Focus on a Pioneer: Sports shoe designer Christoph Döttelmayer

Originally in German, this is a great interview SportAlpen.com recently ran with designer Christoph Döttelmayer and his mentor Laszlo Tapolcai. With a focus on the Mammut Magic GTX boot we featured by Christoph not too long ago, Christoph and Laszlo discuss the many aspects of designing performance footwear.

It’s great to see a young designer doing well, and even more importantly to see the bond he’s created with Laszlo, his friend and mentor. Having a mentor in this industry (and any really) can’t be understated, having an industry savvy vet dropping gems can only help you get on a fast track  to reaching your potential.

Check out the in-depth interview in full, after the jump –

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Christoph Döttelmayer is becoming a known name in the footwear design business, that is actually foreign to media. Together with his mentor Laszlo Tapolcai they gave us this interview, an insight behind footwear design.

The shoe mentor

Footwear designers are not necessarily the favorite targets of the paparazzi. Actually, a lot happens in the world from which the rest of our society usually remains ignorant even though profits from it. Christoph Döttelmayer is one of those designers, who always knew where he wanted to be. With experienced designer, mentor Laszlo Tapolcai Footwear Design Specialist they have been working together. Laszlo has worked for famous brands and left his stamp on the sports shoe design world already.

We have met them and asked both of them to find out details about their design, development work, about their passion and footwear design world.

Credit – SportAlpen.com

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[highlight]Sportalpen.com: Hello you two. How did your common passion have brought you together … like how did you two meet first? [/highlight]

Christoph: When I told to my parents that I liked to design sport shoes, they asked a friend if he knew somebody in this field whom Laszlo also knew. Thus I have simply called him and arranged a meeting.  This was in Gössl am Grundlsee in 2006. Laszlo has supported Christoph as a mentor virtually ever since.

[highlight] How long have you been active in the footwear design business? [/highlight]

Laszlo: Over 25 years.  When my father was young he had graduated from an apprenticeship as a shoemaker. And although he has worked as a policeman, all his life nevertheless,  he was always making or fixing shoes, as well. So, I grew up seeing shoes made. This remained in the back of my mind.  Then I studied,  first I got an engineering degree and consequently studied Product Design, graduated, worked and soon after that have gone to the USA and has worked several years in the Medical product design field, then became a design consultant for Converse. Footwear design interested me. A few years later I have landed the Chief Designer’s job of Footwear at Adidas in Germany and now I have been active as an international footwear design specialist.

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[highlight] Why just sports shoes? [/highlight]

Christoph: With me that started, actually that I wanted to become a basketball pro. Michael Jordan was and is the biggest inspiration in my life. And this has brought me onto the shoes which he wore: the Nike AirJordan. Besides, their history that has fascinated me also what was happening behind the shoes scene and I knew: I also want to be in this business! This is why I have studied product design.

[highlight] Which tasks fascinates a shoe designer most? [/highlight]

Christoph: With the design besides the visual challenge, we need to look at numerous tasks all around the complete “package”. Of course the whole process starts with the look because one thinks for whom and for what purpose the shoe should be created for? At the same time one should also consider to the materials and it’s qualities, appearance. Construction and technology fall into this list, too. etc. However, we also cooperate with the marketing department, developers, technicians, manufacturing. Once the design is finished other professionals take over the process until the end, the finished product. However the designer monitors and will contribute to this process all along.

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[highlight] What makes Sport shoes so special? [/highlight]

Christoph: The design for me it is about emotions and shoes reflect that and they need to tell a good story.  Build a good product around the story. This is one of the nicest sides of my job. There are many things which only the designer knows about the athlete with whom you work with. The shoes are made for example for an athlete as a target. And then the designer tries to integrate this knowledge into the shoes which at the end will be available to anybody.

Laszlo: Aside all of these, the challenge is, actually, always to create an identity for every shoe. This makes the job extra exciting. Always create something new or different, trendy, better, more functional, less expensive, etc. At least, one does not want to follow others or copy himself or someone else. Create a new recognizable identity with character.

[highlight] How much does it help if one pursues the sport himself for which one designs shoes for? [/highlight]

Christoph:  Very useful. Naturally, one should also have first hand experience with the product. It helps a lot if one exercises the sport really and knows how the product behaves. It would be strange if one designs shoes for Mountaineering  and doesn’t try it, its very useful if one goes into the mountains and uses the product.

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[highlight] Let’s do a bit of time travel Laszlo: How was this at that time when you have started in the design world? [/highlight]

Laszlo: Of course many years ago, we did not have such support like a computer.  All the sketches, drawings and prototype models everything had to be made by hand. The whole process was not as simple as today. At that time we also had a Step-by-step process with which we managed well (laughs). Several designers have also often specialized in certain segments, details and have split the working process this way. Then slowly computers were introduced – and I had to learn something new again.  By the way there are, companies still today who exist and ask you to do hand drawings. It’s like fine art paintings, like an artist, we call them renderings.

[highlight] And how does it look general today? How much work does a designer on the PC?  [/highlight]

Christoph: I work with a big digitizing board. At the end the final effect is quite the same, as if I design on paper with pencil. However, at the same time there are many advantages, for example I do direct compositions, scale, proportions, lines, colors and the subsequent results are instantly visible on the computer.  Modifiying details is easier. For example you don’t need another drawing to change the color.

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[highlight] How does the general evolution look like in the shoe design process? [/highlight]

Christoph: Here there are two possibilities. Either one sketches absolutely freely based on an idea, or one starts with a certain basic request from marketing.  The boss gives you the projects, who is the target user, what the shoe should, or will do and many other specifications including the price restrains. Then one begins with the considerations and thinks which technologies should be used. In the best case one invents a new solution. Then with the first sketch the suggestions are drawn up.  Detailed improvements and color choices are the next steps.

[highlight] How do you arrive to the first prototype? [/highlight]

Christoph: First, one one gets the first 3D image of the prototype on the computer, a kind of “quick visual” model is made with CAD. On the outside of the shoe mock-up we use painter’s tape mark up the design lines. This way one can also see the 3-D variation of the design lines which look completely different on the 2-D design drawings.  This is also very good to check and correct those lines. Then the next step is to create single layers of the components and their patterns. From these patterns we can cut out and produce the various components.

Laszlo: In addition, one can consider  which components are made from what kind of materials. I find it’s important to see where these components intersect the foot skeleton? Many years ago I have made myself a Foot Map based on a foot skeleton which was marked up with red markers at the regular pressure points. These red marks were showing where I could not support the foot, here the shoes could not have hard elements or double walls and cause blisters or discomfort. One had to check the whole skeleton and mark with green marker where the foot could be, should be supported and where the flex areas were. These colors are very helpful for the creation of the upper designs. This whole process naturally considers all 12 sizes correctly, this way everybody’s size is done proportionally correct.

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[highlight] What happens next, until the shoe can be released for the mass manufacturing? [/highlight]

Laszlo: Then the “Tool-making” – process begins … things get very serious.

Christoph: … this is done by engineering and the most expensive part of the development process.

Laszlo: This is where we see that the whole collection of molds for ski boots for example (every size considered could cost as much as half a million dollars) Here you can imagine that instead of every size would be a finished product size, however for cost saving purpose we can fit 2 foot sizes into one mold.  In this case there are not 12 molds made, but only 6!  2 different size liners are used in the boots. Therefore, it is extremely important to work correctly throughout the whole design process and apply accurately. In the hiking shoe segment usually the sole molds are the most expensive to produce.

Christoph: Then the whole process – from the idea up to market launch – can take up to two years.

[highlight] How dos it feel to cooperate with a sports pro? [/highlight]

Christoph: This is exactly one of the reason, why I have started to work in this job. Earlier, I had a possibility to develop a product together with David Lama (climbing expert.) who could tell his story. At the same time I could rise to the challenge and try harder and  arrive to a better product. Together we managed to a design neither of us could have done alone. It was a great experience!

Laszlo: Many years ago  at Raichle/DeeLuxe I have worked together with the 2 time snow board slalom world champion Philippe Imhof and developed the best hard snow board boot in the world. Throughout the design process until the end result we worked closely together which, I could not have done alone. He could tell me exactly what he expected from the boots and together we were very successful.  Strong sales proved this.

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[highlight] How much difference can a shoe make in the competition, actually? [/highlight]

Laszlo: The team which developed the shoe for Usain Bolt (made by Puma) has certainly studied the whole running process as a whole. Via discussions, input from the athlete and the research team the designers have asked questions over and over again and have found new ways to improve details, solutions to come to a new, better end result..

For sure unnecessary weight must have disappeared from the heel area when sprinters hardly use their heel at all.

Christoph: Of course this is not for sure, but I know that every competitor development team works somewhat differently and will come up with different results.

[highlight] How much marketing goes into the shoe design process? [/highlight]

Christoph:  Quite a lot. Since the whole development process is based on a well coordinated team effort to ensure the best results. They provide direction to the whole process. Eventually, they are the ones who will put the product in the market place.

One other thing I got to say, that I had never thought of myself finding a footwear designer job in Austria.   Thank good I did find one where I am happily working as a team member right now.  I feel specially lucky, because I can work in my home country and I can do what I love to do.

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[highlight] Can you imagine yourself to turn your back on shoes design once and to design something else? [/highlight]

Christoph: I could imagine this, yes, but this is certainly not in the near future. Many people question me over and over again if shoe design – can it ever become dull?  No, because every new project is a new challenge. In addition I always have lots of  energy, interest, vision, ideas, enthusiasm and passion.