Blazing Trails with OG Nike Designer Peter Fogg
Connecting with nature through hiking, mountain-biking and trail running became big business in the 90s. Brands like The North Face, Timberland and Helly Hansen cashed in, making teched-out gear for outdoors adventurers and suburban wannabes. In 1991, Nike expanded their horizons with the official launch of All Conditions Gear. On the frontline was Peter Fogg, architect of the legendary Air Humara, Terra Humara, Terra Sertig, Terra Albis and Air Minot among others. From the veteran designer’s Oregon studio, we look back on some of his career highlights.
You have an incredible list of sneaker designs to your name. How did you come to work at Nike?
I was up in Seattle designing Boeing aircraft interiors, feeling that my design career had hit a dead end, when I received the frightening news that I had Hodgkin’s disease. After recovering from cancer, I needed a change. I discovered that an old classmate Dave Schenone worked at Nike. In the weeks before my interview at Nike, I would draw shoes and roller blades at night. That was my attempt to show them that I was more than an aircraft interior designer. They took a chance and hired me. I was a 39-year-old guy with one scuba diving boot as my total footwear experience.
Do airplanes and sneakers have much in common in terms of design?
Not really. An airplane is very engineer-driven and the designer is most likely part of a large team working on a three- to five-year timeline. In the end, most of your work will never go further than foam core mockups.
I was pretty good with an X-ACTO knife by the end!
With footwear design, one inline designer can be responsible for two or three shoes per season, which was a bit of a shock for me, so the transition wasn’t as smooth as you might think. I remember the season I was designing the Sertig and Albis, there were four projects assigned to me. I had to give two of them to another designer because I just couldn’t get everything done on time. There were days when I was definitely second-guessing my decision to come to Nike.
What’s it like designing a new shoe?
If you work in Nike Basketball, the process is driven by performance, athletes, stories and wear-testing, whereas Nike Sportswear is driven by comfort, colour, lifestyle and retro design. My process would start with a marketing brief defining items like target consumer, problems to solve and the final price. From there, it was collecting info, rough idea sketches and getting out into the world of your consumer.
I’m a big believer in mockups, working with your hands and getting early samples from the factory to evaluate ideas. I spent way too much time sketching, but that’s one of the fun parts for me. I always felt I needed to explore every possible option in the time I was given.
How much consideration did you give to the fashion perspective of your designs?
A great deal of consideration goes into the looks. I think it’s fair to say that every designer is trying to achieve both great performance and appealing aesthetics. Performance can be tested and evaluated while aesthetics are subjective. I understand that a lot a people bought my trail shoes and never used them for that purpose and that’s cool. I never went out of my way to ask non-runners what they thought of my designs, unless it was my wife or kids. [Laughs]
Nike has created some of the most iconic colour combos of all time. What influenced the colours you chose?
Colour makes or breaks a shoe. I remember drawing inspiration from mountain bikes and outdoor gear for trail shoes. When I worked on the Sertig and Albis, the colours were inspired by European consumers. I also looked to race cars for inspiration. The original Terra Humara colourway was inspired by the Air Max 95 and the shoe’s black midsole. When I started with Nike Running — before computers and colour specialists — the marketing and design departments would sit in a room colouring in the line art for the entire season.
Why did Nike get into trail running?
New Balance and adidas had some success with trail and Nike wanted to get serious about the category. The need for quality trail shoes is real. A lot of runners enjoy being away from cars and the city. It’s nice to have boosted traction, durable materials and darker colourways, because your shoes get dirty when they’re exposed to the elements. At the time, I believed the shoes would only be used for the trail, and so the lug traction was extra aggressive on the first versions on shoes like the Sertig and Albis.
What inspired the Humara?
Inspiration comes from everywhere. Images, athletes, stories, words and research all help to define a design. A lot of my shoes have several points of inspiration. For example, the Humara was inspired by lightweight camping tents, webbing, climbing shoes and a Nike cross-training shoe with a fabric-wrapped midsole. The Sertig and Albis names came from mountainous areas in Switzerland. I wanted the shoes to look low, fast and balanced like a Formula One race car. The Minot took inspiration from slow-moving vehicles, caution signs and reflective 3M. Every shoe has a story.
I heard the Zoom Tallac is your favourite.
Yes, the Zoom Tallac is right at the top. I like it because we created something entirely new. Every decision was driven by a single goal. We wanted to design a boot that weighed 16oz and could still do everything other heavy boots could do. I had a great team around me that went for this crazy looking boot, which was my first. The factory performed some magic with the moulded plastic support, Gore-Tex and construction. The wear-testing was done by professional mountain guides and rock climbers. The Zoom Tallac is an example of designing for the top-of-the-mountain consumer, but in the end also trying to appeal to everyone. The design inspiration was drawn from the skeleton of a bat wing, moulded supports on basketball shoes, and materials used in backpacks.
Is it cool to see the Humara back on shelves?
When one of my shoes like the Humara is brought back, it’s always exciting to see the new colourways and materials. I’m no expert on why certain shoes are brought back, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with the original model’s popularity. Trail shoes are versatile, practical and go with everything. Just don’t put trail uppers on blow-bag tooling.
Why was Humara not in the ACG catalogue and presented instead within the Nike Running category?
ACG and Running were completely separate categories. All the trail shoes I designed in the 90s were actually designed for Nike Running. Trail shoes need to be great running shoes first and foremost. Later, when I was in ACG, the category started designing trail running shoes because Nike Running had stopped designing them.
‘The Humara was inspired by lightweight camping tents, webbing, climbing shoes and a Nike cross-training shoe with a fabric-wrapped midsole. The Sertig and Albis names came from mountainous areas in Switzerland. I wanted the shoes to look low, fast and balanced like a Formula One race car. The Minot took inspiration from slow-moving vehicles, caution signs and reflective 3M. Every shoe has a story.’
OK, makes sense. How did the idea of trail running push into mainstream consciousness?
Trail running was always the red-headed stepchild in the running category, and pushing trail shoes out into the mainstream was an uphill battle. All the money and advertising budgets went into the brand’s well-known running shoes. I just tried to design the best shoe I could and hoped it would gain a following in the trail community. Having a shoe break into the mainstream was always a surprising bonus.
The Terra Humara was featured in Vogue magazine. How did that article change people’s impressions about trail running?
The Vogue article made me laugh so hard. The idea that models and Hollywood actors were wearing the Humara was just funny to me. I was under the impression that my trail running designs would be used for trail running. The article created a lot of pressure on every trail shoe that followed the Terra Humara. It also helped bring some attention to trail running and what was possible, so that was cool.
Nerd question. What was up with the Air bubbles in the Terra Humara midsole?
The Terra Humara was one of the earliest trail shoes to use a visible airbag in the midsole. Naturally, one of the concerns was punctures caused by sticks and rocks. I wanted to protect the airbag but still make it visible, hence the recessed circular windows. The medial side had smaller windows for improved stability on that side of the shoe. The circles also referenced my disc brake inspiration.
Why do you think you were able to capture the ethos of this category so well?
I think I was there at just the right time. Marketing and the design team leadership put their trust in me even when my early sketches looked a bit rough. The success of the Humara helped. I also had the opportunity to design loads of trail product, which helped my odds of coming up with some winners. Some of my designs never made it to icon status, but they were still good shoes to run in. There is no magic formula to ensure a design becomes iconic.
You ended up transitioning into Nike’s Basketball division. How did that come about?
I was working for a small group called Elements doing boots and sport slides. Leo Chang called me up one day and asked if I would like to work in Basketball. Going from a little group like Elements to Basketball wasn’t going to be easy and I thought about it for a day or so. I actually had to interview for the job because other designers were interested, which meant I needed to update the portfolio I hadn’t touched since the day I interviewed at Nike 16 years earlier! But it went well and I was hired. In the end I designed some pretty cool shoes, such as the Hypermayhem, Hyperposite, Hyperdunk, Venomenon, Hyperfranchise and the Hyperrev 2015, to name a few.
How does designing basketball shoes compare to the trail runners?
Every sport has a different list of performance requirements and I think basketball is right there at the top. Every movement is considered and specifically designed for. A good basketball shoe considers traction, side-to-side support, locking the foot down, weight and comfort. You also have to consider a professional NBA player’s size, strength and speed. All those demands require an extensive wear-test program.
Was any one design particularly challenging?
There are times when you need to redesign a shoe, put in extra work, fly to Asia to save the project and, in the end, it still might get dropped. The Slot, named for slot canyons, was the ultimate water shoe and I thought it was great. The design was cool and functional, but in the end, it didn’t make it into production. That’s always disappointing, but it happens. Another challenging project was the ACG Watercat. The upper was woven into the tooling to reduce waste and adhesives. Basically, I was working on an innovation project but on inline timelines. We could have used a lot more testing time on that one but it did get produced in small numbers.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
When I started at Nike, I wrote down two words: have fun. That was my advice to myself. I think overall, fun definitely played out in my designs, and in my choices throughout my career at Nike.