Just posted this interview I did recently with D’Wayne Edwards at Jordan Brand covering the footwear design field and what his advice would be to aspiring designers looking to break into the industry…
Design Theory with D’Wayne Edwards
A Project Bluefoot conversation with D’Wayne Edwards, Jordan Brand Footwear Design Director. Learn how D’Wayne got into the business, his tips for aspiring designers wanting to break into the footwear industry, what a typical work day looks like for a Footwear Design Director, his reflections on designing an Air Jordan shoe, and why design mentorship is so important.
Project Bluefoot: What led you into footwear design and how did you eventually rise to become the Design Director at Jordan Brand?
D’Wayne Edwards: > I started drawing shoes when I was 11. Not exactly sure why but it was just kind of a hobby that I had picked up on and I was able to draw anything I could see. And I just kind of diverted it into just drawing sneakers for some strange reason. Then all through middle school and high school, I just started drawing sneakers more and more, and then I actually found this quarter-inch by one-inch ad in the Los Angeles Times for this design competition. I won’t mention the company name but I actually entered it and won it. So I won this competition when I was 17-years-old and I ended up beating out college graduates and kids that were in college the year I was a senior in high school.
So at that moment, that kind of validated just the thought that I could actually become a footwear designer. Because up to that point, no one has ever done it that I grew up around. I grew up in Inglewood, California which isn’t the greatest place to be. At that point, there were no real outlets for design specifically for footwear. California at that time was all apparel design, which it still is. All of the design schools there – FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising), Art Center [College of Design], OTIS [College of Art and Design] at the time – they were all apparel-focused, so for me I had no real outlet to further my career or to study it. So I just kind of actually gave up on the idea honestly because I couldn’t find the institution that could actually teach me how to become a footwear designer, even though I knew that’s what I wanted to do from the time I was 11-years-old.
Right after I graduated from high school, I attended Santa Monica College to study Business Marketing, Managing, and Advertising, because I figured at some point I would have my own business and yet still having that kind of desire to be a designer but there were still no outlets. So I actually started a job to get some extra money to support my sneaker habit.
I started working at this agency called Accountemps, and one of my first jobs as a temp was to go to L.A. Gear and be a file clerk. So I started there and I kinda figured, hey, I’m at a footwear company and I love to draw sneakers so why not try to get a job here as a footwear designer. I planted a couple calls and they wanted me to go to school and there was no school for me to go to so again I kind of gave up on the idea until they changed over management.
At this time, there was no emails. Emails didn’t exist back in ’88, so it was all manual. They started this thing called “Suggestion Box” to gauge ways to make the company better and so my suggestion was to hire me as a footwear designer. I put sketches in this box every day for about 4-5 months and then the owner of the company called me in and offered me a job when I turned 18-years-old.
So I got my start there and primarily all I did was actually just keep my mouth shut and learn from everybody that was around since I didn’t have any formal education so for me I was just running off of raw talent and ambition so I just asked all of the designers that were there years ahead of me, “What does it take to become a footwear designer?” And from engineers to developers to designers, all I did was just ask questions all day long until I was able to kind of get it to a point where I felt like I could contribute better to the company and become a productive footwear designer. So that’s how I got started.
PBF: That original design competition that you entered when you 17-years-old, was that the basis for why you started Future Sole? Was it the inspiration for it?
DE: You are 100% correct, sir. You are exactly right. Because I knew especially today with sites like yourself and other sites that are online, just kids that are really starting to draw shoes for just pure hobby sake. Not for the idea of getting a job – now maybe kids are now ultimately processing it as a real career path, but the way that Nike and Jordan Brand recruits is in a more traditional format of looking at kids in an industrial design standpoint or fashion design background where if I was trying to get into this industry I wouldn’t have been discovered.
So, what I wanted to do was give those kids that just have that raw passion the ability to actually express themselves. I was able to convince Nike and Jordan Brand to actually set aside a little bit of funds to try it, just to see what happens. Just to see if there’s any kids out there that actually have ability but need guidance and direction on how to pursue their dreams. And that’s pretty much how it came about. But yeah, you’re right, it did stem from me winning that competition when I was 17.
PBF: So then, in a general sense, what would you say would be the best way for aspiring designers to get started on the path of becoming a footwear designer? If it’s not a design competition, what other ways would there be?
DE: The beauty of today is you have the Internet. And the beauty of the Internet is websites like yours, where you have professionals on there from time to time looking at stuff and some of us are willing to give feedback on how to get better. That’s all mentorship. And if you can find a mentor – someone who is doing what you want to do, and they’re willing to share their knowledge of what’s gotten them to where they are today, that’s one of the biggest steps you can actually take.
If you’re not in that position then looking at websites and looking at how other people are doing design work is a helpful tool, because some people think just because they can draw they think they’re good. You know, you may have family members and your cousins and your friends telling you, “you’re great, you’re great,” but until you actually see what everyone else’s talent looks like, then that’s a great measure of really where you need to develop and get better at.
And I think that’s the beauty of having the Internet is that you can log on and see, a person that’s in high school all the way up to a professional, what their skill set is. It’s a matter of gauging your abilities against theirs from a visual standpoint and being secure enough to be able to have criticism of your own to see how you can actually improve and what areas you need to get better.
Online is one huge thing, trying to find a mentor is another, and looking at schools that are strong in I.D. fields and some of the more successful designers that are in the industry have maybe went to, that’s another gauge because usually those schools have relationships with footwear companies already.
It’s a whole lot easier today to at least obtain the information needed to put yourself on the right path. That’s kind of one half of it. The other half is completely on the individual to really put in the time to develop their skills.
PBF: Is there any one particular skill set an aspiring designer should have or that you would recommend to set them apart from other people?
DE: No. Not one. The interesting thing about being a designer is that you have to almost wear multiple hats. You can’t just get by on drawing pretty pictures. For the people that know me, you know, I don’t even like to see stuff in color. I like to see it in black and white, and I would prefer to see it in a pencil sketch. Because what the computer does is it hides flaws. So you can create or draw an ugly shoe but you can color it up and render it and put all of these fancy tools on in Photoshop or Illustrator that makes it look somewhat legitimate. But if you strip it all the way down to just black and white, its purity, then that’s where the flaws really come through.
And for me, I would say if there was one thing, I would say do things in black and white first. Perfect your hand skills, perfect the shoe what it looks like without color, without any shading, without any layering. Perfect it in black and white, because if it looks good in black and white the computer just makes it look a whole lot better. And unfortunately, we do live in the digital age, and I’m old school but I still use a No. 2 pencil and a blank piece of paper. I’m learning and acquiring some of the computer skills, but, today’s kids or the way people are learning now is mostly all digital and the digital way is not necessarily the best way to learn because it doesn’t teach you the bare essence.
It’s like playing the game of basketball. If you’re playing basketball the first time you’re not going to start dunking and dribbling behind your back. You’re gonna start with the fundamentals. That’s with any sport. And design is the same way, you start with the fundamentals. If you have your fundamentals solid, then those other fancy things become a lot more natural.
PBF: You touched on a question that I had in mind. For example, on an Air Jordan shoe where you have a standard Bulls red and black colorway and certain styles like that, I was going to ask: Do you actively think about color in the design process or is it just completely black and white and you leave the color component out for later?
DE: I mean, you obviously do think about the color part, but my process is I see everything in black and white, and I can see everything in color. So, as I’m drawing stuff, I already see what it looks like before I finish laying it down on paper. Every designer has a different process about going about their finished design results.
Where I’m a little bit different is that I do very little sketching. Most designers do a lot of little sketches or small thumbnail sketches, where I’ll just take notes. So I’ll build a shoe mentally and just write it out on paper and when I get ready to lay it down on paper I just cross out everything that I made a note of what I want it to look like. Now, that’s my process. Everybody is different.
But, part of design is actually imagining something that doesn’t exist yet. So you do start to imagine in color, you do start to imagine what this piece would look like in a different material or different fabrication, but you begin to go back to the fundamentals where I don’t skip all the way to the end result until I start from the beginning and I account for every single stitch.
PBF: How important is storytelling in design?
DE: I think it depends. It depends on the product you’re working on. It depends on your intent for the storytelling you’re trying to do. Sometimes you can create your own story, your own personal story through your process so you can get to a complete design solution. That’s one way of looking at it.
The other way is you may create a story to actually communicate it to others so they understand what you’ve designed. It just depends. Not everything has to have a story, but everything does have a reason for its existence. So, on some levels everything does have a story, it just depends on how much you want to elaborate on that story, or how tied you want that design to be dependent on that story. You can create a design in five minutes and it may just be an idea of a singular thought compared to you may have to build this story to create this end result. It just really kind of depends.
For designers who are learning the craft and aspiring to be professionals, I think storytelling is important because it actually helps you visually display your thought process. Especially as a non-professional, what you’re basically trying to do is show people your process. So therefore I think storytelling is important from that sense, because it allows you to create a visual representation of what you were thinking of how you got to that end result. So I do think it’s important both from amateur and professional standpoints, it just depends on what you’re using it for. But everything doesn’t necessarily have a story associated with it.
PBF: Talk a little about designing an Air Jordan shoe.
DE: Stressful. [Laughs.]
Growing up having all of ‘em and starting to be introduced to the brand with the first one. And you know buying and wearing all of them from the first one, for me to be able to have the opportunity to actually be a part of the lineage was the first thing I had to come to grips with personally. Because one, it was just an honor and I couldn’t believe I was actually blessed with the opportunity. The second piece is, I didn’t want to be the person that messed up the lineage either.
There’s a great deal of pressure when it comes to designing something so important that, at that time, only five other people on Earth have touched, as well as you’re designing it for the greatest player ever to have lived, even though he wasn’t sort of playing in the XX1 and XX2 that I worked on, but he is still the driving force, the inspirational leader, and he still sees every shoe, not just the Air Jordan – he comments on everything.
So, going through that process and knowing that I have to eventually at one point present it to Michael was a whole other level of nervousness and expectation that I had to come to grips with. But I like to think that my whole career prepared me for that opportunity. It was not easy. I think people see the end result but they have no idea how many versions were before the end result. Or how many things we wanted to try and we couldn’t necessarily try because we ran out of time to try. But overall, once it’s over, it’s extremely rewarding and satisfying but going through the process it’s a little stressful, especially when you layer in the fact of the history and what it really means to actually be a part of that franchise.
PBF: What’s the most difficult part of the design process?
DE: I don’t know if any of it is the most difficult, but the part that probably none of us like is the Tech Pack part. Once you create the design and actually doing the engineered drawings and figuring out the precise measurements and doing all the guts – that’s the part I know probably is the consensus of all designers would say they hate the most is the Tech Pack part. I wouldn’t say that there’s really a hard part, because it all kind of flows in the process. For me personally, I don’t think there is a hard part. The most challenging part that designers don’t want to do the most is the Tech Pack part.
PBF: Designers pull from all kinds of different inspirations. They’re constantly looking for new things, new sources. Is there a certain source of inspiration you continually rely on or fall back to?
DE: No. Everything that I’ve worked on has a different point of inspiration. The consistent thread would be my process to how I got to that solution. So my process is similar about how I approach design and how I approach projects. But as far as using the same inspiration over and over again, no, not that I can think of. I like cars, I collect cars, but you know, I can’t think of anything that is a consistent kind of go-to area for design inspiration point of view. I think the process is the most consistent portion of it, especially if you’re designing a signature shoe and that process being going and starting with the athlete first.
PBF: What does an average work day look like for you?
DE: It’s not that s exy, man.
I come in at 6AM. I’ll have about three hours to catch up and get out of email jail, when I’m actually not working on a project. If I’m working on a project I’m designing from 6-9AM. And then when 9AM hits, it’s usually when all my meetings start, or the rest of my team comes in and I have to make myself available for them. So I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to make sure that I can address any needs or anything they need from me.
On an average day, it’s emails and meetings. A lot of strategy conversations. Working with the individual designers on their projects. Working on multiple seasons at one time, so it’s not like we’re working on one project or one season at a time, at any given point we could be working on three seasons at the same time. So it’s really juggling time management. And that time management can be from answering emails, to returning calls, to meetings about strategy, new technology, new designs we want to create, to doing more hands on physical work with the team as far as picking colors, materials, refining designs and then generally just kind of having fun and having decent conversation.
We try to keep in the Jordan Brand to make sure that, yeah, we have a ton of work to get done, but we have to figure out a way to enjoy it, we have to figure out a way to enjoy each others company as well as to be able to bounce off creative ideas and concepts against each other so we’re not designing in a vacuum. But my day is not as s exy as it may look on paper.
The higher you get up, the less design work you actually do. It’s more planning and more directing and less design. But one of the things that I always wanted to do was to make sure I still did do design work, so I still have a fairly heavy workload from a Director’s standpoint, primarily by choice, which is why I come in three hours ahead of everybody else and usually stay about an hour or two after everyone else as well.
PBF: You’ve said the Nu Retro 2 is the shoe that has the most sentimental value to you. Can you talk a little about the background of that shoe and why you feel that way.
DE: Yeah, when I was a Senior in high school, that’s when the Air Jordan II came out, in ’88. And that was the last shoe that I drew my own version of in high school. Fast forward about 12 years later: I was sitting at a Jordan Brand design offsite, and at the time I wasn’t officially a part of the brand, and we were talking about the new projects and one of the projects was kind of a toss-up project to which it wasn’t really assigned to anyone, it was just whoever had the best idea actually got to work on the project. And at the time, the project was to design a new version of the Air Jordan II.
And for me, you know, growing up where I grew up, being here wasn’t even a dream, it was something so far out of reach I didn’t even consider it as an option. I had wished I worked at Nike, but never Jordan though – I never thought Jordan would be an option for me. And when it became reality for me, and when that project came up, it was something I had did 12 years prior. So, I grabbed a napkin and sketched it up in like 5 minutes, and I got the project, in 5 minutes.
It was something that for me, it was kind of a confirmation that this is where I was supposed to be, because 12 years prior that was the last Jordan that I drew, because after that I started working for L.A. Gear so I didn’t draw Nike’s or Jordan’s anymore. So for me it was just that confirmation that kind of came full circle and this was where I was supposed to be.
PBF: How do you feel about your design career thus far? Anything you would’ve done differently reflecting back on it?
DE: No. I’ve had a blessed career and I wouldn’t change anything about it. Everything that has happened negatively has been lessons learned that have made me stronger and better. All the things that have happened to me positively I’ve embraced as blessings. So, I can’t think of one thing – maybe there’s a shoe or something I would have done different, but beyond that, beyond changing a design or two, or 10 or 20 – as far as my actual path of how I got to where I am today, not at all man, because I think those things make you who you are. They build you into the people that you become. And, I think I’m good, I’m alright.
PBF: What’s your favorite Air Jordan shoe?
DE: Air Jordan III.
PBF: What’s your favorite sneaker design of all time?
DE: I don’t know. I’ve never been asked that question. I’ll get back to you on that one.
PBF: What advice would you give to aspiring designers out there on Project Bluefoot or elsewhere looking to break into the industry?
DE: Keep participating in these contests. Try to build some friendships and relationships with some of these people that are maybe more experienced than you are. So, if you’re up against some of these other contestants that are clearly better than you are – reach out to them and see if they would be willing to give you some feedback on how you can improve your skills.
It goes back to that mentorship. The sooner you can find someone, or multiple people, that will invest time to help you get better, I think that is the biggest gift that you can actually ever receive. It’s something that school probably couldn’t teach you off the top because you wouldn’t get that personal one-on-one attention that you can get, but will prepare you for the day when you go actually enter school. As well as, I would ask that you don’t waste their time, because if someone’s actually volunteering their time to help you get better, then you owe them the respect to do everything that they have asked of you and to make sure you don’t waste your time.
Something that I personally ask people to do if I mentor them, is to mentor 2 other people. Because at some point you have to create this lineage, you have to create this cycle that you want other people to actually be in a better position than what you were when you tried to start into the business. So, if you’re getting mentorship from someone, and later on at some point, if someone asks you or if you see someone that needs it, personally I think it’s your obligation to actually help them because someone did help you at some point. And it only helps, you know, keep that going.
So when you do have sites like yours, to where you can almost have a continuous loop of mentoring that goes on, it’s going to keep the talent level up, it’s going to improve the talent level, and it’s going to get more people interested in the field of design.