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In Taking the Treadmill to Success: Design Alum Doesn’t Break a Sweat

UC industrial design alum Gary Piaget exercises innovation in the form of workout technology and equipment that are household names.

Date: 10/5/2013
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Provided by Gary Piaget
Industrial designer and entrepreneurial innovator Gary Piaget has taken the exercise treadmill to the peak of his profession.

And Piaget credits his many decades of success to his hometown roots in Cincinnati and the education he received in the University of Cincinnati’s nationally No. 1 ranked industrial design program.

He recalls, “I attended Purcell High School in Cincinnati in the early 1960s. And in my art class, my teacher told me that I wasn’t an artist, that I was a designer. I was heartbroken. I wanted to be an artist to express my creative self. My teacher said this because I couldn’t draw an object in front of me without changing it, looking at it and asking how it could be different, better.”

That teacher suggested Piaget go take a look at the industrial design department at UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) where, according to Piaget, “I fell madly in love with industrial design. It was what I had always done in my life, thinking about products and how they could be improved, thinking about new and innovative products.”
The industrial design class of 1969.
Gary Piaget was part of the industrial design class of 1969. In this photo taken of the class in Burnet Woods, Piaget is fourth from right, wearing a dark blazer and white turtleneck.

All of the skills and classes that Piaget had at UC – everything from design labs and five years of psychology to materials technology and manufacturing methods – came in handy when he first went to work in the toy industry after his graduation in 1969. He first job related to toy design came while working for Greenberg & Associates, as the firm’s first full-time, on-staff designer -- after first attending Woodstock in August 1969.

That job with Greenberg & Associates was the first of numerous and increasing high-level positions in the toy industry where he quickly rose to direct the creative group at Hasbro, Inc. One of his later positions was as the youngest vice president of design in the toy industry at Mego Corporation, a toy company that dominated the hand held video game and action figure toy market during most of the 1970s.

Explains Piaget, “After I solved a patent related issue for Hasbro Toys through Greenberg & Associates, I was offered the job as head of the creative group for Hasbro.

After Hasbro, I went to Fisher Price, hired as their only senior designer. From there, I went to Remco Toys in New York City as head of R&D and then to Mego Toys, also in New York City, as vice president of R&D.”
UC alum Gary Piaget
UC alum Gary Piaget as a young designer in the toy prototype area of his shop.

And due to his successes in the toy industry, Piaget – who today makes his home in various locales but primarily in the San Juan Islands off the coast of the State of Washington – realized some thirty years ago that its was time to make a change in his career, to strike out on his own to create, develop and license his own toy innovations. From there,  Piaget has never looked back, creating and licensing some of the most innovative products in a variety of markets – from toys, electronics and pet products to health and fitness.

At the time, he was living in Park City, Utah, where he routinely worked out on a stair climber at a friend’s physical therapy clinic, sharing the training locale with the United States Olympic Ski Team.

One day while working out on a Stair Climber, Piaget asked about its cost. His friend replied, “Six thousand dollars, so don’t break it!”

Piaget figured he could make something similar for $100, thus starting his career in the health and fitness industry.

And so, helped out by both his UC education and the early training his engineer father (Robert) provided Piaget as an 8-year-old who was allowed to work with a lathe, arc welder and other tools, Piaget proceeded to design and build the Stair Climber Plus prototype, and it became the leading infomercial product for over six months. That first effort, now marketed as the Air Climber, is still on the market and retails for about $149. More importantly, it set the stage for Piaget to become a leader in fitness equipment innovation.
Gary Piaget
UC alum Gary Piaget recently licensed the TreadClimber for sale to the commercial market, for placement in health clubs and rehabilitation clinics.

Other exercise equipment designs (and prototypes) quickly followed, including the Fast Track exerciser promoted by one-time Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby; BioRocker with Tony Little of QVC, a television fitness personality and businessman; the Complete 10 band workout machine promoted by Denise Austin, a pioneer in the fitness industry; Reebok’s Skywalker; and Piaget’s most well-known success, the Bowflex TreadClimber, an elliptical machine, treadmill and stair climber in one. It is now the leading fitness product of all time for Nautilus/Bowflex.

Importantly, it’s a machine that adjusts to the user vs. demanding that the user adjust to the machine. “For instance,” according to Piaget, “If you have one leg slightly shorter than the other, the machine will compensate, and you’ll be able to use it naturally.” Piaget says that this is due to the fact that as a designer, he was the first fitness innovator to focus on "human engineering" in fitness, making sure that every machine he developed followed the correct movement of the human machine.

He adds, “The TreadClimber is my most successful, most innovative product I have ever invented.” In fact, Piaget was awarded, “The Best of What’s New” from Popular Science Magazine for the TreadClimber machine.
Gary Piaget
Gary Piaget was awarded, “The Best of What’s New” from Popular Science Magazine for the TreadClimber machine.

The TreadClimber, which Piaget licensed for the consumer market in 2003, was recently licensed for sale to the commercial market, for health clubs and rehabilitation clinics as well.

“The TreadClimber fulfilled its promise beyond expectations because for moderate exercisers – average people – it can provide a great experience because the machine incorporates the use of the large muscle groups like the glutes and hamstrings while providing a complete cardio workout when the user is walking at an average pace of about four miles an hour. The machine is for anyone from the average person to the super athletes. It’s been studied in university labs because of its effectiveness. It provides more metabolic benefit than running,” explains Piaget, who said he designed the product with the Baby Boomers in mind.

Ironically, as the designer of so much exercise equipment, Piaget admits he doesn’t really use machines since he gets his exercise naturally: “I’m on an 85-acre farm in the San Juan Islands. It’s a working farm. I have homes in San Francisco, Mexico and Costa Rica, and the beach is always at hand for a good swim. And I’ve always enjoyed skiing, horseback riding, rock climbing and wind surfing.”

He does take these workout activities – and travel – in stride with his continuing career designing, prototyping and patenting upcoming exercise, medical and pet products. These future products will join a list of past endeavors so varied that they include
  • An electronic “tape measure” that can precisely measure the height, length and width of any room or space. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency actually uses the device to check semi trucks for false walls.
    Gary Piaget with his nuclear bomb lamp.
    Gary Piaget with his nuclear bomb lamp.

  • A “nuclear bomb” lamp that Piaget admits, “No company would buy.” So, he produced the lamp himself, adding, "Though, eventually, Greenpeace bought a supply and displayed them en masse in the window of its Washington, D.C., headquarters.”
  • A modestly priced spinal decompression machine capable of decompressing the neck and back simultaneously. Piaget created this product based on statistics showing that back pain is the most-common cause of missed workdays due to illness.
In advising and mentoring would-be inventors to fulfill their dreams, Piaget emphasizes a know-your-market mentality and suggests the need to ask hard questions: Is the product actually needed? Does it fulfill its promise? Is it affordable?

“In other words,” he asks, “Does it have the right to exist?”