Designing Just for Kicks

When I was a kid, the cool kicks were PF Flyers. These little gems were recognized by their white rubber toe cap (or blue if you were the coolest) and a red dot on the lower back of the sneaker. They had canvas uppers (fire engine red or blueberry blue) and rubber soles. They were the then-modern equivalent of the British plimsoles, athletic shoes designed for beachwear back in the 1800s.

So fast forwarding to present day, I looked for the PF Flyer company online, and lo and behold, they are still around. The red dots are long gone, replaced by a green PF logo in relief on the back, and in a daring move, the company has added black and white canvas and leather to their line-up. PF Flyers now look a lot like Converse sneakers, but without all the crazy colors.

So what gives a sneaker company its staying power in the ever-changing world of fashion? In a word: designers. Designers are the innovators, the dreamers, the ones who keep the  brand fresh in the public’s hunt for the coolest “kicks.” Any designer who aims to do this should know where the term “kicks” comes from. There are lots of opinions on the etymology, but it is generally thought kicks came out of hobo slang, passed into jazz lingo, made it into African American slang and from there into street-style language.

One of the coolest things I have gotten to do in my career is to pick the brains of recruiters looking for these innovators, these sneaker designers. As a result, I was surprised to hear that recruiters find designers in many different areas, not just in fashion design. Recruiters from Nike, K-Swiss, Reebok and Adidas told me some pretty surprising stuff. They liked candidates with a design background, including automotive designers. Wha’??? Yes, automotive designers can become sneaker designers. The CAD skills needed for both types of designs are similar. (Maybe that is why Skechers Women’s bump toe DeLites look suspiciously like a Smart Car or a Nissan Juke, yes?)

Chemists, materials and textiles designers also need apply. Athletic shoe companies are always looking for the next materials that will make their kicks lighter, more flexible, cooler. People who study human anatomy, how the body is put together, and people who study human body mechanics, or how the body moves, are also in demand. No one will wear the kicks you design if they are not comfortable, because, well, they’re kicks, right? They are supposed to be stylish and comfortable.

Lastly, the fashionistas and extreme sports gurus can find a career niche in designing kicks. If you know street-style, how extreme sports work, can use CAD and can easily render designs, this is the career for you. It is extremely fast-paced, can be stressful, but very rewarding when you see your kicks on the street or on the runway, worn by hipsters and adventurers alike.

Can you get rich coming up with the next “gotta have it” design? Some people do. In general, salaries for sneaker design are all over the place. They depend on the geographic location, type of sneaker (athletic, extreme sports, fashion, formal wear, etc.) and the company. For example, SalaryList.com reports that designers at K-Swiss made about $70K in 2010. As recently as of 2015 a Designer II at Nike could make about $101K per year with bonuses pushing that figure up to $113K according to GlassDoor.com.

And the one question that design recruiters always, always ask: What were your favorite pair of sneakers and why? You now know mine. Enjoy the 4th in whatever kicks you are wearing!

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