In this article we try to understand what software is used by shoe designers.
Before talking about shoe design software, we must make a premise: how do you become a shoe designer?
I believe it is appropriate to distinguish between a designer of fashion shoes, designer of sports shoes (which includes hiking, trekking and mountaineering footwear) and a designer of special shoes, such as work and safety footwear. However, not all the shoes available on the market fall within these categories: just think of plastic flip-flops or children’s shoes, bridal shoes or dance shoes.
The category of fashion shoes can include all those companies that offer new proposals for each season. Traditionally, twice a year, although more and more companies are launching four collections every year, some even six and others churn out products continuously (such as fast fashion giants like Zara and H&M).
Designers who work for these companies usually come from fashion design studies or have been trained on the job. There are schools that offer footwear design courses and are generally considered to be fashion schools. Many designers, however, have not studied fashion, but have learned to apply their creativity to the designing of shoes.
Most of these designers still use pen and paper to create their designs. Some starting from a last (the wooden or plastic tool used to make the shoe) and apply some adhesive tape on it or a plastic shell (tree) and draw the lines of the shoe directly onto the three-dimensional object. This makes the technical transition from design to model easier and more precise because the design is made on the last which will then be used to make the shoe.
Some designers now use illustration and graphic software: the most common are Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. Illustrator allows turning the design into a vector file, which can then be easily modified. Photoshop makes it possible to scan the materials (e.g. leather and fabrics) and to apply the scanned textures to the design in order to create a so-called rendering, namely, a more realistic design that not only shows the lines of the style, but also simulates the final appearance of the shoe once it is made with the materials.
Some companies have started to use 3D CAD software to design fashion shoes. One of the most well-known examples of this is Tempe (Zara), where a team of more than 50 shoe designers designs the products using ICad3D+. The same happens inside the German group, Deichmann which also uses ICad3D+ or the US group, Wolverine, which uses Romans CAD. In my opinion, the biggest advantage of creating a 3D design in fashion companies lies in the possibility to communicate more effectively and with precision to designers, thus avoiding interpretations and adjustments that require revisions and modifications (i.e. time and money).
Not only fast fashion brands use 3D design software (in this case CAD) to coordinate the work between designers and model makers, but also a luxury brand like Hermes. In this case, the process is organized in a different way: the model makers in the Italian factory receive the ideas from the French designers in the traditional way and create the 3D designs before starting the actual prototyping.
In addition to the already mentioned Romans and ICad3D+, there are other 3D design software tools used in the footwear industry such as Shoemaster and Procam. These software tools not only allow creating the 3D design of a shoe but also, starting from this design, making the technical model, i.e. the instructions for cutting the pieces of the upper and the lining of the shoes.
However, things change considerably when we move from the fashion world to sports companies. The time-to-market for new products are very different: technical innovation and the need to guarantee performance require longer times for the work groups who carry out the research, design, industrialisation and field tests of the products placed on the market. An example is Nike’s flyknit, which remained in incubation for a few years before being launched on the market in 2012.
Who designs sports shoes? In sports companies, not many designers come from fashion design schools. It is much more common to find designers who studied industrial and product design. Probably because this type of professional is accustomed to looking at the design in terms of functionality rather than in terms of aesthetics. They are more used to researching the materials and are more familiar with designing moulded items such as rubber or plastic, which are used to make the soles of sports shoes.
Let’s not forget that the sports world is primarily a world of enthusiasts (see for example, Phil Knight’s book “Shoe Dog” on the history of Nike). Therefore, it is common for sports companies to find their personnel, including designers, among the sportsmen themselves or sports enthusiasts. The reason is simple: these people know what customers who practice these sports need, because they practice it themselves with passion (just think of running, but also mountaineering).
Sports shoe designers are used to working with pencil and paper. D’Wayne Edwards, founder of the Pensole school and a designer at Nike, has always declared that everything starts with a pencil (and the pencil is part of the name of the school he founded for lovers of sports shoes). However, designers who studied industrial design are increasingly used to working with graphics software. Like the fashion industry, the most widely used software tools are Illustrator and Photoshop.
They are probably not used at the start, but are used to bring the design to a more technical level after the creative idea has been conceived. Sports companies increasingly want their designers to use 3D modelling software. The same company uses different software tools – think of giants such as Adidas and Nike, as well as New Balance, Asics, Brooks, Mizuno etc. – such as traditional 3D modelling software programs like Rhino and 3Ds Max.
There are many 3D design software tools available on the market, all very different from each other in terms of technical possibilities and cost. A licence for Rhino – one of the most popular – costs less than €1,000 and Rhino plug-ins exist that allow automating many operations needed to design a shoe or sole. While a complete licence of 3D CAD shoe software programs (i.e. Shoemaster, Romans and Icad3d+) can cost a company about €10,000.
Free software tools are also available to create the 3D design.
Clearly, these software only allow creating the 3D design, and it often takes a long time to make some parts of the shoe (think of the strings or tiles of a track sole) which can be designed in a faster and more automated way using shoe design software. What’s more, it is harder to send the design data to those involved in the technical development (both for cutting the pieces of the upper and for creating the mould of a sole).
In many companies, this separation between 3D design and technical development does not seem to be a problem. It is not uncommon to see designers in large companies who have little to do with the technical developers and the company itself does not encourage the use of integrated systems.
Once a 3D design has been created, it has many uses: it can be used to create a prototype of the shoe through 3D printing. The 3D printers available on the market are still not able (but are almost there) to make shoes with the same performances as those produced in the traditional way. But they can already make maquettes to evaluate the look of the shoes and in some cases for an initial evaluation of the fit. A 3D design can also be used by sophisticated rendering systems to create images similar to real photographs. This opens up the possibility of creating virtual catalogues, e-commerce sites and interactive windows in stores and many other applications where 3D design replaces the physical product
Finally, I would like to say a few words about safety footwear sector. A world where – in Europe certainly, but more and more so in other countries – products must meet a complex system of standards that lay down the requirements for so-called personal protective equipment (PPE). In many ways, this sector has aspects that are common to the sports world: functionality is just as important as aesthetics. Moreover, we are talking about shoes with soles in rubber or other plastic materials (e.g. polyurethane) and with constructions similar to those of sports shoes, especially trekking and mountaineering shoes.
Unlike the sports sector, the safety footwear sector is not dominated by large companies and therefore very few technical innovations are seen in this sector, such as those we see in the world of sports shoes.
Designers of safety shoes also come from the world of industrial design, although many are design and production engineers who also like to focus on the design. Most of them work in the traditional manner, with paper and pencil, some use graphics software and others use 3D modelling software, in particular, when you consider the complexity of the structure of soles for work and safety shoes.
To sum up, the world of shoes is very big. Let’s not forget that many of the shoes produced every year (especially in the Far East) are low-cost shoes made entirely of plastic materials. However, the more we move towards shoes with greater added value, the larger the contribution of designers. We have seen that some designers come from creative studios, some from fashion design schools, others from industrial design schools. Shoes are still generally designed in the traditional way using paper and pencil, but more and more companies require the knowledge of software, mainly graphics software such as Illustrator and Photoshop. 3D design software has existed for many years, but it only really began to be used in companies a few years ago, mainly in larger companies and in general sports companies, but not only.