Designer wants to push the limits of human performance in space

February 6, 2020 - 7:55am

Olivia Echols says her dream job probably doesn't exist yet because it's so futuristic. But the graduate program in sports product design at the University of Oregon Portland is helping her prepare for it.

From 3D body scanning and computer-aided design to physiology and biomechanics, the program gave her a wide range of knowledge and experience in the world of design. Echols graduated in June 2019 and has been working on the Future Design Team at Adidas.

Echols grew up with a love for sewing and making her own clothes, which inspired her to pursue a career in designing apparel. After earning her bachelor’s degree in apparel design from Oregon State University in 2013, she worked at Nike in technical design and materials innovation for four years.

She decided to go into the sports product design graduate program in order to further develop her skills and shift her career back to design.

“I wanted to grow my process and aesthetic and see what’s possible,” Echols said. 

Echols said getting her master’s at UO Portland has been invaluable, as she’s currently in a design position helping the team at Adidas come up with concepts for items that will reach the market in five to seven years.

“It’s a different perspective to have gone back to school and now be working again,” Echols said. “It felt like a reset, and I feel like a stronger designer for it.”

The program went beyond apparel and taught Echols and her classmates how to design just about anything for athletes, from footwear and transportation to gloves. They also got to work with the latest technology, including software programs, scanners, 3D printers, laser cutters, vacuum forming machines and more.

Susan Sokolowski, the program director and an associate professor of sports product design, said developing future female and minority design innovation leaders is important to the graduate program, as the sports industry has historically been focused on male leaders and products for men.

“Olivia represents the next generation of design innovators. She is an amazing teammate, incredible maker and thinker,” Sokolowski said. “We support our students to develop their why and point of view of how they can change the industry with new products for untapped markets and users.”

For Echols, those physical environments are not limited to Earth.

For her capstone project, Echols designed and produced workout apparel meant for astronauts in space, taking physiology and biomechanics into account. During her spring break last year, she even went to space camp in Houston to learn more about how to design for the way bodies change and perform in space.

The program also gave her opportunities to travel internationally. She and a classmate were selected as finalists in the Woolmark Performance Challenge, a competition for early career designers to develop creative sports products with merino wool. Echols got to travel to London for a workshop at the Woolmark offices.

“It was super cool and inspiring, and there’s so much going on there, not only in fashion but on the tech side,” Echols said. She also got to pitch her ideas to a panel of professionals at a conference in Denver called Outdoor Retailer.

Kiersten Muenchinger, an associate professor of product design in the School of Art + Design, said the graduate program is the only one in the world that’s focused on the design and innovation of sports industry products like footwear, apparel and equipment.

“Portland is the international hub of design innovation in sports product,” Muenchinger said. Both Nike and Columbia Sportswear developed in the Portland area and inspired many international and local brands to follow.

Muenchinger called Echols a leader.

“She is comfortable innovating by conducting her own research and applying materials and manufacturing innovations in the areas she researches,” Muenchinger said.

Muenchinger said she hopes Echols and the other sports product design students and alumni continue to innovate to help people perform at their peak, in whatever physical environments they encounter.

Echols is inspired to push the boundaries of human performance on Earth and in space.

“It’s exciting to be entering the industry right now as a woman because I think there’s a renewed sense of creating products for women, and I’m excited to work at companies with women in leadership roles,” she said.

–By Emily Lindblom, University Communications