As you probably know, shoe design is a new passion of mine. I've been totally immersing myself in it, learning how to customize shoes and now slowly even making my own patterns. In my research I found shoe designer Mike Friton's work and of course, had to talk with him.
Mike has been doing just about everything related to shoe design over the last 39 years. When he was a student at University of Oregon he started working with the legendary Bill Bowerman, founder of Nike. Mike was there at the beginning of Nike's Innovation Kitchen, the underground shoe lab at Nike headquarters. Now, after working with Bowerman for 18 years and creating some of Nike's most iconic shoes for decades, he's running his own footwear prototype studio in Portland.
I loved hearing from Mike because you can just tell he's a true maker – straight to the point, no bullshit 🙂 I hope you enjoy this interview with him as much as I did.
Hey Mike, let's get right to it. I’m a big believer that one side project or small opportunity can change your life. Was that the case for you? I read that your first job for Bill Bowerman was helping him build a stone water fountain. How did that turn into making shoes for Nike?
I was on the University of Oregon track team and quit college at the end of my junior year because I was having a difficult time with the track coach. The running community in Eugene, Oregon was very tight knit so when Bowerman found out, he gave me a call to build the water fountain. I had never talked to him before then. Of course I knew of him, the legendary retired UofO coach and co-founder of Nike.
Mike and Bill back in the day
I grew up in Eugene and often worked with my father, a stone and brick mason. Bowerman always tested people by putting them to work. He showed me the project and then left with very few words. I finished in about two days. He thought it would take longer, so I passed my first test. Then he invited me to work in his shoe lab cleaning up. He had another man working there who was very difficult to work with. I managed to handle it well so I passed the second test. Then he put me to work making shoes.
You pioneered the “foot first” approach, creating shoes that support our body’s natural movement. Is this a common approach now, or is the industry overall still focusing on layers of cushion and other methods that potentially change our natural movement?
Healthy shoes should follow our feet or natural gait. Most support features on shoes are meant to hold our feet to a platform that does not want to follow our natural movement. They are addressing HOW we fix the problem rather than asking WHY is this a problem? “How” is often an additive solution path whereas “Why” is often a subtractive solution path.
A peek into Mike's workshop
How does the Goatek shoe you created fit into this?
I don’t connect the Goatek to this directly. Goatek was inspired by a description of how a Mountain Goat’s foot works from a book called “A Beast the Color of Winter” by Douglas H. Chadwick. The most important feature is the tissue behind the nail being softer and mapping to the surface or the terrain for better traction. I feel that this is also how the soft pads on our feet and hands work — this is quite different from lugged soles that look like car tires. So in a way yes, looking more closely at nature, including our own, for answers.
“Brands create too many stories about performance and technology based on pure fiction.”
Aside from brands with their manufacturers, it seems like shoemaking is a lost art. Is that an accurate perception? Do you know of many shoe designers doing what you do, making athletic shoes on your own outside of a shoe or clothing company?
There are very few shoe makers making athletic shoes because they can’t compete with the big brands. What has really been lost is a deep understanding of the art of building athletic shoes. They are becoming more about fashion, resulting in harmful conditions for the wearer. Brands create too many stories about performance and technology based on pure fiction.
My work involves constant exploration for new methods and materials. If I can’t find what I need, I try to invent something that works. I call myself a maker, craftsman and a designer in those terms. I’m not a stylist working on a computer generating beautiful graphics. I have to work with my hands and read the concept as it develops.
You helped design the Presto, one of Nike’s most popular comfort shoes (and my personal favorite). What are the main design differences between a true athletic shoe and a comfort or fashion sneaker like the Presto?
The Presto did not start out to be a comfort or fashion shoe. It does have some performance value as a training shoe. The development name for the Presto was the “Comfy” because it was so comfortable. The inspiration for the upper was the Nike Huarache. I designed the original upper, extending the stretch material forward into the vamp. I used breathable spacer fabric in a simple three piece design (plus the lining).
An early sketch of the Nike Air Presto (image by Nike)
When we tried the upper on without the midsole/outsole it felt like a sock, which gave us the name and the idea of sizing it Small, Medium, Large. I think we ended up with nine sizes total to fit everyone. We were going to follow up in later seasons with an actual sock knit upper — we also considered designing the midsole to stretch and move so that seven or less sizes would fit everyone. Early prototypes of this met with criticism because they looked like socks.
That was 20 years ago. Now look where the market is at.
Custom Prestos for Eric Clapton (image by Nike)
You've said that Bowerman told you “make good stuff, do no harm and keep it simple.” What would you personally add to that after more than three decades of practice?
Not much. My focus today primarily is “do no harm.” The methods of athletic shoe making today can be very harmful to the wearer. My answer to this is educating new startups and designers about the problems and possible solution paths. I see the larger brands moving more toward fashion and increasing the bottom line. It’s easier to work with the next generation. They are much more open to listening and doing.
I was excited to see you worked on the Nike MAGS. I know the Innovation team had to wait a few years for battery technology to improve before they could design a functional self-tying shoe. Do you often feel like you're waiting on technology to catch up with the ideas in your head?
I primarily worked on engineering the upper pattern with the internal moving straps and cords. I eventually moved on to finding solutions that don’t require batteries and motors. I came up with a unique solution that was patented but has not been released. After leaving Nike I developed a number of hands-free closures that are mechanical, not electrical. I hope to find the right partner for these; they would have the greatest benefit to people with disabilities.
The iconic Nike Mags with "Adaptive Fit" self-tying technology (image by Nike)
I think we are a long way off in finding technology that is any better than the normal healthy shape of the foot. A lot of companies make crazy claims to sell shoes. All we really need with today’s surfaces are a little help with traction and puncture resistance.
Weaving has influenced your shoe designs in obvious ways, but I know you also experiment a lot with paper sculpture. How have your paper projects played into your shoemaking?
I look at Origami and Kirigami as mental exercise to understand how you can manipulate flat sheet goods into 3D form. You can also dramatically and predictably change the physical characteristics of material using these art forms.
Weaving and paper sculpture inspires Mike's shoe designs
What's your favorite shoe you've ever designed and why?
The last shoe project I worked on at Nike is my favorite because it was focused on helping a young man with disability. This became the Flyease. I have helped many young people with disabilities throughout my years at Nike. It was always my belief that Nike should take this work to heart. With the Flyease it has happened. Most of credit should go to Tobie Hatfield for navigating the political process at Nike.
“To be a fully developed designer you have to understand how and more importantly WHY things are made the way they are.”
What's your advice for people who want to be a shoe designer? What would be the key steps to getting started? The advice online is, as always, overwhelming.
Learn how athletic shoes are made and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
Anyone can jump on a computer and make beautiful graphics with very little training. To be a fully developed designer you have to understand how and more importantly “WHY” things are made the way they are. This also means understanding how the foot moves dynamically. That’s more important than just measuring the foot statically.
You also must develop a good understand of the “last” or form the shoe is built on. It is a static shape that has to work in unison with the dynamic foot. This is the primary misalignment that causes harm today. Finally: Design the shoe to follow the foot. Don’t design a shoe the foot has to follow.
Thanks so much for doing this interview, Mike! I admire your work a lot and can't wait to see what you create next. To learn more about Mike's work and even take his classes, visit fritondesign.com.
All images of Mike and his workshop are from "The Innovator" by Cineastas Video Production.