Dallas Stokes returns with a discussion on design judgment, costing and the biz.
What up CounterKicks!!! Been gone for a while working on a few new brands and getting my design firm up and running!!! And honestly I ran out of stories I could tell because my lawyer said something about lawsuits or something, I don’t know, I never really understand that guy… I had to help get Ball’N going with a new design for Ron Artest for his first signature shoe and got Van Grack launching soon along with a new shoe deal with Members Only and a whole new Protege line. I moved to Denver and UPS lost my computers for two months but I did just save a fortune on my car insurance by getting a pair of Brons and just not driving my cars.
Anyway this week I wanted to talk about design judgment. This is when we as designers are torn between doing something we know may not be a good idea creatively or technically and it gets done anyway. As a designer you are often put in the uncomfortable position to create products that you may not feel are a good idea. For instance, I once worked with a rapper that wanted to do a whole line of shoes based on car air fresheners and he wanted the shoes to smell like the air fresheners so he could sell them both in the same box. After explaining that it could be done however if your air freshener song tanks then you will have the best smelling warehouse in Long Beach he proceeded to talk about breakfast cereals.
As a designer in this business, objectivity will often show its ugly face in everything you do. Sometimes you will be asked to do things that make absolutely no sense what so ever. “Hey Dallas can you do that with a air bag!?!” “Hey Dallas I need that shoe with a strap on the tongue!?! “Hey Dallas…Have you seen that new Reebok…Yeah…Can you make it look like that…But not like that?” As a designer you get asked to do things with shoes that you wouldn’t do to a Vegas Bunny Ranch employee. What seems like a bad idea most of the time probably ends up being a bad shoe. I have seen designers get handed projects or changes to the stuff they are working on only to see the product look like the idea was a afterthought. As a designer you get handed direction from time to time and have to do things that you feel are dumb or plain uncool. You ever look at a shoe and say the shoe was cool until they added that… Nine times out of ten that comes from a designer being handed something the company needs to be pushed and he or she just was not with it. Now from time to time this has happened to me and there were a few times I made the most of it and then there were the times I just didn’t get it and the shoe looked bad. As a designer one of your top priorities is to solve problems. Be they your problem or the companies you will have to work to figure it out. The easiest thing to do is challenge authority and make a fuss about it. This will give you not only a bigger headache but also a nice new job somewhere else. You can ask for more help and try to get a better understanding of whats going on. Too often ego steps up and causes a lot of guys to just get even more lost. I suggest you drop the ego and get some help only after you can show you exhausted almost every option. It’s easy to make a mistake, it takes hard work to get something done right.
One of your biggest obstacles will be cost. The more expensive the shoe, the more you can do to it. When you create a shoe that retails for $120, it costs about $25 to get it made and shipped here. I have to sell it to the retailers for about $60 bucks. They need to pay for overhead and advertising and make a profit so they charge you anywhere from $120 to $130. So yes, shoes don’t cost me as much as they do you however the cost of doing business gets passed to you. So if I have that much money to play with I’m gonna try to make one kick ass shoe and go crazy and lose my mind!!! WRONG.
First thing you will be at the mercy of is what retail is buying. If Foot Locker is selling a ton of full air bag shoes from Nike, they don’t care if you are adidas, THEY WANT AIR BAGS. So now you’re stuck with a air bag and feeling like how can I possibly make a airbag look better than anything Nike did? I know guys lets make a new tech up!!! WRONG.
Not in the budget buddy, take this airbag and get to work. Now here is where you can start feeling indifferent. Some designers may say they have issues with taking something that a company is known for and knocking it off. Some designers may say it’s just a check, I will do whatever they want so I can go home. Then there are others that think I will take this air bag and form it to the shape of the foot and pod the rubber so it is flexible and hits on all the major strike zones!!! That guy will work for years in this industry. However on this project he will probably be making the air bag look like a Nike air bag. So now that I got my retail friendly gimmick in place I still got a few dollars for the upper.
Let’s make the logo something interesting to the eye and touch. Let’s also make it plastic and have a nice shine on it. Or perhaps I can look at a way to fuse materials together in certain areas where support and breathability count. A nice jeweled logo is cool but too many shoes are depending on a logo and not the shoe. I was always taught if you make a good product it will speak for itself so less on the logo and more on the fit. This is one of the things I love about the new Kobe. It almost looks like Eric Avar was done with the shoe and said,”By the way don’t forget the Swoosh.” It was thought out and if you took all the logos off the shoe you still have an interesting and functional shoe. That’s good shoe making like back in the day that reminds me of when the first Foamposite was made.
Last but not least, when you have so much room financially to play it’s usually because of an athlete. If you do have an athlete who is receptive and gives you input you can put that into the product and do a more interesting product. At the end of the day, it can be fun to do the hundred plus items however it’s not easy because you have retail, the company and a ton of pressure standing over your shoulder. This can cause a designer’s judgment to be tested and pushed to the limit.
Some of the hardest shoes in my career have actually been the lower priced projects. First up, let’s look at your cost per shoe you have to work with. If you buy a pair of my $40 Protege shoes (Yes the line still exists www.protegemvp.com) I only get about $11 dollars max to make that shoe. Thank God for synthetics like nubuck and patent. The first problem you have is the perception of the products you are working on. At $40 dollars most retailers are going to say just knock off what’s already out there. That may sound simple enough but when you’re trying to create a brand with meaning you have to try to give the customer a reason to spend the money on you and not on the other $40 guy. This is where a lot of the challenge of being a designer begins. Most lower end retailers think the customer does not care so they put every competitors signature shoe they can find in your face and say just make this. Creativity takes a back seat and so does objectivity when dealing with these circumstances. You may not really care because you’re just getting a check at this point.
When Protege was started we stressed creating original looking product for K-Mart and they were all in. They actually wanted to treat the customer with some respect!!! The hard part was getting these looks without having a bunch of money to play with. The good thing is that I don’t really answer to anyone on the design side for a majority of the line. Sure the retailer may ask for a few things here and there but it’s nothing I can’t handle. My biggest problem so far has been overbuilding, then having the factory scale me down. I designed every shoe Protege has had from beginning to end so every project was its own little battle against cost, objectivity, and creativity. There were times when I wanted to do more but my boy Uda would tell me that’s too expensive. When that happens usually we can find a different or better way to do it. However when you’re dealing with a great developer that knows how you think there will be times when they can solve the problem for you without you knowing. A lot of the ways you can beat out low budget issues is by making sure your pattern does not have huge pieces in it and you use the best materials you can for the budget. A shoe with huge pieces on it will kill you because imagine a sheet of paper. If you draw four huge circles on it you can only cut out four circles. The same applies to materials, if I have big shapes taking up my per square inch of leather I will need more leather. More leather means more money so I have to try to be as cost efficient as possible and break that pattern down. There’s many ways to save a buck and in time it gets easier with time to figure it out but it’s always a challenge overall.
I guess in the end not everything is gonna be fun or even make sense to you as a designer. There will be times when a retailer comes to you and says do this boot in purple because they are a Lakers fan and don’t realize you won’t sell as many purple shoes as black. The point I’m trying to make is that there are times when it will be fun and then there’s times when you will have to do things that suck. The best thing to do is treat each product like it’s your last and just knock em out. Even if the product hits and flops you still had an opportunity to work and learn. So the next time someone comes to you and says I want to do basketball shoes with air bags, goofy colors, three year old outsoles and Jordan cement knock off patterns. Do it!!! Just make sure they pay you ALL your money upfront!!!
Dallas Stokes is a 20-year footwear industry veteran. His current shoe design projects include BALL’N, Protege, Sean John, Rim Rocka, Van Grack, Militia Project, and The Dallas Stokes Collection. Read his interviews here and here.
Check out previous “Stokes Life With Dallas Stokes” posts:
- Stokes Life: The China Adventures
- Stokes Life: Sixth Sense Of Stokes
- Stokes Life: Shaq Vs. Bynum Part 1
- Stokes Life: Free At Last!!!
- Stokes Life: Building A Brand – Let’s Make A New Shoe Company (Part 1)
- Stokes Life: Building A Brand – Let’s Make A New Shoe Company (Part 2)
- Stokes Life: My Starting Five – What Or Who Inspires You!!!
- Stokes Life: Back On The Block!!! And Go Golliff!!!