Shoe Design: Footloose and Valued

Joel Olympio
3 min readFeb 16, 2021

I think there’s something special about designing shoes that isn’t found in many other industries; the freedom of aesthetic and expression. The principle function of shoes is to protect our feet. This function has been studied, developed and perfected for decades, leaving design as the sole incubator for the shoe industry. There’s been small iterative improvements to shoe functionality but not enough to differentiate one company from another or drive profit. Hence, aesthetic is valued in the shoe industry perhaps more so than in any other industry.

Nike x Virgil Abloh Air Jordans

Shoes have become a vessel for expression, wearable art without sacrificing function. But why just shoes? Why aren’t we seeing a similar culture around other forms of apparel? It could be attributed to cultural reasons or fashion trends but I think it’s actually the form of the shoe that allows it to be so expressive hence creating a culture around them. There’s only so many ways to design a t-shirt or a pair of jeans but the very form of shoes makes way for seemingly limitless designs and explorations. Even though it is limited to the shape of our feet, every year we’re finding new ways to reimagine the shoe and I think this is just one of many cases of limitation stimulating creation.

Nike Go FlyEase — Hands-Free Shoe

Why is there such a passionate culture around shoe design? Some people have the mindset that shoes are purely functional. They just need to protect their feet, get them from point A to point B and occasionally match the occasion. But then there are people who would buy shoes not even to wear but just to display, collect shoes that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Why is this so? Well shoes have become a cultural symbol, a symbol of status and personality and while clothes can have this symbolic nature too, the more robust and striking form of shoes are more effective in sharing a fragment of one’s personality.

“the primary function of shoes, whether sneakers, stilettos or even Crocs, isn’t about their practicality; it’s about identity, about communicating who we are to the world around us.”

- Sabrina Maddeaux, National Post

Adidas x Donald Glover — a newly tattered look

I have this idea that some of the energy that’s expended when we walk, run, hop and skip is converted into the shoes we wear when doing so. Shoes can have this living energy in them that can help us reminisce on the past. “Those were the shoes I wore when I travelled to Africa for the first time”, “Those were the shoes I wore when I did my final exams”. You can step into shoes both literally and figuratively and be transported into another time. If you’re imaginative enough they can be like a time capsule and in that regard, buying a new pair of shoes is like starting a new chapter in life. And much like starting something new, at first a new pair of shoes can feel uncomfortable or unconforming but over time you adapt to them.

“Not only is footwear an extension of self, it also acts as a repository of memory and meaning in our lives.”

- Russell W. Belk (2003) ,”Shoes and Self”, in NA — Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 27–33.