Steven Smith might be best known for his design of the original Insta Pump Fury, but that’s certainly not the only game changing shoe he’s created. As the third-ever designer at New Balance he designed classic running models like the 675, 676, 574, 995, 996, 997, and 1500, as well as the Artillery and the Phantom 2 during his stint with Adidas. Having also worked at Nike, Fila, and Keen, he is easily one of the most prolific sneaker designers working today. In part 1 of my interview with Smith, we discuss his childhood connection to sneakers, the pressure of beginning as a young designer, and the punk rock mentality behind the Insta Pump Fury.
A lot of people in the sneaker industry had a deep connection to sneakers during their childhoods. Was there something in your past that piqued your interest in sneakers at an early age, and what drove you to pursue design as a career?
Back-to-school shopping was important for me. I grew up in a working-class town, and my mom was a school teacher, so with back-to-school shopping I had to choose wisely because I only got one pair of sneakers. It was a yearlong commitment, so I got kind of obsessed with what sneakers I would choose. Then, when I was 10 years old, my sister started running. She would drag me along, and I developed a love affair with running and running shoes. I started with a pair of Converse: they made a great running shoe at the time. I can remember every pair of shoes I’ve ever owned, and after I was done wearing them, I would save them.
The New Balance 990 became my go-to running shoe; I ran in them all through college. When I was about to graduate from design school, a friend of mine recommended me for a job at New Balance. I interviewed in this old mill with an old-school pattern maker wearing a T-shirt and jeans. The interview went really well. It was getting close to lunch time, and the guy said, “I would take you to lunch, but it’s running time.” Everybody ran every day at lunch, and I was like, “Wow, I’ve gotta get this job!” The next day they offered it to me. The cool thing about working there was that the R&D offices were right above the factory. I love machines, so every day I got to learn something about how to improve shoes and make them better; it was right there in front of me if I had any questions. So in the end, back-to-school season and my passion for running shoes fed into why I ended up at New Balance.
Steven Smith, Sketch of New Balance Running Shoe
As such a young designer at a major brand like New Balance, how did you deal with that pressure and confront the legacy that accompanies a heritage brand?
It wasn’t that big of a company back then. Two of us were the entire design team, and I designed the running shoes. We would update old shoes so that our products were new and better, not just new and different. There was a lot of engineering involved. I never set out to design something iconic for any company, I just thought, “What’s the best thing I can do at this moment in time with the processes and tools that I have.” It wasn’t about inventing a new process or new tool.
I never intentionally created anything “iconic,” but I guess the closest I came to that mindset was when I was working on the Insta Pump. Music has a huge influence on my design, and I was listening to a lot of hardcore punk. It was all about rebellion, and that’s kind of what the Fury was. Nike was doing so much innovative design, and at Reebok people thought, “Well, why aren’t we doing that?” So I set out to do something radical. The design was like beating someone over the head with a bat, even down to the colors.
It’s interesting to hear that there’s a punk quality to the Insta Pump, and I know you’ve said in the past that while you were developing the product, there was a feeling among the team that you were really on the brink of a major breakthrough.
When I got to Reebok, the first Pump was just about to launch. After that, we began an advanced concepts team to dream up ideas of what the pump could become. We figured that as the inflatable chamber was so interesting, it would be pretty cool if we could just get rid of the shoe. I drew up this basketball shoe with windows and cutouts; the shoe was just the pump with the toe and heel caps. I designed the air bladder first, folded it around a last, and sketched the shoe next to it.
That was a cool project because we used materials outside the sneaker world. The pump bladder was made by a medical equipment company, the carbon arch piece was made by an aerospace company, and the inflator was made by a mountain bike company, so we went almost completely outside the realm of sneakers to make this shoe.
What do you think is the biggest design lesson you learned from working on the Insta Pump?
I learned that it should be uncomfortable for people to look at something new. They should say, “Oh my god, what is that?!” It’s that punk attitude coming through again, but you can draw it, you can build it. So much of the creative process is just dragging people along and slowly getting them to believe in an idea, because at the end of the day, these projects are like your children. I always say, “Realization takes desperation,” because a company willing to adopt a radical idea has to be hungry for it. Innovation goes by the wayside when you’re comfortable.