Jackson Cavanaugh

Collaborating with big name athletes like Tiger Woods on shoe designs at Nike was definitely a career highlight for avid golfer Peter Backus (’86). But eight years at the global giant and three years with Columbia Sportswear offered him an even greater opportunity. His experience taught him that in addition to establishing a brand and enticing consumers, product design has the potential to impact the future of our entire planet.

“Being able to combine my lifelong interest in sports and fitness with my passion for design has afforded me with extraordinary experiences—one of the most significant was the opportunity to work with Tiger Woods,” said Backus, who majored in industrial design at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS). “He’s one of the few golfers who truly is an athlete, and a very visible athlete at that…

“But some of my most fulfilling assignments were advanced design concepts I created through Nike’s (Innovation) Kitchen. I did some work on the Michael Jordan brand at first and became intrigued by the challenge of designing sustainable footwear: environmentally sound products.

“This means seeking reusable materials, researching alternatives for glues and other toxic chemicals, reducing waste and brainstorming new methods of construction… So much of my work has focused on creating products for the outdoors, I feel obligated to design products that are environmentally friendly. If we don’t take care of our ‘outdoors,’ there will no longer be an outdoor business.”

Backus now works as a consultant, designing footwear and accessories for Chrome (a manufacturer of messenger bags and urban cycling wear) as well as shoes, sandals and boots for Keen (a growing “active outdoor” company).

“We’re already working on products that will be released over a year from now,” said Backus. “Making the decision to work as a consultant has given me more versatility in my career and allowed for even greater opportunities. As I learn more about the end users of each company’s products, my mind becomes open to innovative design possibilities.”

While working as a creative director with Columbia, Backus experienced market research firsthand—in the Yukon! He was preparing to conceptualize the Expedition boot (an extreme cold weather performance boot) and wanted to observe the conditions and demands that target consumers (hunters, mushers, trailbreakers and veterinarians) faced.

“I spent a week with the sled dog teams during the Yukon Quest, sponsored by Sorel (one of Columbia’s brand lines),” said Backus. “I had never been in those extreme cold weather conditions before. It was eye-opening and necessary for us to do this so we could develop just the right boot to fulfill their demanding needs.”

The ability to approach design from a number of perspectives—sustainability, usability and so forth—is a skill Backus developed as a student at CCS. His courses focused on the design of transportation, furniture and products. Backus decided to mesh his active lifestyle with his career and specialize in footwear design.

“CCS does students a great service by preparing them for the real world,” explained Backus. “The faculty is tough but fair. They demand great work and challenge you to innovate and look at concepts from a number of angles. Many of my instructors, including Bill House, Homer Legasse, Keith Vreeland and Clyde Foles, left a lasting impact on my work.

“I also gained a lot from the competition and camaraderie of other students. Many of us still keep in touch today and, even though we are all in different industries, we push each other to be better designers.”

In his spare time, Backus, enjoys running, golf, snowboarding and hockey and often dabbles in furniture design. He is married to alumnus Bridget (McBride, ’86), a graduate of the graphic design program, and enjoys skiing, fishing and spending time at home in Oregon, the “land of outdoor recreation,” with his daughters, Cameron and Claire.

“Footwear design has been a fulfilling industry for me and I like to think that my greatest accomplishment is still out there,” said Backus. “Design is a lifelong passion for me, not just a job or career. Never ending but always evolving. Whether it’s footwear or other products, I’ll always have a passion for innovation and design.”     

  • Graduation Year: 2005
  • Major: Graphic Design
  • Employer: Okay Type and Design (Brooklyn, NY)Owner/designer
  • Title: Owner/designer

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