Form Follows Function

Footwear designers are pushing the technical envelope.

Nothing feels better than slipping on a new pair of shoes, fresh out of the box. The intoxicating smell of gum rubber and the snug fit are heavenly. But what is it about skate shoes that allows them to handle the brutality of sweaty feet, griptape abrasion, and forceful impact? In addition to surviving the harsh realities of skateboarding, they also contribute to the identifiable style of skateboarders.

But what makes one pair of shoes feel more comfortable than another? Or why does this one withstand the abuse of skateboarding longer than that? The answers to these questions are investigated by the designers of the footwear industry. And it’s their inspiration and influence that distinguishes their brands.

A vast array of materials are being experimented with today compared to the days when uppers were either canvas or suede. Now you can find everything from polyurethane (PU)-coated leathers to thermoplastic rubber (TPR). For the shoes displayed in this issue’s Product Review, the most common uppers consist of a combination of leather, suede, cordura, hemp, nubuck, a wide variety of meshes, synthetic materials, rubber, PVC, and high-frequency (HF) welds.

The insole works with the midsole to provide the cushioning needed for hard impact. Insoles typically run the full length of the footbed and are made from PU, ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA), and polyethylene with silithane or gel heel pads and arch supports. These materials are lightweight and exceptional shock absorbers.

The midsole, which is sandwiched between the insole and the outsole, dissipates most of the energy of forceful landings. Currently midsoles are composed of EVA, PU, and Phylon with heel and forefoot air-bag systems incorporated within.

Companies continue to use gum-rubber outsoles, but recently there’s been more experimentation with higher grades of gum rubber, like 400 NBS, which is more dense and abrasion-resistant than traditional gum rubber. Variations in the composition of the gum rubber allows manufacturers to designate areas on the outsole for durability and grippiness. The outsole is combined with the midsole and insole to determine the overall thickness of the sole, and therefore the amount of “board feel” the skater has.

With new materials and technologies now available to footwear designers, there’s much greater latitude in creating comfort and cushioning systems. And the direction and style that shoe brands take on are directly influenced by the designers themselves.

DC’s design team, Senior Footwear Designer Sung Choi and Footwear Designer and Developer Wei-En Chang, both graduated with college degrees unrelated to product design, but had experience in the graphic-arts and clothing-design arenas.

Sole Technology’s design team consists of Senior Footwear Designer Frank Boistel and Steve Kang (who designs the Emerica line under Boistel’s direction). Boistel has an education in graphic design and began designing shoes with Etnies France.

DVS’ Senior Footwear Designer Grant Delgatty, Globe’s Head Footwear Designer Derek John Yuen, and Vita’s Director of Footwear Design and Development Amir Dia all graduated from product-design institutions. Delgatty went to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Yuen studied Industrial Design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. And Dia completed the Industrial Design program at Cal State Long Beach.

Osiris VP of Design and Part Owner Brian Reid, has no formal training in product design but has gathered the necessary knowledge through on-the-job experience. But Dave Ross (a.k.a. Persue), the second member of Osiris’ design team, has had previous graphic and footwear design experience.

Designers in this footwear industry have toonsider many contradictory features in the process of making a shoe. Reinforcing the ollie area, lace protection, lateral support, heel and forefoot cushioning, outsole flexibility, and durability are the most obvious requirements but weight, comfort, style, and manufacturing costs must also be considered.

It typically takes anywhere from six months to a year to design a skate shoe, depending on how many revisions are needed. “Usually we work a year ahead if we can, because there’re always changes to be made,” explains DC’s Chang. “So we try to build in enough time to make those changes while we’re working on the next season.”

The design process begins with concept drawings, or a series of drawings, that are shown to various staff members, including sales and marketing managers, sales reps, company owners and presidents, developers, and teamriders, who critique the drawings. Product developers then help out with necessary adjustments–technical or functional–as well as give orthopedic advice for improved comfort.

But the initial concept drawings are produced by the designers who look far and wide for inspiration. Sole Technology’s Boistel gathers inspiration through traveling, soaking up the environment like a sponge. “My favorite destinations are New York, London, and Tokyo,” he says. “I just try to get inspired by every single thing; it could be from nature, the city, the arts in general, and architecture. I bring back tons of pictures, books, and ideas, and we do a concept board with colors and inspiration.”

After endless meetings and discussions, the line is conceptualized, and the process marches on, incorporating the newest materials and technologies available to today’s footwear designers.

Currently designers learn about the latest available footwear technology from their factories in the Far East and material shows held all over the world. “Vendors come and give you the new and innovative products,” says DC’s Choi, “like better liners that are breathable yet waterproof.”

“You kind of get it from different sources,” says DVS’ Delgatty. “There’s a material show in Germany that we’ve developed materials from, and we also have an agent in the Far East who gives us the cutting edge of what’s going to happen with materials.”

“We travel once a month to Korea, where we have a partner and a team of Korean employees who’ve had numerous years in the shoe business,” explains Osiris’ Reid. “R&D trips to factories help as far as technology goes–we’ve seen so many processes not even implemented by the industry yet.”

Once a material is selected, it goes through a series of tests to determine it’s durability and compatibility. “Before we put them materials on a shoe, we’ll run them through a series of tests like abrasion, the strength of the material, thickness, and how flexible they are,” says Delgatty. “Then we’ll take those materials we decided are good and develop a sample shoe.”

Vita’s Dia has a different approach to testing materials: “I’ll light them on fire and rub them on the concrete. Sometimes when you light materials on fire, you can tell what they’re made of.”

After a sample shoe is made, it’s time for the teamriders to give their feedback. Typically referred to as wear-testing, the riders skate the shoe for a couple of weeks to discover the weaknesses and strengths of the design. A sample that’s been well skated will display wear patterns from the physical abuse these shoes must endure.

Problem areas for skate shoes haven’t really changed since the ollie was invented. But today’s designers have multiple options as to how they can deal with problems.

Companies handle ollie wear in a variety of ways. DC’s incorporated a new technology into the Deuce model (new for Fall 2000): injected Thermo Plastic Rubber (TPR) ribbing on the toe and ollie area, which resists ollie abrasion while keeping the upper more flexible than it would be with a solid piece of rubber. Emerica has incorporated a new technology in their line to combat ollie abrasion as well–a stitchless one-piece high-frequency weld that hides all the seam lines in the ollie area while also providing lateral support for the shoe.

A minor design constraint is lace protection. Speed laces and lace loops have alleviated most of the problems, but extending the life of laces is still an issue. “One of the things we’re pretty consistent on is having a dual-lacing system,” says DVS’ Delgatty. “If there’s a problem where the laces are getting worn out, then you can lace the shoe up a different way.”

Many cushioning-system advancements have been integrated into the modern skate shoe. Borrowing technologies from longtime athletic shoemakers like Nike, skate companies have more frequently been incorporating air bags into their designs. Globe’s Gershon Mosley and Chet Thomas CT-IV have a dual air-bag system–one in the heel and the other placed at the forefoot–integrated within the midsole and outsole.

For all their attributes, plush air-bag systems can also add unwanted thickness, weight, and decrease the flexibility of the sole, resulting in a reduction of board-feel and control. Sole Technology has introduced a new material into their éS line that reduces weight and the thickness of the sole. “Tritek is a coating applied to the Phylon midsole that allowed us to put less rubber on the shoe,” says Boistel.

The outsole is probably the trickiest part of the shoe to design. While trying to maintain flexibility in the forefoot, designers must create a durable outsole that’s also soft and grippy for board control. “Obviously, with skating, the primary focus is to have a significant amount of grip on the shoes,” says DVS’ Delgatty. “There are variances in the compound, and we figure out what areas are going to have more wear. We develop a heavier tread in those areas and then decide which areas need more grippiness.”

Even after satisfying all the performance considerations, designers have no guarantee that their shoes will be comfortable and stylish. “Durability, traction, cushioning, flexibility, and fit are all high on the list of criteria,” explains Globe’s Yuen, “but overall comfort and style complete the package.”

In the August 1990 issue of TransWorld SKATEboarding, Airwalk, Vans, and Vision shoes were the only brands advertising skate shoes. But with the subsequent growth in popularity and participation in skateboarding, the industry has seen the emergence of several new footwear companies. This issue’s Product Review features 24 different brands. In the past ten years there has also been a significant increase in the range of materials and technologies footwear designers can use to make their lines unique and distinct. Each brand has a identifiable look, style, and feel. “Style is what really separates you from another company or another shoe,” says DC’s Chang.

But the number-one constraint in designing shoes is cost. With an infinite amount of resources, anyone can design a product. But when price is affecting your decisions, every material utilized in the design becomes an issue. Most footwear lines have multi-tiered pricing, meaning you have you pro models, team models, and then the pricepoint shoes. “Price is probably the largest thing that dictates what we do,” explains Vita’s Dia.

“Because you can’t have all your models in one price rangems.

Companies handle ollie wear in a variety of ways. DC’s incorporated a new technology into the Deuce model (new for Fall 2000): injected Thermo Plastic Rubber (TPR) ribbing on the toe and ollie area, which resists ollie abrasion while keeping the upper more flexible than it would be with a solid piece of rubber. Emerica has incorporated a new technology in their line to combat ollie abrasion as well–a stitchless one-piece high-frequency weld that hides all the seam lines in the ollie area while also providing lateral support for the shoe.

A minor design constraint is lace protection. Speed laces and lace loops have alleviated most of the problems, but extending the life of laces is still an issue. “One of the things we’re pretty consistent on is having a dual-lacing system,” says DVS’ Delgatty. “If there’s a problem where the laces are getting worn out, then you can lace the shoe up a different way.”

Many cushioning-system advancements have been integrated into the modern skate shoe. Borrowing technologies from longtime athletic shoemakers like Nike, skate companies have more frequently been incorporating air bags into their designs. Globe’s Gershon Mosley and Chet Thomas CT-IV have a dual air-bag system–one in the heel and the other placed at the forefoot–integrated within the midsole and outsole.

For all their attributes, plush air-bag systems can also add unwanted thickness, weight, and decrease the flexibility of the sole, resulting in a reduction of board-feel and control. Sole Technology has introduced a new material into their éS line that reduces weight and the thickness of the sole. “Tritek is a coating applied to the Phylon midsole that allowed us to put less rubber on the shoe,” says Boistel.

The outsole is probably the trickiest part of the shoe to design. While trying to maintain flexibility in the forefoot, designers must create a durable outsole that’s also soft and grippy for board control. “Obviously, with skating, the primary focus is to have a significant amount of grip on the shoes,” says DVS’ Delgatty. “There are variances in the compound, and we figure out what areas are going to have more wear. We develop a heavier tread in those areas and then decide which areas need more grippiness.”

Even after satisfying all the performance considerations, designers have no guarantee that their shoes will be comfortable and stylish. “Durability, traction, cushioning, flexibility, and fit are all high on the list of criteria,” explains Globe’s Yuen, “but overall comfort and style complete the package.”

In the August 1990 issue of TransWorld SKATEboarding, Airwalk, Vans, and Vision shoes were the only brands advertising skate shoes. But with the subsequent growth in popularity and participation in skateboarding, the industry has seen the emergence of several new footwear companies. This issue’s Product Review features 24 different brands. In the past ten years there has also been a significant increase in the range of materials and technologies footwear designers can use to make their lines unique and distinct. Each brand has a identifiable look, style, and feel. “Style is what really separates you from another company or another shoe,” says DC’s Chang.

But the number-one constraint in designing shoes is cost. With an infinite amount of resources, anyone can design a product. But when price is affecting your decisions, every material utilized in the design becomes an issue. Most footwear lines have multi-tiered pricing, meaning you have you pro models, team models, and then the pricepoint shoes. “Price is probably the largest thing that dictates what we do,” explains Vita’s Dia.

“Because you can’t have all your models in one price range, you have to break it down into different ranges,” says DC’s Choi. “You try to give them the customer the most for their dollar in each category.”

Even with the contradictory constraints in skateboard footwear design, the designers in this industry are still producing durable and functional athletic shoes that also define the style of skateboarders. New technologies will no doubt open new frontiers in shoe design, and you can bet these footwear designers will be experimenting and embracing the revolution.

range, you have to break it down into different ranges,” says DC’s Choi. “You try to give them the customer the most for their dollar in each category.”

Even with the contradictory constraints in skateboard footwear design, the designers in this industry are still producing durable and functional athletic shoes that also define the style of skateboarders. New technologies will no doubt open new frontiers in shoe design, and you can bet these footwear designers will be experimenting and embracing the revolution.

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