words & images_Nick DePaula

2010 Future Sole Design Competition College Finals – Nike N7 Category Grand Prize Winner: Neil Zemba

This year’s Future Sole Design Competition Finals saw quite a few changes, as for the first time in the contest’s three-year history, college students were allowed to enter. Neil Zemba, an art student currently enrolled at the University of Michigan, was one of eight design finalists chosen to compete in this year’s Future Sole Finals held at Nike’s Beaverton-based headquarters. He credits his first visit to the Detroit Auto Show with sparking his interest in design and hopes to pursue a career in the industry after graduation.

Competing in the Nike N7 College Category, Zemba was challenged to design a Nike N7 Running shoe that could combine familiar details, materials and graphics of Native American ancestry with today’s look of modern simplicity and function. Given the base tooling of the hugely popular Nike LunarGlide+ 2, and with the help of mentor Wilson Smith III, a designer in Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, Zemba produced this detailed storyboard of sketches, inspiration and performance attributes that together made up his Nike N7 Running entry.

Enjoy a word-for-word account of Neil Zemba’s Grand Prize winning Nike N7 entry,  just as it was presented.

As told by Neil Zemba:

My shoe is the meaner, rougher and tougher version of the LunarGlide 2. It’s a running shoe that’s meant for more urban, off-road and rough terrain.

My shoe was inspired by mainly three things: sport, protection and simplicity. These are all principles that I took directly from my main inspiration right here, which is the buffalo. I was inspired by the buffalo in two ways. One, because of the physical characteristics of the animal; it’s very robust, it’s very strong and that’s something that you’re going to want in a running shoe of this sort. Also, because of how Native Americans use the animal in a very efficient manner. They use every part of the animal. They don’t let anything go to waste. For simplicity, I took that as being synonymous with efficiency.

In just seeing the shoe, there’re two main parts of it in the midsole and the vamp. Right here, you have this rand-like element that wraps all of the way around the shoe and then wraps over the top of the shoe as well. In the vamp, you have a single piece of mesh that has a little bit more give and complements the vamp. That really speaks to simplicity, and I’m using very few materials to get a lot of things done. I also wanted to eliminate superfluous little pieces of fabric throughout the shoe, and instead you have this rand that is more dominant in certain areas where you’d want it to be, and then in other areas it’s more recessive.

The second key principle I looked at was protection. The main thing I’ll reference is the flap, and underneath the flap you have the lace system and it does use Flywire for added protection. To emphasize that, you have this flap that comes over and gives it a midfoot story and locks down the midfoot. Also in terms of protection, you have this heel piece that comes around the back, made of TPU plastic, and it really locks down the heel. When you’re running in off-road terrain environments, and running from the sidewalk to the street and constantly switching terrain, this is going to help lock down the heel and prevent it from rolling. I also tried to incorporate the color and the graphic [into the protection story] as well. There’s a very traditional native pattern [along the medial side] and the rand is also similar to a material you’d find on a bike reflector, so the material would protect the runner from cars. Protection goes beyond just the physical structure of the shoe and goes into the graphics as well.

The third principle that I worked on was the support of the shoe. It has a lot to do with fit, it has a lot to do with how I integrated this TPU piece in the back into the physical tooling of the shoe to lock down the heel. I was thinking support in terms of fit as well, and in talking about a demographic for the shoe, I really tried to use this flexible mesh in the vamp that’s similar to a Presto. Native Americans typically have a wider foot, so that would allow you to wear the shoe and have a good fit.

Another element was also the graphic story. The shoe is optimized as a canvas for graphics. I was thinking that instead of me doing a lot of the graphic work, you could also have some artists come in and do some collaborative projects and make it really more culturally relevant than just a designer doing it.

I also really liked to play with color on the shoe. Native Americans really like to have a gradient feel in their beadwork, and I was inspired by that with a gradient pattern that followed through in the tooling and midsole. The two main colors I used were black and turquoise. The black is synonymous with the crow and victory in a lot of Native American cultures, which is also what “Nike” means in Greek. The turquoise means “friendship,” and melds into the midsole and outsole, implying a friendship with the earth. The insoles have a perf pattern and are green and blue, the two colors of the earth.

In terms of materials and patterns, there would be a mirage synthetic and type of kangaroo leather, and I was picturing that the main rand material would be real sturdy and built for more outdoor, rougher environments. The vamp, as I said before, would be real stretchy and inspired by Presto material that would allow for people of multiple foot sizes to wear the shoe. At the end of the day, it’s about the relationship between the shoe, the consumer and the environment. That triangle relationship was the main inspiration for my shoe.