A footwear designer should possess many “tools” — some concrete and some abstract. Also know that some “tools” have to be learned while others are innate. It is important to remember a tool is simply a means to aid in accomplishing a task: Sometimes you have to find new tools for a new task. Here’s a list of 10 Essential Tools Every Aspiring Sneaker Designer Should Possess.
9. Material Manufacturing
This is an underrated tool. Your inspiration is just as important as being able to think of new ideas. You have to know where to look for good inspiration; I consider it a tool because it isn’t easy to find new sources. In a way I think it is an innate quality that can’t be taught. Some people are just fine looking at what is easily available to them. Many people pay exuberant amounts of money to have someone tell them what to be inspired by. What doesn’t seem to click with those two people that they are looking at the exact same “inspiration” that every designer and creative on the planet is looking at. We all visit the same sites, shop at the same stores and travel to similar places. Therefore I try to find my own trends, sometimes even create the trend. I like the challenge of staying ahead of the curve. I also believe that this tool is what keeps you relevant and having a long career. If you keep looking at the same shit, you are going to keep designing the same shit. Don’t do that, push yourself to find sources that only a few have seen. And if it hasn’t been seen yet, create it!
8. Problem Solving
This is a tool that is becoming more and more important every season. Footwear has evolved quite quickly since 2008 and it is primarily because of the advancement of material engineering and how neakers are manufactured. It is very important to have some knowledge on how a shoe is created. It is way more than just sewing and gluing. The best thing about understanding the manufacturing process is that once you have a grasp of it, you will have thoughts on how to improve it and therefore evolve it to the next level and create something entirely new.
7. Be a Sponge!
An individual can never have enough knowledge. It is important to absorb everything you encounter and everything that intrigues you. You should always be looking to new sources for inspiration. You should travel. You should challenge yourself. You should challenge others. You should read. You should take more classes. You should paint instead of draw. You should walk instead of drive. You should force yourself to do things differently… You get where I am going with this, keep learning. Be a sponge!
6. Use of Color
Believe it or not, even in this highly saturated market of colorful shoes there are bad combinations. It is up to you to know how to use color. Get a color wheel and Pantone book and start looking at many different sources of color inspiration (Pantonism.com is a great start). Remember that color is a part of your Story Telling and Graphic Design. They intersect and play off of each other. Color can tell a performance story and balance out a graphic. Color can also be the single reason for why a shoe fails. It can make a shoe look heavy, dated or just flat-out ugly. As much as designers would like to think that consumers buy shoes because of function, it is of my belief that color is the most important element when purchasing a shoe. Learn how to master color and you will be a very, very sought-after designer.
5. Keep a Sketchbook!
I mentioned in “10 Steps to Becoming a Sneaker Designer” that you had to sketch and you had to sketch a lot but just as important as that is keeping a sketchbook. It may sound lame but this is your journal. It’s your collection of thoughts and ideas and it will be the most-asked-about item to see at an interview. Get a sketchbook as it is the most important tool in your collection.
4. Know Your History
Sneaker Design is one long history lesson; it’s been around for decades. Because there is such a storied history to it there is no reason not to know it, especially if you want to create the future of it. You need to learn everything that has been created in every category, everything that succeeded and everything that failed in your brand’s history. This knowledge will help you to create products that aren’t duplicates and products that are worthwhile and have a reason for being. Nothing is worse then when an arrogant designer creates something that has already existed at another company or in another category of shoes but thinks it is new and revolutionary. Often times it shows that the designer hasn’t done their history homework. Don’t be that designer!
3. Tell a Story
Everybody loves to hear a good story and design is no different. The story is the reason a product exists, it creates an emotion with the athlete and the consumer. Over the past decade the story of the shoe has become way more involved and in some cases has become the focal point of the shoe. In the ’90s, shoes were pretty simple to sell. You either bought the Air Jordan or you bought a pair of Flights or Forces. Their stories were simple. The first was to Be Like Mike, the Flights were to be agile and quick and the Forces were to be impactful and strong. Now there are so many shoes that so many stories are developed to why you need it and why they exist. A Kobe is low to the ground and more agile, a LeBron is developed to handle the games most explosive player, the KD is created to meet the demands of every player and the Air Jordan pays homage to the greatest player ever. All of the shoes I mentioned are for the same task, basketball, yet all of them are dramatically different from one another because their design stories are distinctive.
Story Telling is partially design, partially marketing and partially advertising. Ultimately it falls on the designer’s shoulders to make the story so compelling that the shoe will be successful. A good story tends to be simple and to the point, which allows for a simple but meaningful aesthetic that everyone understands. This is also one of the most challenging things to learn as a designer. I’m not sure I am the best at it, but the way I always look it is to create an aesthetic story and problem-solving story and bring them together to balance each other out. I also look at how other industries to tell stories. I look at advertising, movies and music. All of those mediums have a short time span to create an impact and it makes me think how to bring a design full circle. It doesn’t matter where you are inspired from the important thing is to have a reason. So no matter how you do it, learn to start telling great stories!
2. Graphic Design
I have always believed that form follows function. What that means is that your design will emerge from the problem you are trying to solve. But once you have that aesthetic form determined it becomes about graphic design. If you think about any great performance sneaker it performs amazingly but it looks dope as hell. For instance the LeBron X Elite, what the design team did was focus on making the functional elements of the shoe the boldest graphic. That way when you see LeBron flash down the court for an awe-inspiring dunk all you notice are those bold graphics on his feet. Sometimes that graphic is the Swoosh (its free advertising so that makes sense) but in the case of the LeBron X Elite, what you will notice is the most functional graphic on the shoe: the carbon fiber midfoot wings. This isn’t done by mistake. Nike wants you to notice them as much as the Swoosh and they want to be able to say it doesn’t just look cool; it performs well too! It is important to learn good graphic design. Without it your design will be lost, potentially busy and unbalanced. It helps you celebrate the reason why your function is important and your form is beautiful. Graphic design takes focus and direction. Make you sure you have a clear intent as to why you are making your shoe look the way it does.
1. A Solid Thought Process
One hundred percent of a successful footwear design comes down to thought process. If you can’t get your thoughts on paper and from paper to sample shoe and from sample shoe to a finished shoe, you won’t make it. To me, the thought process is what keeps an idea from becoming a reality. Many times designers just let it rest in their memory bank and never do anything with it. You have to go through the process of getting the idea out to see if it’s worthwhile and can be successful. In a way you have to practice thinking — which sounds weird but you will get it once you start creating. Over time your process will become polished and it won’t even be a process anymore, it will just be natural.