2010 Future Sole Design Competition Nike N7 College Grand Prize Winner.

words_Neil Zemba

Neil Zemba and Wilson Smith III

Neil Zemba and Wilson Smith III

My Future Sole story is perhaps a little different than that of the other finalists. I first heard of the competition through a good friend of mine, Daniel Gold, who had placed second in the Jordan category the year before. At the time, the competition was open only to high school students, and after hearing him talk about what an amazing experience it was, I couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected that I myself, a freshman in college, had narrowly missed what could have been the peak of my Future Sole prime… or so I thought.

One day I got an email from the runner-up himself, saying he had heard college students were going to be included this year. I applied the first possible day. To be honest, I didn’t really know what kind of competition to expect, and I didn’t have high hopes about making it to the next round. I saw it as more of an opportunity to put my stuff out there and see what kind of response I would get in return. It goes without saying that I was both surprised and humbled to find that my designs placed in the top six. To gain recognition from your peers is one thing, but to have professional designers acknowledge your work really is something else entirely. Just seeing my designs up on the website felt unreal.

After a bout of public voting, it came time for the finalists to be announced on Obsessive Sneaker Disorder. To say I was anxious at this point was an understatement. I listened for a while before hearing a familiar voice. Daniel had come on the show as a past finalist to announce the first winner of the trip of a lifetime. He babbled a bit (hi, Dan) before announcing me as a finalist in the college Nike N7 division. The feeling was incredible. I had done it! It’s really easy to assimilate the feeling to how Charlie must have felt after finding a golden ticket; except instead of just eating a bunch of candy, I had to actually do something.

I soon received what would come to be the basis of a month of intense design work, the prompt for my shoe design. I was instructed to make a shoe that would incorporate the Lunerglide+2 tooling, and keep with the N7 brand identity. It was also at this point that I had my first encounter with my mentor, Mr. Wilson Smith III. In retrospect, as amazing as touring Nike’s campus was, perhaps even more incredible was the opportunity to bounce ideas off one of the most prolific shoe designers out there. Wilson was like a fountain of information in a field that, from an industrial standpoint, I was fairly ignorant of. This guy has worked with everyone. He designed the Jordan XVI, XVII and the Agassi line in the ’90s, and has worked on a multitude of other projects. Not to mention that he’s one of the coolest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming in contact with. I can’t say enough good things about him.

After I had a design I was confident in, it was time to head over to Beaverton to see where the magic happened. After touching down in Portland and meeting the other finalists, we headed over to the hotel to get ready for dinner with the man himself, D’Wayne Edwards, the Design Director at Jordan brand and the mastermind behind Future Sole.

After an inspirational talk at dinner from D’Wayne and Wilson, we headed to Nike’s campus the next day for the moment we had all been waiting for. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget what it was like to pass through the entrance to Nike’s campus, and knowing the circumstances as to why I was there made it all the more incredible. We met up for a quick talk before heading out on a tour. The Nike campus is, in a word, awesome. It’s insane. It’s like a perfectly manicured metropolis meets sports fanatic’s utopia. I was completely overwhelmed as I got a glimpse at everything from testing facilities, to the boardroom where Michael Jordan goes to discuss the future of his brand, to the offices of current designers, to the room with all the samples for the following year, to concept boards of products that won’t drop for years. The list goes on and on. One of my favorite parts of the tour was catching a glimpse of the “Innovation Kitchen,” the place where much of Nike’s more experimental design work goes down. The trip would have been more than worth it for that alone. The entire thing was beyond words.

This is the point in the article where I have to admit something. I hate to besmirch the integrity of an article about Nike by acknowledging their tri-striped nemesis, but prior to my involvement in this competition, I was a huge fan of adidas. Huge. I made sure to downplay this character flaw during the tour, during which I was rocking a sick pair of Air Royal mids. Needless to say, I made a great effort to suppress any utterance of the “a” word while a guest in the corporate home of the likes of MJ and Tiger. However, this experience (also needless to say) gave me not only a great appreciation for Nike, but also a strong predilection for it. adidas who?

The next day we returned to campus for what would be our final day of the competition, and the day where we would present our designs to the judges. I had tried to rehearse my presentation and get some sleep the night before, but by that point, I was so overwhelmed by the whole experience that it was hard to do anything but reflect on what I had just seen, and drool. We drove back to headquarters (driving under the entrance was almost cooler the second time) to have breakfast, meet with our mentors again, and take a tour of some design offices and behind-the-scenes areas of the campus. The tour was insane. We got to look at the actual work environments of a lot of designers there and see what they were currently working on. It was an incredible experience to be able to meet and network with designers whose work I had been inspired by on my own project. One of the highlights was meeting Leo Chang while wearing my Hyperfuses. We looked at Nike Basketball, SB, Tennis, and the offices of the newer N7 division.

Now it was business time. We all headed over to the Tiger Woods building to get ready to present our designs to the judges. I felt a combination of nerves and excitement in regards to the presentation. It didn’t take me long to realize how much of an impact it could have on my future. After a bit of rehearsing in the lobby, we moved into the auditorium where the presentations were going to take place. As we walked in, we saw the giant stage where all of our presentation boards had been laid out. In front of each board stood a small table with a Z-core model of our shoes! Seeing an actual 3D model of my shoe was crazy. It’s like reuniting with a long-lost child or something, or at least what I think that would be like: a really cool child with exceptional taste in footwear. Laid out on the other side of the room were a about a hundred-or-so chairs for the guests and judges. I wasn’t that nervous until I took in the scale of the whole thing, at which point it was like my nerves went into a phone booth and became super nervous. I guess I was more anxious, though, than anything. After kicking things off, and watching a polished presentation from Ian Cobb, it was my turn.

After the presentations, the judges tallied up the scorecards and announced the winners. I heard my name. I’m pretty sure I’ve never felt a feeling quite like that before. It’s hard to put in to words, but I felt this kind of overwhelming, surreal sense of accomplishment. Honestly, I really don’t remember whom I thanked afterwards. The whole thing is kind of a haze, but I thanked my man Wilson, my parents (I hope), and certainly D’Wayne, the man who deserved it the most.

Afterwards, we congratulated one another. The effort everyone had put in was more than evident, and I was really surprised by how good all the high school designs were. The winner for the Jordan category was 15!!! We discussed our designs some more with the judges, not wanting to leave the room. After that, there was a dinner for all the Future Sole attendees, followed by some basketball and chilling. I took an opportunity to soak up the campus one more time before getting ready to head back to the mitten.

If I haven’t enough already, I would like to thank D’Wayne once again for making this all possible, and for taking note that college students may in fact want to take part in this amazing contest, too (We do go to school for design, after all). D’Wayne isn’t much of a talker, but one of the more pedagogical points he was sure to make was that, in being afforded this amazing experience, we have a certain responsibility to pass on what we’ve learned to others. I remember thinking how great of a point that was, and since then I’ve made sure to help anyone interested in design, and serve as a mentor to others. For those of you asking if you should enter this competition or not, I think an apt response lies in Nike’s slogan. Just do it. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Neil Zemba's finals board

Read more about the 2010 Future Sole Design Competition.