Are We Watching Design Die?

Posted by on Feb 19, 2015 in Media | 4 Comments

As I was sitting in Newark Airport waiting to board my flight back home, I was recollecting on the whirlwind few days I had since setting foot in NYC last Wednesday evening for what was my first All-Star experience. The major takeaway was learning a tremendous amount about the brands and how they functioned. I never grasped the importance of “brand” until this trip.

I started my visit at the SNKRBOX, most of you know that as the giant LED box that illuminates digital projections of Nike shoebox graphics, release dates and a countdown clock to the next release. My driver didn’t exactly know where he was going but I could tell him where to go by two things. One, the mass amount of people outside it and two, the glow that was lighting up Bowery street for blocks. Once I entered the store, I was immersed in the history of Nike Design. For me as a designer, it was awe-inspiring. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by some of the most beautiful and innovative footwear sketches ever. The space was smaller then I anticipated but it immersed you in the brand. It really told you what Nike stands for, innovation.

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From there I went to 166 Flatbush, the Pop-up Jordan Brand store. Again, I knew exactly where I was going because of the line of people and most importantly, the roughly 30-foot image of MJ on the side of the building. The store was set up as a celebration of the Jordan Brand’s thirty-year history. It featured every Air Jordan dipped in red, a pair of every generation of Air Jordan that Mike personally wore on court, as well as rare editions of Air Jordan’s, such as the UNDFTD and Oregon IV’s. The highlight of the store was live laser etching on Air Jordan I’s with a graphic designed specifically for the anniversary. The store took you through the history of the brand even if you didn’t know what you were observing. You knew that everything that was in there served a purpose.

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The next day I took in the Pearl Pavilion, an Air Jordan history lesson and brand engagement place located directly across from Madison Square Garden. This I will keep brief, because I could talk about it for hours. It was the Smithsonian of Air Jordan’s. I have been to a lot of events and I have never seen as deep of a history of the Jordan Brand than this one. It was incredible. Again, reinforcing the history and heritage that the brand has and the emotional connection it caters to everyone that takes part in the sport of basketball. That space illustrated the effect that he had over the last thirty years. It didn’t matter what age you were; you knew the importance of MJ after leaving there.

I had the next few days free, so I chose to go and take in the sneaker culture around the city from my point of view. You may have seen me tweet a few things here and there about it, I couldn’t grasp the mentality of the sneaker culture in NYC. It doesn’t exist like that anywhere else in the world. I have never seen so many people wearing dope kicks at every avenue and every cross street. Past that, I have never seen so many people grabbing multiple pairs at a time. Yeah I have seen consumers buying two to three pairs but never in my life have I seen people buying 9-12 different pairs in one spot. Then after that, move on to the next spot! It was fucking crazy.

I have also never been to a store that has been stocked so well. At one place, they were stocked with 1,500 Chrome Foamposites, to put that in perspective where I am from, we would be lucky if a store received 30 pairs. Thirty! So 1,500 is really hard to grasp, especially since one store is going to move 1,500 pairs at $275 a piece in less then an hour. It is mind blowing.

Saturday morning, I went to the House of Hoops at MSG and just watched everything for about an hour, maybe a little more. Adults, kids, grandparents, every race and nationality were just enthralled in Nike. I also watched a group from Adidas, not sure what division but definitely from Marketing or some sort of brand activation (if you are reading this, what’s up? I saw you!) taking in the whole experience as well. They were just as mesmerized. I loved listening to them compare and contrast their styles and even hearing one of them say that “we just don’t get it”. Which is funny because they seemed to have such a success with the Yeezy launch. I say this is funny and that I love it, not because I want to insult them but because I find it very interesting to hear how other brands take in their competition. It is no different from product to product; we all want to be better because we are our own worst critiques. And where do you start to find out what you are doing wrong? Look no further then the competition’s consumer.

As a designer I tend to believe that what we create is the reason that consumers are there. It doesn’t matter the product; shoes, cars, phones, computers, etc. I believe we create the function and the emotion. However, after this weekend I have doubt about our level of importance in the grand scheme of things.

When this whole business of industrial design started decades ago, again pick your product type, we as designers were creating something that didn’t exist. Since it was all new we laid the foundation for what was to become. Now in the current state we are evolving and maturing, sure we are still revolutionizing but in the end it’s not always brand new. I personally feel like we are at this point where brand is the only important aspect of a product, especially for an established brand. Right now the idea of design has become so commercialized that it has lost its identity and to me is now on its deathbed. Design’s purpose is no longer to solve a function, it is there to maintain the consumer and keep them from leaving the brand. It solely is there to reap off of what was done before.

I slightly found it baffling watching consumers buy nine plus pairs of shoes in a store. Not 9-15 of the same pair but 9-15 of all different shoes. Why you ask? Because they weren’t buying because the shoe meant something, they were buying just to buy. The capitalist in me says this is fantastic; the brand messaging was perfect equating to higher profits, which in the end creates a higher stock dividend. But, there is this side of me that sees emptiness to it. I have to question what have we been telling everyone? Why are we presenting this culture with a product that doesn’t make them think? It is one thing to buy mass amounts of product; I do it too, just follow my Instagram; but I have never bought something for sake of it being cool. Everything I buy impresses me in some way. Craft and quality equals time and effort to me and I signify that with a purchase. Please don’t take the previous sentences as “buying name brands equates quality”, that’s not what I mean by brand. Brand is about the message that is being told. Not what is being sold.

In my eyes, design has a very small portion of table during product creation. It is as if they are barely being invited to the dinner. I found it sad this weekend that the products that were thriving weren’t the ones that featured innovation. The XX9, the Kobe X, the Lebron XII or even shoes that were heavily focused on material play were just sitting on shelves. Instead the shoes that flew off the shelves were the ones that were obvious but oblivious to why it exists in its current state.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t know to be blatantly honest. But it was what I took away.

I think it is bad for the footwear designers. It seems as though they are pigeonholed into creating a product that looks cool as opposed to functioning properly. Right now we are living in a world that has access to more information than it has ever had and our athletic products are predominantly being created by standards that were established in the late 80’s and early 90’s. From the outside looking in, it is a success now when athletic footwear ends up on a fashion show runway, where as twenty years ago calling an Air Jordan fashion was as bad as saying fuck. What I fear from this current age of product development is that the designers have no ground to fight on. The reality is that product is moving at an extremely high rate, so if the consumers don’t want it then why should the brands change?

Well it is simple, the consumers don’t know what they want until they see it. The consumer isn’t there to be your vision; they are there to confirm your vision.

Brands have put more money and specifically, time into getting a message across through experience. Everything that I briefly described in the beginning wasn’t about footwear; it was about aligning myself with the brand. Immersing myself into them to be a part of them. It is more important to keep you and myself as a loyal consumer for years to come then it is to have us buy shoes from a variety of brands every year. I have to point out that I don’t think this is bad; I am an incredibly loyal person. It is no secret that I align myself whole-heartedly with the Jordan Brand and Nike. I am the walking and living example of the success of branding.

But as a designer I fear that the importance of brand has completely over taken the importance of the foundation of the brand, product creation. Better known as design. It is hard to argue that one is more important then the other, they both go hand in hand and need each other to thrive. But brand can carry more weight then design can. If design is bad the product is poor, an established brand message will carry you through the storm. But if branding is bad, no design will save it. Then you have to go hire the most fickle visionary on the planet to create a product line for you that encompasses only his brand and none of yours and then pray to god his consumers stick with you fifteen years from now after he is no longer the biggest pop icon in the world and hasn’t been associated with you since 2017. Guess what, they won’t.

So then what do you do? You fall back on good product creation, again; better known as design.

Now, this piece should not be taken as a hit on the footwear industry, in particular Nike/Jordan. Right now Jordan has its best performance line up it has ever had as a whole. Yes there are some flaws but by in large it is pretty damn good. And on the other end, I challenge you to name anyone who is fucking with Nike Basketball. Simply put there is no one better in basketball footwear by a long shot. But what I am amazed by is the blindness that the consumers have not only for Nike/Jordan but even Adidas with the Yeezy.

This culture is so immersed in being a part of something it missed out on.

Don C added high quality quilted leather to an Air Jordan that already had great leather; as opposed to you know designing something new. Stepping out of the footwear realm, Gatorade just remastered the “Be Like Mike” commercial. These are just two examples, but there are 1,000’s of them. In fact you can look every Saturday morning at 10:00 on the SNKRS App when Nike drops a new retro product. The designer in me is screaming, why on earth do we do this? Why are we currently more comfortable with the past then future? Especially when our current future has the capabilities of providing us with endless opportunities on what we can do with material, sports science and improved performance. But the consumer in me gets it, I see this endless opportunity to be associated with a brand that I relate so much of my life to. Which is the exact point of branding and product engagement.

So where does that leave us? If I am in charge of brand engagement or whatever the technical term of the position is, I am fucking thrilled. I have won and I am succeeding and I should be getting a raise. If I am in charge of design, I am fucking thrilled. I have won and I am succeeding and I should be getting raise but…

I should not be content.

I need to start asking questions and I need to start fighting like hell to make sure that I provide the future of our brand with something that is worth creating engagement for. If things stay the same then at some point the consumer will get bored. Better is always better but at some point the same is well, the same.

4 Comments

  1. Steven Travis
    February 20, 2015

    I came across your article and I just wanted to commend you on it.

    In my personal opinion, design is dying. I’m 24 years old and I pretty much grew up on watching Michael Jordan play but i was also in love with the shoes that made him play. As I grew older , the design process is what drew me in to the shoe more than anything. It’s a story pretty much of the finished product. To see how it’s made. The different inspirations that contributed to that silhouette.

    This article inspired me to start sketching again. Someone has to change the world somehow.

    Reply
  2. Bryan Espiritu
    February 28, 2015

    I don’t even know how I ended up on your blog, but it’s been an absolute pleasure man. This post is incredible and honest and painful when I think about my lack of consideration into innovation lately. Recycling is nice because we can trace back where something started, but it’s nowhere near as impressive as something being born from scratch. I appreciate the write up, your work and opinion man. Respect.

    Reply
  3. Eli
    March 19, 2015

    Thank you for Being honest. I to ask myself this everyday. What is more important innovation or Brand image. I have been designing shoes for over ten years now and i think they are both important. Example if branding is what you say then design is what you do. True the world is changing… for the better or for the worst? It depends how you look at it. I like to think true innovation comes from accepting what is and working with it. Less mind more heart.

    Reply
  4. Benjamin Richard
    April 9, 2015

    Great article.

    That was a very refreshing read. I can go on for days about this topic but I’ll probably break my fingers typing. The marriage between design, brand and business is a tricky one and I totally agree with everything you’ve said.

    Even the retail experience is different, companies no longer push or drill their employees with product knowledge info sessions like they used to and selling shoes with a matching shirt and shorts has become more important than knowing what technology will best match the customers needs.

    I would love to see what these brands have hidden in their R&D labs where they let designers run wild.

    Reply

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