When it comes to the sport of stand-up paddleboarding there have been many discussions and content about life jackets, buoyancy and flotation aids. Yet, paddlers don’t have to be seasoned riders nor competitive SUP athletes to understand the importance and benefits of a sport specific design – all one needs is an attempt to get back on the board in a not fit-for-purpose aid. TotalSUP had a unique opportunity to dive deep into the subject and the designing process of a dedicated SUP products with Pontus Ny, Waterman, Head Coach ofSwedish SUP Certificateand the designer behind the SUP-specific life vest range from Baltic Lifejackets Sweden, a Swedish watersport brand specialising in designing and manufacturing premium life jackets.
Hi Pontus, welcome to TotalSUP! Design and watersports…What’s the story behind that?
Hi, thanks! Great to be here! Both design and watersports have been my main areas since I was very little. I have been always fascinated by and interested in function and form – constantly sketching and building things. I had all access to play around in my grandfather’s ceramic workshop as a child and started early to understand the different aspects of product development and design.
When my father started windsurfing in the late 70s, I could borrow his Mistral Superlight for longboard surfing (without the rig). When I was big enough I got a small storm sail. Back in 1982 windsurfing was the big thing and at 12 I was totally addicted. Canoeing, dinghy sailing and swimming were fun watersports, but windsurfing was another universe. A true boardsport!
The small-board era started camewith custom made boards and I started to design and build my own. I could draw hundreds of boards during one day in school.
After high school I went to Hawaii to train and compete in windsurfing for a year. My stay there was cut short due to a foot injury but that actually made different forms of paddling a great activitiy back home. Surfski was, and still is, my favourite. But when SUP entered the watersport scene, a lot of my focus changed. Now there was a board sport that could be done in any weather condition. From the calmest flat water days to the toughest surf and downwind ones. And it tied in together several of my favourite sports into one: boardsport, paddling and xc-skiing.
You’re a designer and an avid waterman, SUP athlete and Coach yourself …How does that affinity to the ocean translates onto your design projects?
I guess it does in a lot of ways. Probably it affects my way of attacking new design projects. But first and foremost, design is about solving a problem. Not only making things that look cool and attractive. After you have solved the problem, you can create a great form.
It’s a bit like with SUP surfing. First you have to assess the surf conditions on the beach, then paddle out through the waves, then get into the line-up. After that it’s all about timing and choosing the right wave. When all of that is done right, you can rip the wave and do incredibly cool moves. No limits. That’s what it’s like in the true design phase, when you can create cool and exciting shapes. Of course there are challenges along the way, or down the wave. But the real “problem solving” is done during the exit phase.
Contemporary design revolves around UX and personalisation. What’s your take on it?
Design is about solving a problem, not just making new products. And as long as we come up with design that is functional and sustainable, then it’s eligible. Sometimes companies are better at creating a need for something, than solving an existing problem.
Design is extremely powerful and complex. People often think they choose products in a conscious way, but that’s not always the case. I can show hundreds of interesting studies on that. That’s why we all need to be responsible for how we choose things and what user experience we really are looking for. It’s a mutual responsibility – both for producers and consumers.
Could you tell us more about your collaboration with Baltic?
It’s one of those projects that was all about timing and personal chemistry. My own first sketches of an optimal SUP vest started probably around 2015. Then it’s been an ongoing and sometimes resting project. But about two years ago my partner Maria Cerboni did some research and asked me which brand would be my number one choice for a project like that. For me it was Baltic due to several factors. At that point had never worked with them before, but we’ve been using their products for many years.
At that time Baltic just appointed Johan Lövqvist as the new CEO. He had all the qualities one likes when presenting a project proposal. And his staff had tons of experience when it comes to products like this. So it has been a smooth, inspiring and a very successful design project. Also, Johan’s intuition and an open mind for the sport of stand-up paddleboarding was the key.
Could you tell us more about the new products you’re launching and what’s unique about them?
We had two key words when we started this project: safety and ergonomics. And if one compresses this vision into a single sentence it would go like “to create a vest for maximum mobility in all situations. Both during hard paddling when you’re standing up on the board, but also when lying or swimming in the water”.
One special focus we’ve had is the sequence between those two situations. I mean when you are about to leave the “in the water phase” to get back onto the board.
To get back onto a SUP is totally different than for example to re-enter on a surfski. The rail edges of a paddleboard have a tendency to come into conflict with traditional vests. Even the smallest chest strap clip or a zipper in the wrong place will interfere with you getting back up. It’s the same challenge whether you’re paddling an allround board or a full spec dugout race board.
So we’ve created a super smooth and streamlined front panel on the vest. The front pocket is moved upwards to get away from the position where it gets in direct conflict with the rails of the board. And it’s closed with a very low profiled zipper.
When it comes to pure mobility during paddling, we simply focused on what’s unique for SUP.We went through all the biomechanical parameters that really define SUP. A lot of variables. The thing that differentiates SUP from other paddling sports the most, is the flexion and movement in the sagittal plane with the upper body. Surfski or kayaking for example, do not end up with these angles and they work definitely more with rotation on the horizontal plane.
So a good vest for SUP must respect that unique movement pattern, the slight bowing movement, where the hips act as a hinge. If you paddle for one hour with a relaxed cadence of 40 strokes per minute, you have made 2400 bowing movements in that time. That is 2400 reasons to make a vest specifically for SUP… By working with a variety of foam thicknesses and using a very flexible material in the front panel, we came up with a vest that is elastic and super comfortable for SUP.
The side panels are also minimized and streamlined to not get in conflict with the arm movements close to the upper body. So basically the whole geometry of the vest is dictated by the specific SUP movement.
What are the challenges of designing for the SUP industry?
In one way it’s pretty much the same challenges as it is in any industry: The cost, timing, understanding the target group, production, knowing patents etc. But it all depends on what ambition the specific brand has.
SUP is complex in the way that it has become such a broad watersport. I mean, now we have a spectrum of users that have entered the sport by buying their inflatable SUPs in a supermarket or at a gas station. Sometimes for the same price as another SUP enthusiast paid for a new race fin at a local surf store.
So the real design challenge is to design around the business case and the brand. It’s an ongoing design process. As a designer I always can make fantastic and good-looking products for any brand. But if the brand strategy is not well worked out, then it doesn’t matter how good a product is.
The future of SUP design is…
I know it’s boring to answer 3D-printing. I mean, it has been around for decades in different ways. But that technique still has a chance to be a cost effective and an eco-friendly manufacturing method. Not only for prototyping. And some smaller surf brands are already into it for production.
On a large scale the benefits could be that companies have smaller stocks and print on demand. The customer could get more possibilities for customization. The factories could be smaller, more spread out and closer to customers in different areas around the world. That would reduce the volume of transport and could be positive for the eco footprint.
Maybe we also could 3D-print the super complex shark skin pattern directly on the surface of the hull of the raceboard? Those teeth-like scales that recreate the skin are a pretty good design… A concept that has been around for 450 millions of years. That’s also a way of looking into the future.
What’s next? What’s in the pipeline?
The pipeline is in constant flow with different intensities. Right now it’s a mix of developing new training systems and analysing methods at the Swedish SUP Certificate. It’s a blend of both digital and low-tech technique where we work on the biomechanics at a very detailed level. It’s great team work, all depending on the fantastic people around us and an ongoing process since many years.
We are also patiently waiting and preparing for the first spring storm for the season to get some good downwinding. Good SUP conditions always have priority in the pipeline.
Thank you for your time Pontus and wishing you inspiring future projects and collaborations!
Thanks for having me TotalSUP! Hope to see you here for some real nordic downwinding one day!
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