Next Foot Forward

Nike’s spring collection of sneakers tells us something about the state of industrial design—and the cultural forces shaping it.

From Bangalore to the Bronx, sneakers have evolved from purely functional objects to lifestyle items, prized as much for signifying a wearer’s identity as for enhancing athletic performance. This shift has introduced new challenges for shoe designers. Aside from choosing from the ever evolving palette of materials and technological developments, they must also address such abstract concepts as hipness and cultural politics, as well as factor in consumer beliefs about topics ranging from ethics to sustainability.

So how are these changes affecting sneaker design? By looking at the 2005 spring-summer collection of Nike—which controls roughly 40 percent of the global market for performance shoes—we can glean some clues. Based on this sample, trends ahead include environmental accountability, technological innovation, surface treatments, customization, 1980s reissues, niche products, simplified silhouettes, and minimal material use. And hovering in the distance—but still out of reach—is modularity: the ability to sell sections of shoes so users can replace worn-out parts or assemble their own models.

Recent Programs