For the sixth installment in design droplets Designer Q&A, Richard Kuchinsky owner of The Directive Collective (a footwear design consultancy based in Canada) privileges us with his thoughts, insights and advice on footwear design. Richard can also be found online at the Core77 Forums and his footwear design process blog First Pullover. If you are interested in footwear and design then you might also enjoy our Designer Q&A with Michael Ditullo.
Highlights – don’t have time to read the whole interview? Below is a super quick round up of some of the highlights from the design droplets interview with footwear designer Richard Kuchinsky.
“Most consultants seemed to view their work as the end result, rather than part of a larger whole. Considering this, I found that there was really an opportunity in the freelance design market for a creative approach that offered a wider range of services and a more branded, integrated approach that considered the deliverables as a part of a holistic design strategy.”
“From a design philosophy perspective, I am very inspired by the work of Dieter Rams. The way he approached any creative challenge was one of big picture thinking. I also believe he was one of the first designers to really understand the role and fit of branding into the product design activity.”
“The footwear design/development process is pretty unique. It is at the same time very low tech and simple, while also being very complex and detailed. The process typically involves lots of sketches and exploration. Because, for the most part, the overall shape of the shoe is already defined by the shape of the foot, it is less a sculptural exploration and almost a more graphic one. In this way, it is a question of patterns, materials, construction, details and overall visual impression.”
“I’m a big believer of innovation through appropriation and crossing those boundaries that define products and categories.”
“Learn the balance of business and creativity. The job of a successful footwear designer is to balance commercial targets and fashion/innovation. Often these can seem like completely different ends of the spectrum, but the best products service both.”
1. Hi Richard, welcome to design droplets. Can you please give us a quick run down/introduction on yourself (What ever you can squeeze into a paragraph or two).
My background is Industrial Design but I made the transition to footwear design straight out of school with my first post-grad job and have been involved with the lifestyle and fashion industry ever since (going on 8 years now). I try to be involved in as many different types design as I can, I also enjoy spreading the knowledge and wonder of design to as many people as possible through education partnerships and mentorships.
2. You currently run a consultancy, The Directive Collective, focused on footwear and lifestyle product. Prior to this you worked at Hummel and several other footwear/lifestyle companies. Can you tell us a bit about the transition from working as a designer for a company to running your own consultancy?
For me, it was a pretty smooth transition. While working in-house I was often the one on the other side of the table (finding and contracting consultants) and at the same time taking on a large scope of work from design to branding, development, packaging, etc. For most projects, it was a real challenge integrating the creative work of the consultants into other strategic and creative aspects of the project. Most consultants seemed to view their work as the end result, rather than part of a larger whole. Considering this, I found that there was really an opportunity in the freelance design market for a creative approach that offered a wider range of services and a more branded, integrated approach that considered the deliverables as a part of a holistic design strategy. The Directive Collective was created in this light to offer everything from branding and positioning, right through to identity design, footwear design, technical development, marketing and packaging. What makes The Directive Collective unique is the integrated and strategic approach we take to all aspects of the product creation process.
3. You emphasize that design is about much more than meeting design, time, budget and market needs. Can you talk about the idea and methodologies behind what you have called “Directive Creation”?
Often, in terms of the creative industry, consultants can be categorized into those that offer one of two kinds of services. The first is the “doer” which is your typical freelance designer making sketches, doing CAD, etc. with the end goal of making “things”. To some extent, this is a bottom-up approach that looks at a problem and creates a product as a solution.
The second is approach is a more top-down, strategic process that is guided by a brand’s goals, opportunities and vision. Often, this is titled creative direction. Typical deliverables for these types of consultants are brand marketing reports, business plans, position analyses, and specifications for other to create from.
The way I try to work is to combine these two. Not just giving “creative direction” for others to do the work, but being creatively involved in all aspects of the product to focus the direction of the brand. This is Directive Creation. We work with our clients to learn, understand and develop their brands and products through a strategic creative process. From initial strategic planning consultation to final specifications, the most important driver in our work is the development of a cohesive, branded approach. Because all the elements from strategy to product to marketing are the result of an integrated process, the client doesn’t need to go to 3 or more different consultants, and the end result is more consistent because the design intent and product is coming from a single source.
4. What other designers or organizations have shaped this design philosophy/methodology and why?
From a design philosophy perspective, I am very inspired by the work of Dieter Rams. The way he approached any creative challenge was one of big picture thinking. I also believe he was one of the first designers to really understand the role and fit of branding into the product design activity. By branding, I mean of course more than logo application, but the development of a brand DNA through design and how this can provide the foundation for an entire corporate ethos. It’s no secret, for example, that the consistency and approach of Braun, created by Rams, is a huge influence for the branding of design of Apple products.
Another good example of this is the Vitsoe Universal Shelving System Rams created in 1960. It has been in constant production ever since, and has been designed as not only a good product, but as a part of a lifestyle, that fits into a greater context and has deep brand value. The system is designed to adapt and change, as a user’s needs change (or if they move houses) and any single part of the system can be individually ordered to facilitate this change. Even the lifecycle of the product has been taken into account. The system is offered in only 3 colors, one of which is off-white so that any old, yellowed, faded parts will match better with any new components, which would not be the case if it was true white, as many systems are. That simple consideration alone is the kind of thing that blows me away.
As a young designer, I must say I was also very influenced by Hartmut Esslinger and frogdesign. frogdesign was one of the leaders in the modern concept of the full service design consultancy incorporating branding, positioning, graphics, industrial design and more at a time when most consultancies were focused on specialization. This model of fully integrated creative services provided much of the inspiration for my own consultancy, The Directive Collective.
5. Designers traditionally find inspiration in a very diverse range of places, that are heavily influenced by who they are as an individual. Where do you find your inspiration?
Firstly, along with Rams as mentioned earlier, I’d say I’m very inspired by the aesthetics and honesty of mid-century modern design. While of course this encompasses the usual suspects like Eames, Nelson, etc. I also draw much of my inspiration from the more practical, mundane objects of the era and earlier. I have, for example a great 50’s chrome Osterizer blender that I use almost daily for making smoothies, and am constantly transfixed on how both aesthetics and quality seemed to be designed-in in perfect balance. Not only is it great to look at, but easy to use, easy to clean, and has been designed to be repaired rather than replaced. To me, this is a good value through design more so than any fancy designer object.
Other than that, and all types of graphics, fashion and product design, I am also the kind of person who seeks to find inspiration anywhere I may be. I can spend 3 hours browsing through a Home Depot looking at nothing in particular, but being fascinated with some type of super-specialized tool designed for who-knows-what, or the design of a drywall anchor. While traveling, one of my favorite activities is to go through a local supermarket, checking out packaging and graphics for everything from dog food to diapers. I believe that good design can be anywhere and that totally unrelated things often inspire the best design. If you are designing product X and only look at similar products in the same category, the chances that you will do something novel or make a large improvement are pretty slim. You need to often get out of your bubble to change your perception of that bubble.
6. Every facet of the design industry has a slightly different development process. Can you talk about the typical product development process in the footwear industry?
The footwear design/development process is pretty unique. It is at the same time very low tech and simple, while also being very complex and detailed. The process typically involves lots of sketches and exploration. Because, for the most part, the overall shape of the shoe is already defined by the shape of the foot, it is less a sculptural exploration and almost a more graphic one. In this way, it is a question of patterns, materials, construction, details and overall visual impression.
Once the final design has been set, the designer typically delivers a specification tech package which is often just a set of mutli-view Illustrator drawings with material and construction call-outs. From there, it is in the hands of the pattern maker who interprets this drawing into a pattern that will transform 2D materials into a 3D shoe. People are always surprised that shoes are not designed in 3D CAD, but seeing a pattern maker work it makes sense. It’s equal parts artistry and experience as much as it is science and technology. Every material acts different, stretches differently, etc.
The process for production is equally interesting. One pair of shoes may be the result of more than 50 different workers on the assembly line, stitching, cementing, and leather working. The way it’s been done for centuries. Combine this with some of the high tech processes and materials used like direct inject TPU, HF welding, carbon fibre and smart materials and it’s fascinating to see how old-world skills work so well with modern innovation. Every time I’m in a factory I’m truly inspired by this process.
7. Even though designers are increasingly using CAD, in your work you seem to develop most of your designs through sketching and utilizing Adobe Illustrator. Could you speak a bit about the tools you typically utilize to create designs?
The process as I described earlier just doesn’t need CAD for the most part, so it is not used. There would be no point in doing the upper design of a shoe in CAD when a 3 view line drawing in Illustrator is what the pattern maker wants. Outsole design may be done in CAD, though in my experience more frequently it’s done as a 2D drawing with dimensions and sections in Illustrator because it’s quicker and the mold maker can take into account all the data points for the last, shrink, etc. to create the 3D CAD at the factory in half the time and a quarter of the cost.
I know some of the larger athletic footwear brands are starting to incorporate CAD into the design process more frequently, but in something like footwear I also think the rawness and flow of a sketch translates best into a product that likely may not have a single straight line on it and is never 100% symmetrical.
In the end however, the appropriate tools for the job, are just that, tools. A pencil, a marker a Wacom tablet, or CAD are all tools and each one may be appropriate in a different situation. It is also important to mention that a sketch or drawing should also be viewed as a means to an end. Too often these days, I think young designers fall in love with CAD, or fancy renderings and lose sight of the true goals of the design process- the end product. I had a boss once who made a great point of keeping the designers in check when they would get carried away with fancy renderings and the like. He said, “we are in the business of making shoes. Not drawings.”
I created my blog, First Pullover (www.firstpullover.com) as a way to share my knowledge of the footwear design and development process and figured that because I found it interesting, others might as well. It’s about being an advocate for design and the industry as much as it is being an educator. Sharing my own passion can inspire others and that in turn inspires me. I’ve had more than one email telling me that a high school student discovered Industrial Design through my blog, and continued to apply and be accepted at an ID school. To me, this is one of the things I am most proud of. Myself, I only found about ID because a former student came back to my high school Art class to share his experiences and love of design. If I can do the same and inspire even one person to become a designer and find the career that they love, then I’m happy.
Forums such as the core77 discussion groups are also a great way to reach out and connect with other like-minded individuals and exchange ideas, for mutual benefit. The great thing about the core forums is that it is a mix of different people with different experiences, backgrounds and points of view. From high school and University students inquiring about “what is Industrial Design?” to professionals such as myself and Michael DiTullo, Design Director at Converse, this mix and the leveling power of the internet allows the conversation to be truly open and honest (though sometimes to a fault). Contributing to forums such as these not only expands the dialog and can offer unique insight, but is also a way to improve your own skills. Communication is an essential skill for a designer, and the challenges of making a point with a forum comment can force you to clarify your own thought.
9. It is always interesting to hear about design communities in various parts of the world. Can you tell us a bit about the Design community in Toronto, Canada?
Toronto is a very active place for design and all types of creative work. One reason, I believe this is so, is that the population of Toronto is very diverse. I recently read a statistic that more 49% of the population of Toronto was born outside Canada! What this provides is a huge range of cultural inspiration and styles that really define the city.
10. From your point of view, what are the current critical issues in the footwear design and industrial design industries?
As I see it, the footwear industry is somewhat in flux, and perhaps in a low period of innovation at the moment. Given the rise of the “sneakerhead” culture over the last 5-10 years, much of what was once true variety across markets and niches has become mainstream and available anywhere online. Many today see footwear design as only “special edition collaborations” and “exclusive colorways”. Shoes to buy on ebay and keep in a closet, “mint in box”. The market is flooded with quickstrike products that are not much more than a different color or material makeup of a classic or existing shoe and are really only limited because there’s so much new product on the market and a limited consumer base to purchase it. “Retro” has been on it’s last legs for 5 years now, but doesn’t seem to want to give way for the “next new thing”. We are at the point now where reissues make up a large part of many brands’ collections, and even releasing reissues from as little as 3 years ago. Too me, this is troubling as it creates roadblocks for innovation.
I do have faith however that things will turn over soon, and there are some exciting things happening in the industry. Some of the new brands like Heyday, Vael Project, Common Projects are mixing things up with hybrids of sneakers and dress/casual styles. I also see a lot of cross-over of technical performance materials and constructions into casual footwear. For me this is great, as I’m a big believer of innovation through appropriation and crossing those boundaries that define products and categories.
Business wise, however the footwear industry is struggling. Over the past 2 years it’s been a perfect storm of factors from low US Dollar values to a changes in the Chinese RMB exchange, labor costs and policies , oil prices affecting shipping and material prices and general economic issues affecting consumer spending…. I see the effect in collections and companies of all sizes. I believe however that in times like these innovation and design can be a solution, and it forces designers to think differently, smarter and more effectively. While somewhat counterintuitive, it can be the case that in these times more risky projects can take off and designers may be given the ball to run with. Overall I see opportunity.
11. What common trends do you see currently emerging in the footwear design profession?
This is a difficult question, as trends are not something that are universal, but are very linked to context. What may be the next trend in London streetwear may be completely irrelevant to the US streetwear footwear market. A directional trend in performance running footwear in one market may not at all effect a different product category, even within the same market. Anyone who definitively says “X is the next trend for such and such season”, is either lying or deluded.
What I do think is happening however across the industry is that many traditional lines between categories and between fashion and function are being blurred. Performance focused companies are recognizing there is some aspect of lifestyle to every activity and lifestyle brands and seeking and exploring technical stories to add unique selling points and address consumer needs.
More than a trend however, I see this transition and an adaptation of the product to the market and a part of the constant changing nature of any industry that has roots in fashion. By it’s very nature fashion and lifestyle influences are a constantly moving target (there’s always another season after you wrap one season up), and for me this is one of the best things about the industry. I never have to worry that I’ll run out of ideas because by the time the next season comes around my own context and approach will be invariably different, and thus a different solution will present itself.
12. What advice would you give to students/professionals who want to pursue a career in footwear?
Find your passion. Footwear is such a wide and diverse field; it’s best to know where your interests lie to be able to pursue those more effectively. Find your niche if it is performance, lifestyle, running, outdoor, etc. and run with it.
Learn the product. The footwear industry can be very tough to break into, but self-directed design and research can go a long way in giving you an advantage to get that first footwear internship or job. Take old shoes and cut them in half. See how different constructions are made and what is inside. Task yourself with browsing your local shops and developing an opinion on where trends may be headed. Make a trend board for 6 months or a year into the future are revisit it to see how you did. Do a footwear project at school if you have the opportunity and soak up all the great resources online you can.
Learn the balance of business and creativity. The job of a successful footwear designer is to balance commercial targets and fashion/innovation. Often these can seem like completely different ends of the spectrum, but the best products service both. If you are doing a self-directed project, think as much about who it is for, how big the market is, what the costs and retail price may be as you do the design, color and materials. In the many portfolios I’ve reviewed over the years the stand out projects are often when I see this understanding. It’s just as much as making something new and different as it is making a product that can sell. This is what defines design vs. art and is even more relevant in footwear than some other industries as tooling for a single product that may be out only one season can be over $100,000.
Lastly, of course it is important to develop your skills. Sketching, quick visualization rendering, and exploring a wide range of concepts are the most important skills for a practicing footwear designer. That plus as much energy and love as you can put into it will always help!
13. Richard, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us here at design droplets. In closing, do you have any last thoughts or words of advice you would like to share?
Being a footwear designer is one of those jobs that may be tough to get at first, but is rewarding enough to last a lifetime. I know many Industrial Designers who have switched into footwear design, but not a single person who has ever gone from footwear design to anything else. Once you are in, you are in for life, it seems. As a plus, it’s also the kind of job that is a great conversation starter. I think I get as much “wow” from mentioning I’m a footwear designer as if I said I was a race car driver or astronaut. It’s a tough job, but in what other job do you get to shop for shoes as work! Enjoy it!
If you enjoyed this Designer Q&A you might also like to read our Designer Q&A with Michael Ditullo, Design Director at Converse.