In part 1 of my interview with iconic sneaker designer Steven Smith, he revealed the challenges associated with developing shocking designs like the Insta Pump Fury. In part 2, we continue our conversation, discussing how he keeps his designs fresh, his connection to Rock and Roll, and his advice to aspiring young designers.
You’ve worked for so many different iconic footwear brands at this point—how do you keep your eyes open for fresh ideas and tailor your designs toward different customers?
Each company has its own DNA, and part of these innovation projects is helping them set the future of their brand. Each brand has its own identity, so you want to work within that and help them grow it. It’s understanding the company and their history, so learning the history of a brand is a key part of designing for it.
You’ve also designed a lot of different types of shoes, so how is it different designing for running versus basketball given the diverse needs of athletes?
I have a hybrid design and engineering mentality. You have to talk to the user and figure out their needs. Having data and a connection to the science side of design is the only way to build something that works. For example, I worked on a lot of Japanese running products. We went to Japan and hung out in dormitories with these high school Japanese runners, picked their brains and saw their lifestyle, and we created a product for them. At the time Nike had this young English runner, Paula Radcliff, and she wore the product and broke the world records for the half-marathon and marathon. It was great because the product performed for high school boys running track, but also for a long-distance female runner, so whatever we did worked!
Do you have any other particularly memorable experiences working with people to create specialized shoes?
I created sneakers for Rick Nielsen and Steven Tyler. They both really know what they like, and they both need minimal shoes to run around on stage with. Steven is a great guy and a shoe geek. He used to wear Nike Rifts all the time, so when he’d come through Portland I’d bring a big bag of them to his hotel room. But for the one-off shoes for Rick and Steven, I would use existing midsole and outsole tooling and custom make the uppers: then it was easy to sneak them through the manufacturing system. One shoe that I custom made for Rick was a Nike Presto with black-and-white checkerboard—it had a lot of traction so he could run around on stage and jump on speakers. I made about 10 pairs and gave some to other designers. People thought they were cool any they ended up being sold in Japan.
And now they’re probably on Nike ID…
They definitely are!
You said you listen to a lot of music and punk is really important to your creative process, and you also have a fine art background. Can you talk more about the roles of music and art in your work?
I think art takes many forms and it’s all interconnected. Part of that is being aware and on top of things culturally. A lot of designers like silence to work, but I like it to be as loud as possible—it drives my mind and my hand. My fine arts background is helpful in terms of the history of things and how they’re made. Usually what I do in my personal life and in my hobbies influences the products I create. For a while I’ve been into Mod Culture and Vespas and that has influenced my color palettes. My product design is also influenced by the Bauhaus and Walter Gropius.
Growing up in Boston, Aerosmith was “it,” and it was so cool to see Steven Tyler perform on MTV in the Insta Pump Furys after how draining that project that was. And in those days, it wasn’t like Reebok was giving shoes away to celebrities; he actually went out and bought them. It’s such a cool feeling; you want to thank people for appreciating your design.
Steven Smith, Sketch of Insta Pump Fury Sole
Do you feel like there are major differences between the sneaker industry now and when you started at New Balance?
Yeah, it’s really different. There were no rules back then. We built the map to show people how to do things. A lot has become formulaic. You used to see companies come out with products that were really shocking, but now it’s like, “I’ve seen that, I’ve seen that, I’ve seen that.” I want to see something that makes me say, “Holy shit, how did they do that?”
Do you have any advice for aspiring young designers?
Beware of politics! Stay true to your values and the product you want to create.
Also, it’s becoming a tougher industry to be older in. Sneakers are a very youthful product, but no matter how old you are, if you put the right ingredients together you can still create masterpieces until the day you die. I’ve never grown up, per se. I’m still a kid.
And what’s your opinion about the hype around sneaker culture in general?
It’s interesting to see it grow and to see all of these people so fascinated by it. It’s fun, and at the end of the day, what you do should be fun.
And to sneaker fans: wear them! That’s what we made them for!