questions from a student

I tend to get an email with a few questions from a student once a month or so. It usually takes me a bit to respond because I want to put time into the answers, and I have a million and 1 things to do. This set of questions I got was pretty comprehensive, so I thought I would post it. These answers are what tends to work for me, but maybe there are some differing opinions out there that others would like to share:

General questions:
in regards to your most recent job

1- Whats a typical day at your work like?
It is hard to say what is typical. My days are very different from one another. When I first started, 11 years ago, they were solid 10 hours of sketching. Now I meet with my marketing, engineering, and business counterparts a lot, present ideas and concepts, a bit of sketching, mostly as overlays for my designers… most of my day is spent convincing the people above me, below, and around me to do good design.

2- What tasks take up most of your time?
Managing egos out of design solutions.

3- How many hours a week do you work?
40-50. I believe in a good balance between all of the aspects of my life. I am a designer, a design leader, a mentor, a manager, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend… all of those rolls need time.

4- How does your position relate to the rest of the organization?
There are several design directors over different divisions, we all report to a Creative Director. My Creative Director, the Director of Development, and the Marketing GMs of each division all report to the Vice President… who happens to be a designer.

5- How did you get into your job position?
Sweat. Working hard as a designer, a mentor, a thought leader, and managing the relationships around me. Effectively by being a Design Director. In that way we promote ourselves. The titles come when others recognize what we are already doing.

6- If you were a student about to graduate, what field would you go into, or what would you study?
I would do what I’m doing. I wouldn’t change a thing. It all went in to who I am and that is important to me.

7- What kind of special training to you recommend?
Art School

8- How does one advance within your organization?
By working hard and managing the relationships around them. By consistently going above and beyond expectations… by effectively blowing peoples minds on an everyday basis… it’s not easy.

9- How are promotions and raises decided?
Directors make recommendations to the leadership team if they feel they have an employee that should be promoted to a full designer, or senior designer level. The employee’s work performance (this includes attitude) is reviewed and a consensus is reached to confirm or deny the recommendation. To get a Design Director position, one generally applies for it as if applying from the outside, or it is thrust upon them.

10- What do you find meaningful in a career?
Everything. Everything I do impacts the quality of design we do. There is no small stuff.

11- What type of things do you find frustrating?
When then doers clash with the talkers. Designers, in general, are doers, but we need to learn how to selectively behave like talkers in order to influence the organization around us.

12- What books, publications, associations, etc should you be aware of?
I tend to like to have a wide array of art, architecture, and design books around me at all times. I like Auto & Design out of Italy, and Carr out of Germany. I’m not big on associations in general, but I believe the best association is the one you make of your own friends, mentors, and mentees.

13- What do you think are promising niche opportunities?
The ones you make. Things are only as promising as you want them to be and in that anything can be promising. What is going on in the automotive industry right now is promising for the right people.

14- Has the profession surprised you in any way?
I have to say it was pretty much what I expected in that it is competitive, fun, rewarding, exhausting, and ever evolving. This is not a static profession. This is design.

15- Whats one thing you wish someone had told you before you entered the profession?
To be patient… though I would not have listened… maybe someone did tell me… You must control what you are good at, because you will be employed for that. for example, if your best skill is 3d modeling, you will be employed to do that. Know that you won’t be a director for 6-10 years, but keep your goal there and be aware of what you need to learn to do that. Keep a list of what attributes you like about each of your bosses, it will come in handy when you are a boss. Remember, you will be doing this for 30-40 years… it is a marathon, not a sprint.

16- What do you need to be successful?
As my good friend Scott Patt said to me “You must be savvy.”

17- What business trends have the most impact on design?
In the modern era, most products are pretty good. They work generally well and the quality is a minimum of decent. If a product only brings this to the table, it is a loosing proposition. The best business today know how to leverage design into brand as a phyisical manifestation of experience. As the CEO of Starbucks once said, to paraphrase, “We don’t sell coffee, we rent premium, relaxing environments for $4 with a free drink.”

18- Whats is your current status of the design profession?
Competitive in a healthy way. There is no better time to be a great designer, and no worst time to be a mediocre one.

Passion finding questions:

19- If you could do just one thing all day long and get paid well for doing it, what would you do?
Mentor aspiring designers. I would love to be the head of a design department at a college or university. That will happen at some point, I have lots of time.

20- If you could give one speech, for one hour, for one million people, what ONE WORD would that speech be about?

21- If you didn’t have to work, what would you do all day long?
Sketch and Mentor.

22- What activity always makes you lose track of time?
Sketching and mentoring.

23- What activity gives you the most energy?
Sketching and mentoring… I’m consistent.

24- What could you talk about forever?
The truth about of materialism and our culture’s current lack of respect for the material world and what goes into designing, engineering, producing, shipping, distributing, and selling it to you. If we understood that, no one one would buy that pack of 5 tee shirts for $5. I also love to go on about the importance of the arts in education with an emphasis on creative problem solving, and how that is whre the US can excel in the global economy. And of course how design impacts daily life and exemplifies our cultural priorities. How we create the artifacts of daily life.

25- What things are you able to do, without even trying?
Sketch, evangelize and advocate for good design.

26- What do you like to do, just for the fun of it?
Sketch… it is like a disease for me, an affliction, my hands don’t like to be still.

27- What do you love to do that (you can’t believe) people actually pay you money to do?
Dream. People pay me to dream up what could be. Hard to beat that.

28- When you don’t know what to do, what do you find yourself doing to find your way?
In those situations I typically just take a break from the problem, I’ll sketch on something else, work out, call up a friend, read, watch a movie, grab dinner and drinks with friends and my wife… the solution tends to present itself in its own time, you can’t force it. Give it space, let your mind percolate.

29- Why do you admire the people you admire?
The people I admire tend to be tenacious and polarizing. They are loved with as much passion as they are hated. They are the best at what they do and they know it. They are passionate, and uncompromising. Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Loewy tend to be at the top of my list.

30- You, yourself, are at your best when you’re acting HOW?
When I have a lot on my plate, but not so much that I bust. I tend to be like a bulldog, and if I only have a couple of things to do, I obsess and won’t let go. When I have a lot of different tasks, I can spread my attention a bit, and oddly, I get more creative and efficient as the different things start to influence one another. It is a gentle balance, too much, and nothing gets done! I tend to like to test the limits of that all the time… to my wife’s constant amazement, or is that frustration?

Final questions:

1- Does one project stand out from being your favorite- if so, why?
My favorite is always the one I’m working on right now. I tend to loathe my work and only see the mistakes, the things I would do differently. Looking back, what I tend to like most are the things that where the result of true collaboration, not compromise, but synergy. Nothing is ever done by one persone alone. there are always relationships and influences. Know that and use it.

2- How do you approach ‘networking,’ or meeting new people and staying in touch with other designers
and professionals?
I tend to work it in to everything. I don;t think of it as networking. The term “networking” always seems kind of sleazy for some reason. I think if it as relationship building and searching for others with common goals, needs, interests. When it is that, it becomes fluid and easy. I’m also very upfront. I’m not for everyone, people tend to either like or dislike me. Best to get that out of the way right away instead of pretending to be someone else at first.

3- Do you have any suggestions to young designers interested in the footwear/ sports equipment industry?
Think about the big picture.

On the sport side, at its root, sport is the celebration of human achievement. This is why sports have such a universal pull across cultures. Most people love an underdog who wins, a local boy who makes it big, a team of people who pull together to try to win, even if they loose. This bigger connection is what makes sportwear such a part of modern life.

On the footwear side, shoes are an important product for people. They fall into that category of products along with watches, eyewear, and cars where all of the competitive product generally do a simple task, but there are endless choices in design, price, and brand. People will splurge on shoes even when they have little else. For a kid, under 16, a cool pair of sneakers is his first major purchase, and his first opportunity to individualize. These kinds of products are tribal indicators. A lanky kid with pony tale and Birkenstocks communicates volumes about his value structure through what he selects to put on his body. We all do this every day unknowingly. It is the designers job to know this.

NOTE, edited out some typos…


Thank you for posting this.

This is a really great post.

Yo. you are the man. Great post.

Yo, your Q and A was terrific. You should post this on a forum called “college confidential” in the visual arts forum. Their url is

Go to the discussion forums and then to the, “visual arts and film major forum” ( it is there) and post who you are , and post a copy of your post. I would do that but their terms of service prohibit me from reproducing someone else’s post.

Good stuff.

That was great! Thanks for the look into your life.

This was great. Thanks Yo.

Such a pleasure to read this!

right on :exclamation:


thanks for posting this. this is exactly what i need, 6 months away from graduation. It is really cementing what I want to do with my life.

One thing though, i am the world’s worst procrastinator. Example: I am reading Core77 instead of writing an essay and working on projects.

it’s killing me…

I must say, im sitting late night at work feeling bogged down and uninspired. until i read this. YO thanks again.

I’m a ‘creative’ procrastinator… :wink:

Glad to post it, thanks man.

good thread. I know I’ve posted a link elsewhere but thought I’d post this Interview I did recently with Raph of Design Droplets as it is relevant and might be good to consolidate all the info in one thread-

not question from students per-se, but relevant info I think for students and designers alike.

  1. Hi Richard, welcome to design droplets. Can you please give us a quick run down/introduction on yourself (What ever you can squeeze into a paragraph or two).

Thanks Raph. My background is Industrial Design but I made the transition to footwear design straight out of school with my first post-grad job and have been involved with the lifestyle and fashion industry ever since (going on 8 years now). I try to be involved in as many different types design as I can and as well enjoy spreading the knowledge and wonder of design to as many people as possible through education partnerships and mentorships.

  1. You currently run a consultancy, The Directive Collective, focused on footwear and lifestyle product. Prior to this you worked at Hummel and several other footwear/lifestyle companies. Can you tell us a bit about the transition from working as a designer for a company to running your own consultancy?

For me, it was a pretty smooth transition. While working in-house I was often the one on other side of the table (finding and contracting consultants) and at the same time taking on a large scope of work from design to branding, development, packaging, etc. For most projects, it was a real challenge integrating the creative work of the consultants into other strategic and creative aspects of the project. Most consultants seemed to view their work as the end result, rather than part of a larger whole. Considering this, I found that there was really an opportunity in the freelance design market for a creative approach that offered a wider range of services and a more branded, integrated approach that considered the deliverables as a part of a holistic design strategy. The Directive Collective was created in this light to offer everything from branding and positioning, right through to identity design, footwear design, technical development, marketing and packaging. What makes The Directive Collective unique is the integrated and strategic approach we take to all aspects of the product creation process.

3. You emphasize that design is about much more than meeting design, time, budget and market needs. Can you talk about the idea and methodologies behind what you have called 'Directive Creation. (This should be “Directive Creation”)?

Often, in terms of the creative industry, consultants can be categorized into those that offer one of two kinds of services. The first is the “doer” which is your typical freelance designer making sketches, doing CAD, etc. with the end goal of making “things”. To some extent, this is a bottom-up approach that looks at a problem and creates a product as a solution.

The second is approach is a more top-down, strategic process that is guided by a brand’s goals, opportunities and vision. Often, this is titled creative direction. Typical deliverables for these types of consultants are brand marketing reports, business plans, position analyses, and specifications for other to create from.

The way I try to work is to combine these two. Not just giving “creative direction” for others to do the work, but being creatively involved in all aspects of the product to focus the direction of the brand. This is Directive Creation. We work with our clients to learn, understand and develop their brands and products through a strategic creative process. From initial strategic planning consultation to final specifications, the most important driver in our work is the development of a cohesive, branded approach. Because all the elements from strategy to product to marketing are the result of an integrated process, the client doesn’t need to go to 3 or more different consultants, and the end result is more consistent because the design intent and product is coming from a single source.

4. What other designers or organizations have shaped this design philosophy/methodology and why?

From a design philosophy perspective, I am very inspired by the work of Dieter Rams. The way he approached any creative challenge was one of big picture thinking. I also believe he was one of the first designers to really understand the role and fit of branding into the product design activity. By branding, I mean of course more than logo application, but the development of a brand DNA through design and how this can provide the foundation for an entire corporate ethos. It’s no secret, for example, that the consistency and approach of Braun, created by Rams, is a huge influence for the branding of design of Apple products.

Another good example of this is the Vitsœ Universal Shelving System Rams created in 1960. It has been in constant production ever since, and has been designed as not only a good product, but as a part of a lifestyle, that fits into a greater context and has deep brand value. The system is designed to adapt and change, as a user’s needs change (or if they move houses) and any single part of the system can be individually ordered to facilitate this change. Even the lifecycle of the product has been taken into account. The system is offered in only 3 colors, one of which is off-white so that any old, yellowed, faded parts will match better with any new components, which would not be the case if it was true white, as many systems are. That simple consideration alone is the kind of thing that blows me away.

As a young designer, I must say I was also very influenced by Hartmut Esslinger and frogdesign. frogdesign was one of the leaders in the modern concept of the full service design consultancy incorporating branding, positioning, graphics, industrial design and more at a time when most consultancies were focused on specialization. This model of fully integrated creative services provided much of the inspiration for my own consultancy, The Directive Collective.

5. Designers traditionally find inspiration in a very diverse range of places, that are heavily influenced by who they are as an individual. Where do you find your inspiration?

Firstly, along with Rams as mentioned earlier, I’d say I’m very inspired by the aesthetics and honesty of mid-century modern design. While of course this encompasses the usual suspects like Eames, Nelson, etc. I also draw much of my inspiration from the more practical, mundane objects of the era and earlier. I have, for example a great 50’s chrome Osterizer blender that I use almost daily for making smoothies, and am constantly transfixed on how both aesthetics and quality seemed to be designed-in in perfect balance. Not only is it great to look at, but easy to use, easy to clean, and has been designed to be repaired rather than replaced. To me, this is a good value through design more so than any fancy designer object.

Other than that, and all types of graphics, fashion and product design, I am also the kind of person who seeks to find inspiration anywhere I may be. I can spend 3 hours browsing through a Home Depot looking at nothing in particular, but being fascinated with some type of super-specialized tool designed for who-knows-what, or the design of a drywall anchor. While traveling, one of my favorite activities is to go through a local supermarket, checking out packaging and graphics for everything from dog food to diapers. I believe that good design can be anywhere and that totally unrelated things often inspire the best design. If you are designing product X and only look at similar products in the same category, the chances that you will do something novel or make a large improvement are pretty slim. You need to often get out of your bubble to change your perception of that bubble.

6. Every facet of the design industry has a slightly different development process. Can you talk about the typical product development process in the footwear industry?

The footwear design/development process is pretty unique. It is at the same time very low tech and simple, while also being very complex and detailed. The process typically involves lots of sketches and exploration. Because, for the most part, the overall shape of the shoe is already defined by the shape of the foot, it is less a sculptural exploration and almost a more graphic one. In this way, it is a question of patterns, materials, construction, details and overall visual impression.

Once the final design has been set, the designer typically delivers a specification tech package which is often just a set of mutli-view Illustrator drawings with material and construction call-outs. From there, it is in the hands of the pattern maker who interprets this drawing into a pattern that will transform 2D materials into a 3D shoe. People are always surprised that shoes are not designed in 3D CAD, but seeing a pattern maker work it makes sense. It’s equal parts artistry and experience as much as it is science and technology. Every material acts different, stretches differently, etc.

The process for production is equally interesting. One pair of shoes may be the result of more than 50 different workers on the assembly line, stitching, cementing, and leather working. The way it’s been done for centuries. Combine this with some of the high tech processes and materials used like direct inject TPU, HF welding, carbon fibre and smart materials and it’s fascinating to see how old-world skills work so well with modern innovation. Every time I’m in a factory I’m truly inspired by this process.

  1. Even though designers are increasingly using CAD, in your work you seem to develop most of your designs through sketching and utilizing Adobe Illustrator. Could you speak a bit about the tools you typically utilize to create designs?

The process as I described earlier just doesn’t need CAD for the most part, so it is not used. There would be no point in doing the upper design of a shoe in CAD when a 3 view line drawing in Illustrator is what the pattern maker wants. Outsole design may be done in CAD, though in my experience more frequently it’s done as a 2D drawing with dimensions and sections in Illustrator because it’s quicker and the mold maker can take into account all the data points for the last, shrink, etc. to create the 3D CAD at the factory in half the time and a quarter of the cost.

I know some of the larger athletic footwear brands are starting to incorporate CAD into the design process more frequently, but in something like footwear I also think the rawness and flow of a sketch translates best into a product that likely may not have a single straight line on it and is never 100% symmetrical.

In the end however, the appropriate tools for the job, are just that, tools. A pencil, a marker a Wacom tablet, or CAD are all tools and each one may be appropriate in a different situation. It is also important to mention that a sketch or drawing should also be viewed as a means to an end. Too often these days, I think young designers fall in love with CAD, or fancy renderings and lose sight of the true goals of the design process- the end product. I had a boss once who made a great point of keeping the designers in check when they would get carried away with fancy renderings and the like. He said, “we are in the business of making shoes. Not drawings.”

  1. You have contributed to and moderated at Core77 and also, for a time, ran a footwear blog called First Pullover. Why do you believe it is important for designers to be active in these types of spaces? (note, I still do run first pullover, can you please change this?).

I created my blog, First Pullover ( as a way to share my knowledge of the footwear design and development process and figured that because I found it interesting, others might as well. It’s about being an advocate for design and the industry as much as it is being an educator. Sharing my own passion can inspire others and that in turn inspires me. I’ve had more than one email telling me that a high school student discovered Industrial Design through my blog, and continued to apply and be accepted at an ID school. To me, this is one of the things I am most proud of. Myself, I only found about ID because a former student came back to my high school Art class to share his experiences and love of design. If I can do the same and inspire even one person to become a designer and find the career that they love, then I’m happy.

Forums such as the core77 discussion groups are also a great way to reach out and connect with other like-minded individuals and exchange ideas, for mutual benefit. The great thing about the core forums is that it is a mix of different people with different experiences, backgrounds and points of view. From high school and University students inquiring about “what is Industrial Design?” to professionals such as myself and Michael DiTullo, Design Director at Converse, this mix and the leveling power of the internet allows the conversation to be truly open and honest (though sometimes to a fault). Contributing to forums such as these not only expands the dialog and can offer unique insight but is also a way to improve your own skills. Communication is an essential skill for a designer, and the challenges of making a point with a forum comment can force you to clarify your own thought.

  1. It is always interesting to hear about design communities in various parts of the world. Can you tell us a bit about the Design community in Toronto, Canada?

Toronto is a very active place for design and all types of creative work. One reason, I believe this is so, is that the population of Toronto is very diverse. I recently read a statistic that more 49% of the population of Toronto was born outside Canada! What this provides is a huge range of cultural inspiration and styles that really define the city.

  1. From your point of view, what are the current critical issues in the footwear design and industrial design industries?

As I see it, the footwear industry is somewhat in flux, and perhaps in a low period of innovation at the moment. Given the rise of the “sneakerhead” culture over the last 5-10 years, much of what was once true variety across markets and niches has become mainstream and available anywhere online. Many today see footwear design as only “special edition collaborations” and “exclusive colorways”. Shoes to buy on ebay and keep in a closet, “mint in box”. The market is flooded with quickstrike products that are not much more than a different color or material makeup of a classic or existing shoe and are really only limited because there’s so much new product on the market and a limited consumer base to purchase it. “Retro” has been on it’s last legs for 5 years now, but doesn’t seem to want to give way for the “next new thing”. We are at the point now where reissues make up a large part of many brands’ collections, and even releasing reissues from as little as 3 years ago. Too me, this is troubling as it creates roadblocks for innovation.

I do have faith however that things will turn over soon, and there are some exciting things happening in the industry. Some of the new brands like Heyday, Vael Project, Common Projects are mixing things up with hybrids of sneakers and dress/casual styles. I also see a lot of cross-over of technical performance materials and constructions into casual footwear. For me this is great, as I’m a big believer of innovation through appropriation and crossing those boundaries that define products and categories.

Business wise, however the footwear industry is struggling. Over the past 2 years it’s been a perfect storm of factors from low US Dollar values to a changes in the Chinese RMB exchange, labor costs and policies , oil prices affecting shipping and material prices and general economic issues affecting consumer spending…. I see the effect in collections and companies of all sizes. I believe however that in times like these innovation and design can be a solution, and it forces designers to think differently, smarter and more effectively. While somewhat counterintuitive, it can be the case that in these times more risky projects can take off and designers may be given the ball to run with. Overall I see opportunity.

11. What common trends do you see currently emerging in the footwear design profession?

This is a difficult question, as trends are not something that are universal, but are very linked to context. What may be the next trend in London streetwear may be completely irrelevant to the US streetwear footwear market. A directional trend in performance running footwear in one market may not at all effect a different product category, even within the same market. Anyone who definitively says “X is the next trend for such and such season”, is either lying or deluded.

What I do think is happening however across the industry is that many traditional lines between categories and between fashion and function are being blurred. Performance focused companies are recognizing there is some aspect of lifestyle to every activity and lifestyle brands and seeking and exploring technical stories to add unique selling points and address consumer needs.

More than a trend however, I see this transition and an adaptation of the product to the market and a part of the constant changing nature of any industry that has roots in fashion. By it’s very nature fashion and lifestyle influences are a constantly moving target (there’s always another season after you wrap one season up), and for me this is one of the best things about the industry. I never have to worry that I’ll run out of ideas because by the time the next season comes around my own context and approach will be invariably different, and thus a different solution will present itself.

  1. What advice would you give to students/professionals who want to pursue a career in footwear?

Find your passion. Footwear is such a wide and diverse field; it’s best to know where your interests lie to be able to pursue those more effectively. Find your niche if it is performance, lifestyle, running, outdoor, etc. and run with it.

Learn the product. The footwear industry can be very tough to break into, but self-directed design and research can go a long way in giving you an advantage to get that first footwear internship of job. Take old shoes and cut them in half. See how different constructions are made and what is inside. Task yourself with browsing your local shops and developing an opinion on where trends may be headed. Make a trend board for 6 months or a year into the future are revisit it to see how you did. Do a footwear project at school if you have the opportunity and soak up all the great resources online you can.

Learn the balance of business and creativity. The job of a successful footwear designer is to balance commercial targets and fashion/innovation. Often these can seem like completely different ends of the spectrum, but the best products service both. If you are doing a self-directed project, think as much about who it is for, how big the market is, what the costs and retail price may be as you do the design, color and materials. In the many portfolios I’ve reviewed over the years the stand out projects are often when I see this understanding. It’s just as much as making something new and different as it is making a product that can sell. This is what defines design vs. art and is even more relevant in footwear than some other industries as tooling for a single product that may be out only one season can be over $100,000.

Lastly, of course it is important to develop your skills. Sketching, quick visualization rendering, and exploring a wide range of concepts are the most important skills for a practicing footwear designer. That plus as much energy and love as you can put into it will always help!

  1. Richard, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us here at design droplets. In closing, do you have any last thoughts or words of advice you would like to share?

Being a footwear designer is one of those jobs that may be tough to get at first, but is rewarding enough to last a lifetime. I know many Industrial Designers who have switched into footwear design, but not a single person who has ever gone from footwear design to anything else. Once you are in, you are in for life, it seems. As a plus, it’s also the kind of job that is a great conversation starter. I think I get as much “wow” from mentioning I’m a footwear designer as if I said I was a racecar driver or astronaut. It’s a tough job, but in what other job do you get to shop for shoes as work! Enjoy it!


Should I post my design droplets interview as well? Could get to be a bit much R.

naw, go ahead and post it. I thought it was really good, and like i mentioned I think having a bunch of similar “advice” thoughts/interview Q&As in one place is a good thing. For the prospective student looking to get a good overview and insight into design from pro designers I think the one stop shopping thread is good.

Maybe we could even re-title the thread “In depth designer Q&As” or something. Could also be a good place to re-post those Core77 interviews and other such interviews that are online and people drop links to here and there. The difficulty is often finding them if you don’t know what you are looking for…

Of course, I don’t mean to hijack the thread, and if you think I should take out the Design Droplets content I posted, and perhaps start a separate Q&A thread, just lemme know, but was just intending to add more to the discussion and build on the good stuff you got up already.


11- What type of things do you find frustrating?
When then doers clash with the talkers. Designers, in general, are doers, but we need to learn how to selectively behave like talkers in order to influence the organization around us.

This is very accurate and difficult to learn how to do.