How to Design Footwear

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Shoe design is a hard process to unpack. Thankfully master shoemaker and footwear design professor Marcell Mrsan has broken down the process.

Where should we start? Surprisingly footwear design is something that everybody knows really well, just like music (we will get back to this example in a bit). We can tell the good ones from the poorly made ones, the aesthetically pleasing ones from the cheap mass produced ones. Footwear is important. It expresses not just our lifestyle, but our life, our business, and our very character. We choose our footwear and they are meant to be for us. It seems so obvious which one is made/designed for us, which pair just would not be a friend of our other pieces in our wardrobe. Besides this love at first sight phenomenon, there is something surprising about footwear — just like music. Most of us can’t really describe it. Most of us can’t even define what makes footwear good or bad. And again: just like music, you can learn it.

Being a full-time footwear design professor, running my own custom shoe business and consulting with entrepreneurs, I can tell you that your great idea is just one arms-length away to being realized. It is possible. To be fair, it is way more likely that you fail, losing a lot of money if you start your journey unprepared. That is a luxury that we can’t afford. I have seen storage units, filled up with “great” footwear concepts that have been produced but will never be sold.

Before we start a journey as a footwear designer, read over this golden glossary of footwear design:


For now, forget design. At this moment you need to figure out why your footwear will be the next groundbreaking product, why it will be better or at least cheaper than the others. Do you want to make an interchangeable heel? I get an email about that every week. There are tons of patents registered. Forget it. Do you want to make a 10k+ luxury shoe for the top of the 1%? Don’t waste your money, they know where you can get their shoes.

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I could list a lot of ideas what I have seen appear and fail. Why? Because concept doesn’t start with a price tag or a technical detail. It starts where the money will come from — the customer. What do they need? What will they need? What might they need after a little bit of a marketing?

You must ask yourself: do you have a niche market? Yes, that is only a small segment of the population, but that makes it a perfect market for you as a small business owner. It isn’t worth the big brands to enter, but it is still going to make you enough income.
So, let’s start with your customer.

The Customer
Practically we can define customers two ways: a “persona” or a range. Here’s an easy to distinguish: A “person” is the one who we design for and “range” who we sell for. Now you can match your idea for an imaginary person and feel free to figure out their age, job, taste, salary, living situation, sports, TV Shows, etc. The more specific the better. Make sure it is not your dream wannabe figure. They usually don’t make 200k in a year. Their job is not traveling the whole year… more like 50k and selling cars or properties.

The range is a bit more difficult. Everything is relevant and nothing is irrelevant. A great example for this is what Facebook will ask you when you post your first ad. Age range, location, keywords.

red stiletto

Photo Credit: Marcell Mrsan

The Design Process

Don’t invent the wheel. Go to a footwear store and check out your competition. Don’t feel bad about it. They will do the same with your product. Now you can see the shoes with a different eye. Try to figure out why they cost what they cost. What materials did they use? What technical solutions did they come up with? Can you make/design better? Why would people choose yours?
Trend research is part of your research work. There are pricey trend forecasting services, although there are sources you can find with a little research. Do not repeat the last season shapes and colors! Do not copy! Just be aware what happened last season, then you can decide if you want to go with the flow or ignore it completely.

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Colors and Materials
This is the most pleasurable and painful part of the project. First of all, you can choose whatever you want. If you can afford it and most importantly if you can find it. There are safe colors, you can not be wrong with black, brown, cognac, nude, red, but these might not make your collection very outstanding. Consider colors as a nice plate of food: a little bit of side dish, a piece of meat and some accent. In your case that can be: neutral, more saturated and accent as hardware, piping, exotics, etc. Before you get really into this: sometimes less is more.

This is a controversial topic. Inspiration surely can ignite a collection, make it cohesive, although sometimes it is just not applicable. Sometimes you just want to make some nice pairs. Well, this is your decision of course, although if you decide to go with the inspiration driven collection, do not make it too literal.

A better way to use inspiration for your work is an actual cork board, where you can pin everything which inspires you. Add photos, sketches, objects, interesting textures — it doesn’t need to make sense. It is only for you. It is your safety deposit box to withdraw some inspiration in the long night hours.

I can’t emphasize enough how important sketches are. Sketches can explain an idea and can be done in seconds and they are only good if they seem effortless. Just like a good piano solo. Both need a lot of practice. There is no other way — if you can’t sketch, you will have a great amount of trouble or at least you will pay a lot to others to do your job. It is like a composer who can’t play any instruments.

Blue sneaker

Photo Credit: Marcell Mrsan

The Actual Design Work

Now we are ready to put those rough concepts onto papers. Rule of 10: not every design will fly. More like: if one of 10 will be good then you are amazing! Sketch as much as you can. Consider your toolkit, which is surely not only placing random lines on the last shape. Beside pattern lines, you have a lot more: colors, textures, hardware, stitch details, surface treatments, seams, edge finishes, playing with symmetry, cool new materials, last shapes — and a lot more. Don’t stop designing your upper, there is a sole and heel there, there will be a sock-liner, you can add fancy branding, packaging, extra services, and functions. Figure out what your customers need. Why has your competition not fulfilled those demands yet?

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Tech Packs
Once you selected your final designs, you are ready to pack them up and send them to a factory. They will surely try their best to make you happy, but it is up to you as well. Your technical drawings should be as accurate as possible. Make sure that there is no question left about seams, colors, stitch lengths, edge finishes. Draw at least 3 views, showing all the significant details. If you have a zipper on one side, make sure they are aware that it is only on that side and not both! The factory will appreciate a render too, which shows all the colors and details.

We did not talk about how to order a collection, but let’s leave a bit to the next time, right?

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