The force behind the Free, Nike’s Mark Miner is one of the most progressive sneaker designers on the planet. Young, resourceful and driven to push sneakers to their technical potential, Miner’s work on the Free Run+ and the concept of ‘adaptive fit’ has reshaped the running category industry-wide. It’s taken Mark and his team untold hours to turn the simple idea of a shoe that moves when you move into a reality. Even the seemingly innocuous perforated pattern adorning the Free’s exterior became a painstaking process of manual trial and error as Mark strived to make the upper’s every flex conform to the needs of the user. We caught up with Mark to get the story behind the new Free range and to pick his brain on the future of footwear.
Why sneakers? Watching you draw you’re clearly a talented artist.. what attracted you to sneaker design?
I grew up drawing many things, actually everything but sneakers! Growing up sneakers were on my feet and not on my mind. I was not familiar with sneaker design as a career opportunity. A curiosity and passion for the world, products, and people grew and from this, my path to the industry began.
How did you find your way to Beaverton?
Being a footwear designer wasn’t something that I grew up wanting to do. Now thinking about it, it’s funny because I had so many shoes as a kid. When I was in high school I had hundreds of pairs and now it’s just SCARY HOW MANY SHOES I HAVE! In College my frustration with what I saw in the stores resulted in cutting shoes and exploring how they were made and re-designing them. I took my designs to a professor at Parsons School of Design to get more knowledge and found a job opportunity during my freshmen summer. In a year’s time, I was flying over to China to develop and see my shoes being manufactured. Now, nine years later and having done fashion to performance and moved across the country, it has been a journey to now being where I am today.
What sneakers were you into as a kid?
I would wear different shoes throughout the day and always wished there was a shoe that could do it all. Materials on sneakers always got me excited. The many patterns, finishes, textures and how they all were done on the shoes.
How do you go about designing each new Free?
Begin with understanding what was working and what needs to be improved from the previous Nike Free Run. Working with athletes and local runners who have been wearing the shoes helps to find a focus for where to start designing. With this shoe, it is really focusing around the foot and how the shoe moves with you while you’re running. Once you gather your ideas you begin to make prototypes and test them to see how they will perform. Many times what you think might work doesn’t always work that way so it takes patience and continued problem solving. This is the part of the process that I truly enjoy! The shoe will continue to go through multiple rounds of testing. During this process, materials are tested and color designers create color blocking options. Colors were a key part of the story for the shoe as we wanted to use color to highlight the new performance details on the shoe. As you can see the process of designing a shoe involves many people and it is a continuous process.
Adaptability seems to be at the heart of the Free concept. Has Free taken over where cross training left off?
I don’t think it’s about where cross training was left but more at diving in on an insight. That insight being based around the foot/body and diving deep to understand how it functions. The Free line now has really influenced many sneakers and how they function and feel.
Are you already thinking about the next generation of Free? What do you really want to the next Frees to focus on?
Yes, we are on to the next. I can’t give away what those will be but can say that we are focused on designing around the body/foot and enhancing the experience you have when you wear the sneakers. When you put them on you won’t want to take them off!
What shoes do you think we’ll be wearing in ten or twenty years from now? How much further do you think sneaker design can be pushed?
To be honest I thought the Jetsons world would already be here; robots, flying cars, space kicks with little orbiting rings around the ankle! Really! Some of my thoughts take me to what we wear so many years out and most of those thoughts start with the world that we would be living in. Sneaker design can be pushed much farther than how it functions in our lifestyles.
Designers at Nike seem to have a more public face than at some other brands. Do you think that public engagement process helps you create a better product?
Creating better product can come from many areas! I personally have enjoyed getting a opportunity to share the stories behind the designs. From this recent Nike Free collection it has been great to share with you guys how I work and the sketching ideation that went behind the shoes. The creative process behind what we make here is special and would love to see more of it shown!
What does it take to be a good designer? What advice do you give up and coming designers who dream of making their mark at Nike?
I would start off by playing off the words you just mentioned. You said “good” and nothing is wrong with “good” but ask yourself, do you want to be “good” or “great”? When I discovered this it truly helped me out and drove me to higher heights. This doesn’t directly speak to design only but was something that my bball coach once said, “Hustle Beats Talent If Talent Doesn’t Hustle.” This really speaks to the dedication and relentless effort to go after what you want. That desire will take you to many places and one place could be Nike!