. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about design and secondly about the carry industry?

Keep checking in and reassessing your perceptions and presumptions.  It’s easy to get lazy.

Specific to the carry industry, I would say trust your carry instincts, be persistent and wait for it to come.  It wasn’t that long ago that a roll-top was obscure and considered a risky design despite all us designers clamoring to apply it because we loved the simplicity and efficiency.

How do you test your product? What do you look for when testing?

Everyone on the design and development team are users and we’re always taking something out.  We also have a formal field testing program that taps into REI employees nationwide as the tester pool.  Any REI employee can sign up to test our new designs, in a variety of climates.  We’re sometimes our worst critics, and feedback or recommendations goes directly back to design.

How many prototypes do you go through before release?

Depends on the project, timing and how much work we can accomplish in-house.  I find a lot of value in subassemblies to explore variations or concepts. These can be iterated quickly.

What carry product (of your own creation, or anyone else’s if you feel like being generous) do you enjoy the most? What makes it enjoyable?

I love my Nau Fluent Stash.  It was the exact solution I needed as part of my daily carry and the form and materiality is simple and perfect.


What kinds of hobbies do you pursue when you aren’t creating wonderful new carry products? Have you created any carry craft specifically for that hobby, or do you intend to in the future?

Outdoor photography has always been a pulse in my life.  My first carry design and prototype was a foam insert for an old Dana Designs pack so I could bring my SLR on ski trips.

Are there any innovations that make this carry creation superior to all others? Space distribution? Shape of the pocket? Material of the strap? Alloy in the buckle? Dragon scale lining?  

It was the perfect solution, however the irony is that a product like this can only exist in the world of prototype. Mass production just wouldn’t balance out. It was built for a specific camera kit and fits into a specific pack and is considerate of a specific assortment of gear alongside it.  Totally a one-off.

What carry product doesn’t currently exist, but would if you could wish it so? To put it another way, what would you tear your hair out over if another carryologist were to create it first?  

I’m going to hang on to that one for myself.

What do you think is most often shamefully absent from carry products? When you see carry creations from less-masterful carryologists than yourself, what do you shake your head and tut-tut over?

I think if a designer or brand can honestly express their point of view it needs to be considered, especially if it centers on the customer.  Sometimes the less entrenched bring a much needed fresh perspective.

What materials do you most like to work with? Are there any new materials you’re experimenting with? Anything that will break the time-space continuum?

We work mostly in nylons but have recently commercialized a number of styles with high tenacity nylons and complex finishes.  By playing with the finishes we can adhere to our strength and weatherproofness standards while reducing the overall fabric weight.  We have also been playing around with materials that we’re used to seeing as objects, and applying them in unexpected ways. I’d tell you more – but you’ll just have to wait!

Are there any materials you used to like, but now find impractical for your creations?

Water-repellent zippers.  They are beneficial in certain environments but the probability of need doesn’t seem to be there.  A full-scale approach to weather resistance is more practical.


What wouldn’t the layperson know is essential to a good carry product? We all tend to appreciate convenient pockets, for example, but is there anything that we wouldn’t notice about an excellent carry product off-hand but a master of carryology always would?

So much of what generates comfortable carry is buried inside the back panel and often plays second string to other more evident “comfort” stories. Finding that right balance of structure and uninhibited fit is where the magic lies.

If you weren’t making carry products, what would you likely be doing for a profession? Or do you have another passion that your carry creations help you enjoy more fully? 

I’d be a nature photographer, or perhaps I’d be building toasters.




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