Runners make better running shoe designers

New article-

I live running. That makes me a better running shoe designer.

“My clients hire me to not only draw running shoes, but to know running.
That’s pretty hard to do if you don’t run….Knowing running shoes as a runner and designer means I not only understand the “what” of footwear and how it’s made, but also know the “why” and how to make it better.
You can’t know running by only sketching. “

On more than one occasion I have had a factory sample room make a quick pullover during lunch so I could run a few kilometers on a rural dirt road in Asia for initial pattern feedback.


I designed running shoes before I was a runner. It’s partly what got me interested in running, seeing the positive effect of running on my clients and in the lives of runners. I’ve been able to challenge the status quo as an non-runner/outsider when designing running shoes, but in retrospect I think the lack of intimate knowledge of the sport hurts more than helps in design.

Would you trust someone who has never sat on a chair to design a chair?

Anyone else live the product category they design for/in?


First, you can’t know anything by only sketching. And if you are only sketching, you are only playing a tiny part of launching a product.

Of the dozens (I don’t think it is hundreds) of products I have designed that launched, I have bought one of them for use by my partner (pregnancy test). Technically, I was only interested in the results, not the use of the product. So in reality, using runner as a metaphor, I am not a “runner”. Yet my designs have won awards, accolades, patents, made billions of dollars for my clients, improved the lives of too many to count and saved the lives of some. All in all, I think you could call them successful.

Seems to me, the advantages of being a “runner” are great, but there are also disadvantages in being a “runner”. There could be a tendency to design for yourself. As the old saying goes, when you have gotten the input from one user, you have gotten the input from one user. Better design is agnostic of a single need. Better design occurs when you can not only accommodate the needs for many users, but you also accommodate the business needs for your client.

I think a key advantage of being a “runner” is the intrinsic interest. It is a motivation needed to be a better designer. But it is not the only motivation to make anyone a better designer. If it works for you, that is great. It is not a prerequisite by any means.

The problem with most running shoes is form over function. They tend to be “designed” first, rather than engineered first.
I don’t really care what my running shoes look like, I’m more interested on how they perform.

I think in general, this is a load of crap. If you are a good designer and are an expert in the use and function of the specific product that you are designing then it may be the case you can design a better product but you are very specialized. However, it just doesn’t hold up as a generalization. All designers sit on chairs a lot of the time, some may even be experts at chair sitting - there are a lot of bad chairs, mostly because the designers either design for themselves, assuming everyone is like them or because they overgeneralize and try to satisfy all use cases. Good designers empathize use and user. They don’t have to be experts - they do have to be more than stylists.

It depends on how you define running. Similar to other activities, there is the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. Beginners cannot appreciate nor utilize all of the design insights that are contained in an advanced shoe because they have not put in the mileage to cognitively connect feature benefits with higher performance. They are not able to care or appreciate. On the other end, the advanced runner has all of the cognition required to quickly measure feature benefits found in a beginning or intermediate level shoe and the ability to zero in on how an advanced shoe delivers what is necessary to support a desired higher performance level.

I would say it is not required that one be a runner to design for the beginning level (aspirational or lifestyle) of the market. However, as performance demands increase, it is advantageous that the designer be a runner in order to empathize, imagine and solve problems together with other disciplines that advanced runners have in order to achieve higher levels of performance. The result of this matrix of beginning, intermediate, advanced is that most people found on the trail/course are those curious about running and are merely trying out a pair of shoes to see what running is like. They do not need the higher performance and the cost associated with deeper considered designs that go beyond the surface and aim at winning races.

Those who strap on a pair of higher performing shoes after putting a few miles in the bank are better able to make the cognitive connections that lead to higher performance and are likely to advance to the next level of becoming a runner as well as appreciating what runners who are designers bring to the sport.

I observed this when designing scuba equipment where I worked on projects that aimed at increasing the size of the entry level sport market while simultaneously designing for much smaller specialized expert markets in the military and commercial sectors.

One of the challenges that an expert designer has is their ability to be reflexive in their practice of design. The questioning of bias during the design process as one becomes expert has proven valuable when evaluating data from a qualitative perspective. More on this here The Importance of Reflexivity in Qualitative Research — Delve

I surely don’t think my knowledge/experience is all important. I also mentioned access to knowledge (other runners) and being able to better interpret that input through my experience (it’s pretty hard to translate from words how something like a shoe feels if a runner says it is “flat and needs more pop” to actual design insight even with lab testing or quantifiable specs).

I 100% agree the business side is also key. Knowing how/why runners buy shoes and even designing running shoe retail environments is part of this. As is costing, specifications, pricing and business strategy. That goes for beyond running shoes.

You’d perhaps be surprised how much engineering goes into running shoe design. I of course use “design” as a catch all for everything from biomechancial design to aesthetic design, material engineering and design for manufacture.

Being a runner doesn’t make you automatically a good designer of running shoes if you are a bad designer. But it can make you a better running shoe designer. I was never generalizing. It was a pretty specific article.

Good points. There are of course all different kinds of running shoes across function (spikes to marathon road shoes to 5k/10k shoes) and price point. Most “running shoes” aren’t even used for running.

It’s been a while since I’ve designed lower price point running footwear, but in some ways it’s actually more challenging. The funny thing is, often those users don’t know what they want and can be more sensitive to discomfort or expect more than an experienced athlete who is willing to put up blisters if it takes 1min of a marathon time, or less than ideal ride if it feels faster. The trick however is often to give the entry level product the appeal and feel of the higher end, performance/aspirational product which certainly helps if you know how that feels.

As it happens, while I am a runner, I’m very rarely designing for myself. Constraints of brand, technology, price point, target market, even size/gender means my projects are often not something I would regularly run in.

While I’m a pretty serous runner now, it also wasn’t so long ago that I was a newbie who couldn’t run 5min without walking. Going from beginner to where I am now and understanding that journey I often think is as valuable as my current marathon race times.