It All Comes Back to the Outdoors: An Interview with Ben Leibham (B.S. ’18, Product Design)

Testing out a VL Mountaineering backpack in Rocky Mountain National Park

After two years of pursuing a degree in engineering, Ben Leibham (B.S. ’18, Product Design) knew that something was missing. In search of a field that would combine his interests in art, engineering, and business, Ben spoke with an industrial designer who encouraged him to pursue a degree in product design.

As a member of the College of Design’s inaugural product design class, Leibham continues to chart his own course through his business, Summit Prototyping & Design, LLC. Leibham discusses starting his own business, how he’s applied his degree to his career, and more in the following interview.

Why did you decide to pursue a degree in product design?

I initially pursued a degree in materials science engineering. I always loved art as a kid but I didn’t know the design field existed. After two years of engineering school, I felt something was missing. I desired a field that was inherently more creative. I had the opportunity to meet with a very accomplished industrial designer and after hearing about his experiences and skill set, I immediately knew what I wanted to do. What I find incredibly unique about product design is that it lies at the intersection of art, engineering, and business. I have interests in each of those fields, and product design has been the perfect way for me to combine them.

How has your degree contributed to your career thus far?

My degree has contributed greatly to my career as a young professional; often in ways I didn’t expect. Of course, the sketching, prototyping, and studio classes have helped me as a designer, but the area I have had to grow the most is as a business owner. The diversity of the curriculum was very beneficial because it provided me with foundational skills in business, entrepreneurship, and the ability to collaborate with people in other fields.

The final prototype of the Kona Backpack.

The final prototype of the Kona Backpack.

Why did you decide to launch your own business and what made you want to focus on soft goods?

Launching my own business was something I always knew I was going to do. I even started two businesses while I was in school. I just didn’t necessarily think I would be doing this right out of school. During my time in the Product Design Program, my love for the outdoors led me to frequently design outdoor products in my classes. Many outdoor products are soft products, but design schools seem to rarely touch on them. I spent my entire senior year learning soft good design and sewing/prototyping skills. Upon graduating, I applied for every design position at outdoor companies I could find, and most of them happened to be in Colorado. I took a leap and moved to Colorado without a job to be closer to the companies I hoped to design for. I found small freelance design jobs to make some money and spent a lot of my free time studying the industry. I began to notice a lack of designers with a soft good focus and the ability to prototype. After talking it over with family and mentors, I decided to launch Summit Prototyping & Design LLC here in Boulder, Colorado.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

My biggest source of inspiration is the outdoors. I’m an avid climber and mountaineer and am incredibly fortunate to live close to the mountains. My love for the outdoors influences everything I design. Whether it is the technical functionality of a new product or choosing to design with more sustainable materials in mind, it all comes back to the outdoors for me. When I’m not working, chances are you’ll find me somewhere up in the mountains testing out a new design.

What products are you working on now?

In the last few months, I have been a part of two Kickstarter projects; one with a design firm from Madrid, Spain and most recently with an exciting startup from Salt Lake City, Bundl. I was hired by Bundl to design and prototype the world’s first smart heated sleeping bag. Both of those projects have been uniquely challenging, but tremendous learning experiences. I am also very excited to be launching an innovative ice climbing product with a world-class ice climbing photographer. That product will be launching this fall under my own outdoor brand, VL Mountaineering. Another project I am currently working on is developing a race-day backpack with Boulder’s professional cycling team, the 303Project.

The final prototype of the Bundl Sleeping Bag.

The final prototype of the Bundl Sleeping Bag.

What advice do you have for current design students?

My first piece of advice might seem strange, but it is to fail frequently. Failure isn’t talked about very often, but it’s critical to grow as a designer. You’ll see designers post incredible sketches or product photos to Instagram, but countless failures likely occurred before that went unseen. I think school is the best place to learn by failure. While I was in school, I made a point to fail at something every week. Whether it was a design that didn’t work, a prototype that fell apart, or a business idea that went nowhere, I sought failure as often as I could. I think failure is the quickest way to learn and grow.

My second piece of advice is to take advantage of your resources and time while at the University. This is especially true if you have a desire to start a business or develop an idea. There are tens of thousands of people to work with or learn from, experienced faculty to help you, and tons of great resources that you don’t get out in the real world. In my opinion, now is the best time to try. There’s a reason I started two businesses while in design school. Even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot and still get to go back to class.

Where can people find you online?

The website for Summit Prototyping & Design LLC can be found here. My personal portfolio can be found here. I can also be found on Instagram @benjaminleibham. Honestly, a lot of the coolest opportunities I have had over the last year have come from Instagram. Please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Photos courtesy of Ben Leibham.

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