As the designer for Dagger Kayaks, Mark “Snowy” Robertson works with a wide range of boats—from plastic rec boats to Dagger’s high-end comp kayak made out of kevlar and carbon. He’s worked on boats like the Jitsu and the new Katana, getting feedback from different end-user groups to create the varied designs.
We talked with Snowy about how he became a designer, his creative process, and the future of whitewater kayaking. This is a fascinating inside look at what it takes to turn an idea into a product, from the man behind the Dagger designs.
1) BLISTER: How did you become a boat designer?
Snowy: I was introduced to kayaks at an early age and I’ve been paddling for about 27 years.
After studying industrial design at the University, I wasn’t sure what route to take with my design degree. I knew I wanted to continue my creative passion, but I never imagined I’d get to combine my design degree with the sport I love.
I initially had the opportunity to work at Pyranha Kayaks for almost three years where I learned a lot about what goes into the performance side of boat design, and I feel fortunate to have worked over the years with some industry veterans.
Folks like Marc Lyle, Graham Mackereth, Tony Lee, and Jason Buxton all have years of experience and countless well-regarded designs to their names, and I feel fortunate to have learned from them. Many of them are still leading the charge in paddlesports design. I’m just trying to keep up with the old guys!
2-3) BLISTER: How did you first make contact with Pyranha kayaks? What advice do you have for people who want to follow in your shoes, career-wise?
Snowy: I was fortunate to know a number of people on the team at Pyranha. I’d used many of their designs growing up as my paddling progressed, and there was certainly an allegiance with them as a UK manufacturer. My brother was also a sponsored competitive paddler for Pyranha at the time, so he helped me get a foot in the door.
Even without such fortunate initial introductions, I personally feel that making contacts within the outdoor industry is relatively easy. We are a somewhat laid-back industry, and I’ve always found everyone to be very approachable.
As a designer, I don’t think there’s any harm in approaching outdoor companies with a well-appointed portfolio and selling your talents. Obviously it helps to have knowledge and relevance to that product type, but it’s not a necessity. A creative mind, problem solving abilities, and a willingness to immerse yourself in your surroundings counts for so much.
4) BLISTER: What was the first kayak you designed?
Snowy: The first boat I ever put my hands on in a professional capacity was the Pyranha H2. I was allowed to cut my teeth with some very basic plug shaping and styling under the watchful eye of many of the folks who subsequently taught me a lot about what goes into boat design.
Prior to that, my dad would often use me to crawl down inside our boats at home to fix and repair different parts.
5) BLISTER: How did you get started with Dagger Whitewater / Confluence Watersports?
Snowy: I’d been coming over from the UK to the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Salt Lake City for a number of years, where I was exposed to the brand firsthand. Through these encounters and in meeting some of the Dagger team (including Mike Steck, Tony Lee and Joe Pulliam), the chance arose to work for Dagger.
My current job at the time was great, and I was learning a lot working with some fantastic people, but I realized that certain opportunities only come around once, so I took the leap and moved to America. I thought I’d only stay in the US for a year or two, and that was 10 ½ years ago!
6) BLISTER: Can you give a brief overview of how a Dagger kayak is conceived, designed, prototyped, and put into production?
Snowy: There are many players and stages involved to end up at the finished design. I work very closely with our product managers on the front end to understand what the parameters of a new boat will be.
The product managers analyze consumer and market needs, future trends, current in-line product, and the overall commercial landscape in order to begin the outline for a new product brief. Once armed with that brief, we begin to design and engineer all the necessary components.
Designers work on the boat shell, performance characteristics, and overall aesthetics in keeping with brand design language. Our engineers ensure anything with a fit tolerance, safety consideration, materials technology, and tooling for outside manufacture is created in a way that can feasibly be manufactured and will not fail in the hands of the consumer. The engineers keep the designers in check and make sure we don’t stray too far from reality!
Prototyping is something Dagger is very much committed to. “Team tested, paddler proven” is our motto, and we stand by that promise to ensure the best possible products go to market. We’ve created a very streamlined prototype process that allows us to test multiple designs using production materials in short time scales.
Once production tooling is completed, the process turns over to our manufacturing group. Our production team has vast experience with molding and manufacturing, and years of collective boat-building knowledge. Design works closely with our production department to ensure we are getting the final intended boat shape, and that we can manufacture consistently and to the desired quality.
7) BLISTER: How long does that process usually take?
Snowy: Time to market is very much dependent on the design in question. Something with high performance parameters, such as a new freestyle boat, requires a longer development cycle than a basic rec boat. That’s not to say one is weighted with more or less importance, but we are constantly challenging ourselves in terms of performance and it takes time to get it right.
8) BLISTER: How many designers and engineers are typically involved in the process of making a boat?
Snowy: It’s very much project dependent. Typically, for a standard boat project, one designer and one product engineer will lead the process on the front end. We have numerous stage gates where manufacturing and quality are brought up to speed with how the design is progressing, and their valued input is applied to ensure success.
A process engineer and manufacturing engineer will take over once tooling for a new boat begins. As new products are introduced into a production capacity, the people ensure manufacturing can be achieved and quality is met.
At first I struggled with some of this process. By nature, engineers are trained to bring a degree of formality to the process of what we do as designers. My experience is that designers, in their desire to just be creative, will try to step around the need for formal drawings and documents wherever possible in order to keep conceptual ideas flowing.
That said, now that we work as teams, the engineers can take on that side of the process and work with suppliers to make sure everything going to market is feasible.
9) BLISTER: You mentioned you designed everything from the high-end comp boats to plastic rec boats. What’s it like to work across this broad spectrum?
Snowy: As a designer, I relish each new design challenge. Every project is so varied in what the outcome requires and how you go about solving the issues along the way. Whether designing a 10-foot rec boat or the carbon Dagger Jitsu, you ultimately have to deliver what the end user needs.
Working on the Dagger Jitsu with team paddlers such as Rush Sturges and the current freestyle world champion James Bebbington, you have such a discerning end user. These guys can provide feedback on every minute detail of how a boat feels and how it’s performing. Working out what design characteristics are needed to fix their concerns and to give them the performance they need often has a direct trickle-down effect to mass market products.
From top to bottom, much of the design aspects are interlinked between many different styles of boats.
This year brought about just as many challenges with the design of the new Dagger Katana. As a hybrid boat, the design parameters become so much broader in trying to suit the needs of this wider spectrum of end users.
10) BLISTER: How did you address the design challenges of the new Dagger Katana?
Snowy: A broad user group was consulted on the front end. When we came to testing early prototypes, however, we turned to a more streamlined focus group. Beginners, seasoned team paddlers, world class kayak instructors, primary retail accounts, and sales reps all contributed as part of this focused testing team.
Each was chosen for a specific area of knowledge and to understand their needs and perspective in relation to this boat. We paddled in different locations and types of water relevant to the goals of the Katana, all the time watching and listening to people’s reactions. I take a lot of video during testing so I can look back and really see what people were doing with that product in those conditions. My favorite piece of equipment while testing is my waterproof notebook and pencil! I find it priceless for taking in every piece of feedback while sitting in the eddy halfway through a rapid!
With the Katana being a crossover/hybrid style of boat, it was important to set very clear goals. Everyone has their own set of needs for the outcome of a product, and sometimes you can’t address every individual need. Being prepared, however, to seriously consider each one and then include it as part of the design where relevant, or discount for good reason, is the key to successful product design.