As a Concept Kicks contributor, I would like to use my experience and my network to share tips and stories that can help inspire our readers.
Having been in the business for 15 years (freelancing for last eight), I have had the opportunity to design hundreds of products. The process has been rollercoaster-like at times, and yet I always see myself returning back to the creative process I was taught in product design school :
That’s all great as a starting point, but how do you find a creative spark in the first place ? What happens when you can’t seem to come up with ideas ?
I asked a few experienced footwear creatives for their insights : -Tom and Hector, Founders of The Footsoldiers design agency in London, UK which is now in its tenth year of existence ; Kayko Chung a senior footwear designer with 18 years of experience based in California, and Joel Salamin, Rapha Cycling’s very own footwear designer.
I asked about their creative process and for tips on staying creative. Interestingly, they first all highlighted that their job requires them to hit strict and often short deadlines. There seems to be no clear chunks of time allocated exclusively to creative thinking as project phases often overlap, and “doing” takes priority over “thinking”.
However, they collectively agree that research and “being connected” is key to their creative process. This implies that creative thinking is constantly flowing through every part of their work.
But what does research mean ? Kayko Chung says “I don’t label myself as a footwear designer. I’m a research nerd. I love information”. She likes to broaden her research field outside of footwear to gain inspiration. For The Footsoldiers, that involves being immersed deep in the many facets of streetwear culture through trend research, retail, instagram and general lifestyle. They also rely on technology and developing their skills to keep pushing innovation, investing in 3D Design for example.
Everyone agrees that travel for work or play (or both !) is the ultimate creative research tool. Travel allows to take a step back from pressure work situations and floods you with references you would not think to look for on the internet, for example.
That’s great when things are flowing, but happens when they hit a big creative wall? It seems that everyone just tries to get by and keep going. Fulled by their passion, Joel suggests to “Disconnect from your project.” He’s right : go for a walk, a run, a ride on your bike. You can also meditate, even for ten minutes. You have to calm down, take a break and let your brain cool off.
As I received their answers, I was surprised that none of our interviewees had more precise tips on igniting creativity. Each have designed hundreds of new products, they all are respected individuals within the industry. It made me realise that there is opportunity to explore creative thinking further, perhaps even deconstruct the process. Personally, I am always looking for the naiveté we used to hold as children when painting and drawing. I try and go back to paper, tape, scissors and good old craft. And I start PLAYING ! Often it’s when my most groundbreaking ideas come up. I also find calling a friend or doing something non-footwear related like cooking or taking a bath can be great. Sadly most companies don’t have bathtubs available for employees, but offering spaces like libraries with craft tables, or even board games could help designers think creatively and disconnect for a while. And honestly, even as a freelancer, I find it hard to carve out the time to just be creative and don’t often get to practice free thinking.
So why didn’t any of the designers share similar tips? I believe it’s because they feel like they have no time to take a “play break” or even an “actual break”.
In an increasingly competitive industry where physical product are usually more revered than creative thinking, how does one convince their employer that giving designers time to be creative will get them direct return on their investment ? One suggestion would be to give them a flexible half-day here and there, free of emails for them to read, write, and play without direct expectation ?
Finally, I asked them what kept them going season after season. As they all pointed out, designing and developing footwear is a high pressure job : hard deadlines, cost restrictions, the expectation to create something newer and better every season, not to mention the overlapping projects in an increasingly fast-paced and demanding market. The most resounding answer: passion.
The Footsoldiers explained “Fortunately for us, the industry is a relatively small community and we have some good connections. We are fortunate enough to be able to work with many clients that we consider friends. That’s a big motivation for us.” I agree with them, we are all working in a very competitive industry, yet we ultimately all thrive on connection, sharing the passion for the craft and enjoying the process with great people. Kayko points out that “ Keeping myself surrounded by pro-active people who want to make the best product possible is important to me. I always want to be learning, from everybody. Whether they are veterans in the industry or a young designer, we can all learn from each other !”
It’s important to keep looking forward with a positive attitude. Joel says “I sometimes think that everything has been done in footwear, so why bother ? But it’s not true : there are still so many things to invent and re-invent. The last five to ten years have been amazing thanks to new technologies coming out (knitting, welding, 3D printing…). And, although I sometimes struggle to imagine what the next big thing could be, I remind myself of all the areas where some of these technologies haven’t been applied yet, all the amazing products that brands have in their archives and all the mix & match that can still be done. That’s what keeps me going…”
Dear Reader, do you ever suffer from creative block ? Do you have tips to get over it ? I feel that we are at the start of a fascinating discussion…
Big thanks to the below interviewees :
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