The Psychology of Activewear Design

We all have those days when making it to the gym is rough. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep last night, or putting in extra hours at the office made it harder to squeeze in time for a workout. But anyone who has ever laced up a new pair of sneakers before a run or slipped into a favorite pair of yoga pants before class knows the power of great activewear — not only the technology, but the fashion.

“Physical performance is mental as much as it is physical,” says Lauren Gutherie, Director of Merchandising, Old Navy Women’s Active. “Fashion can provide an incredible competitive advantage for athletes. When you feel like your best self, you will inevitably elevate your game. We want people who purchase Old Navy Active to feel confident in their ability to take on the world, and confident that their apparel will fully support their needs on the field of play — or in their daily lives.”

Obviously functionality is a key component of product design.

But when we get dressed to exercise, there’s something more to putting on an outfit — it’s the physical and psychological aspect of suiting up for our best shot.

Whether you’re running a marathon or just putting in a few miles on the treadmill, the right gear can make you feel like a champion. And it’s not just about the fabric technology, which has made amazing advancements in the last few years. It’s also the cut, color, how it hugs your body, a simple perk like a key pocket in just the right place, and other subtle factors that get you pumped up to break a sweat.

Big data, personal touch

So how much does this fashion phenomenon influence the people behind the scenes at your favorite brands?

“All of these elements are extremely important when we create our designs,” says Tapasya Bali, CFO and co-founder of YogaSmoga. “Our design team obsesses about every element, from fabric selection to fit to color saturation down to the tiniest element that goes into the garment, like an elastic. We sweat the details and put a lot of love and care into the creating process. That is truly the recipe for creating an amazing garment.”

Salomon’s philosophy is that athletes should never have to worry about distractions like chafing clothing or fabrics that don’t breathe and overheat you. “We get a lot of inspiration from working very closely with our professional athletes and doctors, who share their point of view on everything from muscles to movement,” says Alastair Kendrick, Design Director of Apparel at Salomon. “You should not be fighting with your garments because you have to fight with the elements; you should be free and mobile. That whole sense of liberty goes through everything we do. As a brand we want our athletes to go out and forget about themselves and their clothing so they can win a race or focus on nature.”

The opinions and needs of weekend warriors and regular people also shape the activewear industry, especially with the rise of social media, which gives everyone a platform for their voices to be heard.

“Our audience is very discerning and connected to us, both online and in our local store communities,” says Bali. “We listen to what our customers have to say and act on it. Having a local supply chain enables us to turn around and deliver on what our customer is looking for quickly.”

Measured performance—and gut feeling

That real-world take is crucial every step of the way. “Feedback is an important part of our design cycle,” Gutherie says. “We test functionality on a range of consumers from elite athletes to gym newcomers. We also test it on a full range of body shapes and sizes to ensure that our product is as democratic and accessible as possible. If we send someone to a spin class to try out a new compression fabric, we want to know how the garment held up before, during and after the class. We leverage the feedback to make continuous improvements.” And safety testing is another key stage across companies.

Capturing the emotional aspects of activewear can be tricky. “This whole sense of a garment being part of you and expressing your personal values is very important,” Kendrick says. “For example, how can you express warmth or comfort or coziness to a greater degree when talking about winter products?” Salomon is currently researching the psychological aspect of design and how that can be used to shape products, particularly in differences between genders, and whether it’s physiological or more emotional.

“Breakthrough comes from combining what the athlete says with what we observe and what performance data is disclosing and predicting,” John Hoke, VP of Global Design for Nike, has said. “It’s up to us to sort, synthesize and structure that data into a form that is both striking and functional — something that speaks to its intention while transcending the merely utilitarian, blending precision with emotion.” That’s why everything from color trends to the runways to street style also has an impact on what you wear to the gym.

Ultimately, the goal is to create activewear that captures the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of the people who wear it, so that they can get the most from each workout every time they put it on.

“For us, the goal is goose bumps, a visceral reaction to something beautiful, because the best design should captivate at first glance,” Hoke has said. “But of course we also want form to serve function, so we strive for balance, knowing that no one piece stands alone and that everything needs to exist in harmony with everything else, including the athlete’s emotional mindset.”