The Unsung Talents of Footwear Designers

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“You’re the first footwear designer I’ve ever met” is a typical response. Introductions around my profession confronts me with how small our population really is. The remark resonates with flattery, but also misfortune. Footwear designers get so easily thrown into the niche job category along with floral stylist and gallery curator. However, we prevail as the best kept secret with some of the most multidisciplinary and versatile designers in the creative field.

To get started, let’s look at footwear designers’ similarities with other design practices. Like fashion design, we want to influence your style and identity. Our constructions need to support the human body, much like furniture. And we’re right next to UX designers in the desire to integrate the most updated technology. The fibers of our design sensibilities weave knowledge from numerous creative categories. It’s a practice that has as much breadth as it has focus.

To complicate our little design field even further, footwear designers divide amongst numerous sub-categories. Some like myself fall into sneakers, while others join high street fashion, haute couture, designer label, specialty or one-off businesses. As we augment, attach or drive collections and product ranges, footwear designers need to repeatedly interface with other functions. Whether it’s trend, consumer insights, apparel design or development teams, many times we find ourselves right in the middle of many audiences and conversations.

This cross-functionality is why most of my footwear design counterparts are so multidisciplinary. We are in a profession that attracts the most interesting mix of talent. From former sign painters to interior architects, illustrators to sneaker collectors, footwear designers bring eclectic experiences to the concept room. With each of our paths leading to this profession being so varied, multidisciplinary and many times off-kilter, it’s no surprise we’re not so easily defined. Fitting neatly into boxes defies our very nature.

So what do we all do that employs our versatility? Footwear designers curate varying factors from trend to price, heritage to material. We must create concepts and push them along though a fog of opinions, cost matrixes and changes. It’s a logistical exercise requiring as much organization as it does taste. Balancing what the brand, market, consumer and even retailer needs is more like coordinating five separate parties than throwing one massive celebration. Footwear is so compact yet complex, so function yet fashionable that pulling everything together requires a love of logical and creativity.

In the end, we want to take something that covers your feet and make them fit your story. There’s no surprise that footwear, or shoes, is a never-ending source for analogies. “To step into someone else’s shoes”; “wouldn’t want to be in your shoes” and “to fill one’s shoes” are just a few examples. As designers, we’re not just creating a product, but an experience. We know footwear accompanies your entire day and is a long-lasting wardrobe item. We recognise it needs to be durable from a construction and style perspective. With an audience that can raddle off styles and model numbers as if they were names of their own cousins, footwear designers realise our fan base knows what’s going on.

Working in footwear can feel like being a type-casted actor. We’re assumed to only be able to design one product or understand one market. But it’s just the opposite. Sure, we do have some quirks like looking at everyone’s feet on the metro or inspecting the construction of a shoe lining in store. Nonetheless, footwear designers know a wide range of principles and skills. It’s not only in our job description to do so, but also our inherent sensibility. Whichever creative field you’re in, if you’re feeling uninspired, stuck or need another point of view, perhaps it’s time to seek out a footwear designer.