Product designer Brendan Sando wears many hats—industrial designer, adventure traveler, cooking enthusiast, father and professional problem solver. He has experienced almost every area of the outdoor industry — from retail and repair to design and manufacturing.
All of these perspectives influence the way that the Aussie designer creates new products, especially Sea to Summit’s sleeping mats, bags, pillows and liners; products which have picked up a steady stream of fans, awards and accolades over the years.
Brendan’s personal design motto — Use. Design. Engineer. Build. Repeat — becomes apparent when you look at the expanded series of Sea to Summit sleep system products released this year.
We sat down to talk to Brendan about design in general and the comprehensive sleep system lineup.
ABB: Brendan – thanks for taking the time to speak with us. First of all – congratulations! We read recently that the two millionth multi-function sleeping mat/pillow valve which you designed had just been molded.
Brendan: Thanks! It’s amazing to see that this nifty little valve has been so well received. When we were working on our sleeping mats, we wanted a valve that could do lots of things really well. We needed it to have a high airflow (which wasn’t common at the time) and be easy to attach a pump to. The real challenge, of course, was to provide this all in one unit—rather than separate inflate and dump valves—so we could reduce the number of external welds on the mats. It was a long, costly process to perfect the valve but judging by the number of look-alikes it’s inspired, it was worth it.
ABB: How do you think when you sit down to design a piece of gear? Is it more about inspiration or more a question of engineering?
Brendan: I studied engineering before I transferred to industrial design, so knowing both fields really helps me get to a creative yet practical solution quicker. I like to initially start with my design hat on, where I think of the needs of the end user for the piece of gear I am designing—how would he or she like to interact with this gear? What feels intuitive when using this item? How can I make this more functional or reduce redundancies? Then I put my engineering hat on to work with materials and their physical properties, tooling design etc. to turn it into something that can be manufactured on a larger scale.
ABB: So, what does ‘intuitive’ design mean to you? Can you give us some examples from current Sea to Summit products?
Brendan: Intuitive design to me is something that just works—you pick it up and just use it without questioning or thinking too much about what you need to do to get it to function. Take our award-winning eVent® Compression Dry Sack. It’s exactly what it says it is—a compression sack that is also a dry sack. Stuff items in, close it like a normal dry sack, then use the compression straps to compress the contents to a third of the original size—easy. Normally, you can’t compress a dry sack once it is sealed but we were the first to use eVent®, a waterproof fabric that allows air to permeate through it in place of a purge valve. It was a real game-changer compared to what was on the market at the time—dry sacks that wouldn’t compress, or got your contents wet when you forgot to close the purge valve—so much so that we won a Backpacker Editors’ Choice award.
ABB: Several of the ABB Team are big fans of the eVac Dry Sack for storing puffy jackets and sleeping bags. Clearly, that was something which grew out of the eVent Compression Sack – how do you go about evolving designs?
Brendan: Our Airstream™ Pumpsack is a great example both of intuitive design and design evolution. The product started its life as a dry sack that doubled as an inflation sack for our Air Sprung Cell™ mats. Using an Airstream™ has so many benefits over inflating the mat with your mouth. The Airstream™ only uses two to three easy breaths and fills your mat with predominately dry atmospheric air. Compare this to 20 –30 breaths of moist warm air from your lungs.
It was such a benefit in terms of ease-of-use and enhancing long-term reliability that I wanted to include it with every mat. So we thought—why not incorporate it into the stuff sack? This improved both products and made the pumpsack more intuitive to use. Now, you don’t have to buy a separate accessory, you always have it on hand, and blowing through the smaller stuff sack entrance is easier and more efficient than a wider roll top. I’m super stoked with how it turned out!
ABB: What else are you particularly excited about in the Spring 2019 lineup?
Brendan: Our biggest new initiative is that we have developed a number of Women’s Specific sleeping bags and sleeping mats. We’ve also refined existing designs with features like our Pillow Lock™, which solves the problem of our lightweight pillows moving around the mat or flying away.
ABB: Women’s specific gear is not completely new to the Sea to Summit lineup, but the sheer number and variety of the 2019 products is a big change. What made you want to release a range of sleep systems designed specifically for women?
Brendan: Because we realized after we launched the Women’s Latitude and Trek sleeping bags in 2016 that there was a pent-up demand for women’s outdoor gear that wasn’t just a smaller, pastel-colored version of a men’s product. That set us on a path which we’ve been following for the past three years, developing new products – sleeping mats and sleeping bags ‘from the ground up’. As a result, we have construction details in both products (ABB: warmer, more comfortable zones in the self-inflating mats, and additional Thermolite® insulation in the footbox of down bags) which the unisex products don’t have.
A key element in the design process was to focus on the way a woman sleeps rather than simply her shape. This led to women’s bags and mats being narrower in the shoulder and wider between the hip and the knees to allow a more natural, sleeping position – women often sleep on their side or in a ‘figure four’ position. Both sleeping bags and mats offer more warmth, as women tend to sleep a few degrees colder than men. These are details that could make a huge difference to the quality of sleep (and recovery) in the outdoors.
Once we had set down the basics of the designs, we received great feedback from the women in our team and from our brand ambassadors, who tested the prototypes in a whole range of conditions until we had refined the concept.
ABB: How does your team generally go about testing products?
Brendan: It depends on the product. Part of the process takes place in the outdoors where we mistreat prototypes, and part of it takes place in different laboratories. Our aim is to build the most functional products, but also products which will last a long time – not throwing a defective piece of gear into the landfill is a key part of the way we think about sustainability. When it comes to lab tests, we are big advocates of third-party testing, including tests for sleeping bag temperature rating, tests for the insulation value of sleeping mats, and analysis of down to verify composition and fill-power.
We’re really excited that a new ASTM standard for testing sleeping mat R-Value has been created that will allow consumers to compare insulation values across all brands. The standard was created by a working group made up of all the main sleeping mat brands including Sea to Summit, and it comes into force in 2020.
(ABB: the Ask Baz Blog will feature an article on the new ASTM R-Value standard later this year)
The one thing you can’t measure is comfort – which is a shame, because I think our sleeping mats would score really high numbers.
ABB: I’m glad you mentioned sustainability – it’s a subject which is being talked about a lot these days. Is this something we could address in a future interview?
Brendan: Excellent idea – it’s a complex, multi-faceted topic. I’d be happy to share more thoughts with you.
ABB: We look forward to the chance to speak with you again. Thanks for giving us a glimpse inside your world…