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Eric Villency and Bob Harper discuss innovative design in fitness

Elena Burnett
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April 11, as part of SCADstyle, Bob Harper and Eric Villency sat down with students in the SCAD Museum of Art theater to discuss the roles innovative design and consumer experience have played in the fitness industry.

Harper, one of the industry’s leading fitness experts, is perhaps best known for working as a trainer and host for NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” Serving as moderator, he began the discussion by telling Villency, “I can’t wait to crack your head open and let it just spill out for these students because I just feel like you are fountain of knowledge.”

Villency has served as CEO of Villency Design Group for twenty years. The business was first founded by Villency’s grandfather as a furniture company in 1932. “I was raised creating furniture and around furniture facilities so making things was just organic and comfortable for me– but I was always active,” said Villency. “I always loved wellness and fitness and working out. Having those two worlds come together has been a blessing.”

Villency Design Group has become well-respected for their innovative turnkey designs and customized products for revolutionary companies such as SoulCycle, whose equipment has found thousands of satisfied users across the country, including Harper.

“I’ve been in the fitness business for such a long time,” Harper said. “I remember before SoulCycle, there was a guy named Johnny G and he was the one who started these bikes…I really liked the design of his bike initially until I saw what you did with the SoulCycle bike.”

Villency’s team of designers aspired to elevate the tough, harsh look of indoor bikes to the sleek and beautiful design of outdoor bikes. The result was the iconic SoulCycle bike, which has been at the helm in the recent rise of boutique fitness, a trend that has seen the development of many specialized small group fitness gyms.

“I think one of the successes of boutique fitness has been to distract people from the exercise and to make it fun and engaging,” Villency said. He also believes it has led to a growing importance in product branding. “Consumers are educated and the experiences they’re having are informing that expectation.”

Harper brought up some of the difficulties of innovating in the fitness industry. “I find it really difficult because we are kind of reinventing the wheel,” Harper said. “At the end of the day, we are trying to bring people into a room and make them sweat.”

However, Villency said that he saw this challenge as one of the more enjoyable aspects to the design process. “Fitness clients are passionate and they are educated,” he said. “People are coming up with ideas constantly of what they want to implement and our job is really to give shape and form to those ideas.”

One of the ways the Villency Design Group has been able to stay on top of the rapidly shifting trends is to look at technological innovation. Some of the most recent advancements have been in virtual reality, motion graphics and body tracking.

“What so exciting with [these techniques] is that you’ll be able to coach [people],” said Villency. “With the technology which is basically here in the next year or so, you’ll be able to put on a pair of augmented reality googles and they can project and do form correction.”

Responding to Harper’s nervousness about the lack of human connection, Villency argued, “you can have a world class trainer, the best doctor, the best PT in the world reaching out to people who just don’t have access to it…I think it’s supposed to be additive and complimentary instead of additive.”

This warmed Harper to the idea. “I had a heart attack last year and going through my cardiac rehab and I found out that people recovering from cardiac arrest don’t have access to a rehab center, maybe because of where they live,” Harper said.

One of the new industry trends Villency has observed is an emphasis on medically guided products. “We’ve always approached most of our projects from a designer standpoint and a trainer standpoint but we’ve never really had a medical perspective,” he said.

Another trend is user empowerment. For instance, an individual who takes a yoga class may feel inspired to try out running and then a spin class rather than sticking consistently to one exercise form. “One of the challenges for some brands is that they only have one discipline,” Villency said, “and being okay with fact that your consumer doesn’t want to do it seven days a week.”

Harper told Villency “you’re making fitness cool and I like that. If I’m going to be doing something, I want it to be cool,” and noted that fitness is bigger than it’s ever been.

Both men seemed to agree that the takeaway in both fitness and product innovation is a keen awareness to every factor in between development and consumption. “When the digital pendulum swings so far, how do we get people back to interacting again?” Villency asked. “I think, as with any technology, you have to balance the dangers with the benefits.”

By Elena Burnett.

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Elena Burnett
Elena Burnett

Elena Burnett is the Editor-in-Chief of District. She's a writing major who will graduate in 2019.

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