Designing for Gold: creating products with the world’s greatest athletes

Executive Director & Partner
New York

Chloe Kim. Shaun White. These are just two of the United States’ gold medalist snowboarders representing their country right now at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. This year, snowboarding celebrates its 20th anniversary with the Olympics, having officially made its debut in 1998. The sport has come a long way since then, and nothing is perhaps more synonymous with the US’ snowboarding elite than Burton, the official team outfitter since 2002, and a company who has worked hand-in-hand with their athletes to develop cutting-edge equipment and gear since the 70’s.

As pivotal instruments to their success, the unwavering performance of an athlete’s uniform, equipment, and accessories is paramount every single day. These superhumans have worked their entire lives for the chance to go for gold, and in doing so, have developed rigorous, highly-specialized routines that require equally dedicated products and services to perform alongside them.

Over the past 20 years, Smart Design has had the honor and the privilege of designing for athletes alongside brands like Nike, Gatorade, Burton, and Under Armour. Through these collaborations, we’ve crafted products and systems that enhance those formidable lifestyles, and translate into commercialized experiences that elevate and inspire everyday athletes around the globe.

In reflecting on this rich heritage, we’ve syphoned out some of the best practices to successfully design for the world’s elite athletes. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Get inside the minds (and routines) of your athletes.

With such strict regimes, time is precious and every second is important. The rigor and efficiency displayed by these world-class beings is something they expect from the accessories they employ, as well. Your average user might accommodate for the shortcomings of products they buy, whereas professional athletes simply don’t have time for that. They need something that’s going to push them to the next level.

When Smart worked alongside Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles to create her upcoming line of products for Caboodles, we dove deep to learn her habits, workarounds, and tricks she used keep herself on track each day. Drawing inspiration from the meticulous organization system she employs with her purse, makeup bag, and suitcases to ensure she’s never late to the gym floor, we were able to design in a way that not only caters to the extremes an Olympian holds herself to. The final line of products translates these insights into a better, more organized experience for all the girls Simone inspires, giving them the same competitive edge.

By studying and getting inside an elite athlete’s schedule, from organization and packing for travel, to training timetables and habits, to how they ready themselves before games and competitions, you’ll learn how to layer in solutions that seamlessly integrate into their lifestyles to contribute meaningfully to that athlete’s success, instead of disrupting their hard-earned, established routines.

Pilot early with athletes and their entourage.

If there’s one thing that professional athletes are, other than talented, it’s busy. When testing new experiences, their rigorous training programs aren’t exactly conducive to providing the typical in-depth feedback designers need. Because of this, experimenting and gathering insights can be a challenging task. However, it’s one that can be solved through early piloting, not only with the athletes themselves, but with their entire support system.

In partnering with Gatorade to create their Gx hydration system, Smart had the opportunity to pilot the platform with Brazil’s national soccer team, helping them prepare for prior to the 2014 World Cup. With the athletes focused solely on the game, working alongside Gatorade’s Sports Science Institute specialists, the team’s nutritionists, coaches, and training staff during our pilot was crucial. The role these supporting staff play in nurturing optimal performance from athletes cannot be underestimated, so their input into how Gx might serve players was critical to ensure the features, statistics, and results delivered by the system would ultimately matter.

By stress testing Gx with all of these key superusers early on and collecting their exclusive feedback, we were able to implement changes and hone the system to their advanced specifications quickly.

Every athlete is different. Iteration is key.

Different seasons, different regimens, different body types: If there’s one thing that every sport has in common, it’s that they’re all unique, and so are their athletes. In order to create the best product or service experience possible for all of them, culling insights across different sports and levels is imperative. That’s where iteration comes in.

By testing your solution more widely, across varying levels (from high school to professional), and types of sports, you’ll gain new understandings to evolve and refine your commercial offering over time, empowering as many athletes as possible.

For the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, for example, Smart was able to garner a broader array of feedback by simultaneously piloting with different Gatorade-sponsored teams, each using varying elements of the Gx system. This enabled us to more deeply understand what different sports would require from Gx in their respective high-pressure competition environments, and helped us elevate many of them to gold medal status.

Piloting across different sports levels led to further iterations, as well: The squeezability of the Gx bottle, for example, was comfortable for professional athletes, thanks to their advanced strength. When tested at a high school level, the students found the bottle rigid and harder to use.

Features that mattered more to elite athletes and their staff, such as detailed personalized sports fuel recommendations and real-time stats systems, weren’t nearly as necessary or valuable to amateur teams. Even the size of the scale itself, which while normal to a student athlete, was almost deemed too small for the size 20 footwear of a 6’10 NBA player.

Only through piloting the Gatorade Gx across multiple teams and varying contexts was Smart able to gather these actionable insights, allowing us to fine tune the system’s offerings and cater to a broad spectrum of athletes.

Empowering the everyday by designing for the elite.

As pioneers of inclusive design, Smart has honed our philosophy and tailored our methodologies to successfully design both with and for elite athletes, ensuring a positive impact on their performance as well as training routines.

The fundamentals of solving for a person’s emotional and functional needs, coupled with indispensable truth that there is no such thing as a “normal” human, comes into even sharper focus when creating products for such extreme power users as professional athletes.

Through our years partnering with these superhumans, Smart has creatively unearthed countless insights through co-creation and piloting techniques that have led to award-winning products such as the Under Armour sports bra, and gold medal-enabling systems such as Gatorade Gx. And, influenced by the inherent beauty in simplicity, we’ve iterated on these world-class designs tailored for professionals, making them commercially available to empower budding athletes everywhere.

As the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang surge on, we’re excited to soak up continued inspiration from the best-of-the-best aesthetics and emerging technologies behind these supreme athletes’ equipment and uniforms, and marvel at just how razor-thin they can make the Olympic medal standings for all involved. Go team!