Material Matters

Refined by design

Words: Adam Jane Photos: Tim Daws

When William J. Riley founded the New Balance Arch Support Company in 1906, his mission was simple – he wanted to develop products that made it easier for workers to spend long days standing up. One afternoon, observing the pronged feet of chickens scratching about his yard, Riley had the first of many revolutionary ideas, setting the template for the next hundred years of innovation at New Balance.

Perfect timing

Looking at the 574 through the prism of today’s ultra-tech footwear landscape, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about the shoe that has made it such a timeless icon. Perhaps it’s simply a rare combination of form and function, but to really understand why the 574 endures we need to put its construction into a wider context.

The 574 was born at just the right moment in time. 1988 was a transitional time for athletic footwear. Manufacturing technology was advancing rapidly, but product designers were struggling to keep up with the escalation in foam compounds, moulding technology and materials development. Spec sheets were pumped full of hyperbolic terminology to lure high-end consumers, who were demanding increasingly complex engineering in their runners. Hidden in among all those high-impact statements, the 574 was a symphony of surprisingly simple and elegant solutions.

The design itself was a culmination of the innovations developed and trialled by New Balance on the 575 and 576. This allowed the 574 to be produced more or less as a detuned highlights package. Feel, function and support were the three main goals and every element of the design had to fulfill these requirements. In essence, the 574 was all about practical performance at an economical entry point. Here’s just some of the tiny details hidden inside the 574’s unassuming vanilla wrapper.

Heel counter

There’s one small part of the 574 – or any shoe for that matter – that tends to be overlooked. The design of the heel area is one of those little things that you don’t notice until you have blistered heels or a bruised achilles tendon. Comfort is key and it is never overrated.

Shortly before putting the finishing touches to the 574, the New Balance design team did something remarkable. Stuffing a bit of padding into the ergonomically designed heel panel, they cut a little notch at the top to stop the collar from provoking bulging tendons. As far as genius ideas go, it’s not exactly E = mc2, but it was surprisingly effective at making shoes substantially more comfortable.

Elsewhere, the 574’s layered upper provided comfort and support, while the high-density polyurethane foam offered a snug fit that extended above the flex point of the ankle and prevented the higher cut from applying pressure to the exposed heel tendon.

Motion control

At the start of the 1980s, New Balance unveiled the 990. Chock-full of tech credentials, the model introduced the Motion Control Device (MCD) to the top end of the running range.

The MCD may look like a basic plastic horseshoe, but it took NB designers almost four years of intense R&D to perfect a cradle that could demonstrably help neutralise the running plane. That enhanced stability helped prevent pronation, which occurs when the ankle rolls inward throughout a runner’s stride and wreaks havoc on the ankles, knees and hip joints.

Six years after the 990 hit shelves, the 574 was released with a modified MCD to provide a flat, sturdy base for the heel to strike and step off. Some thirty years later, many modern running shoes still utilise the same basic principles.

Encap

No matter how supportive and stable a runner is, it’s compromised without decent cushioning underneath. Up until the mid 80s, shoes featured either soft, lightweight midsoles that provided little support, or solid durable units that were heavy and offered little in the way of energy return.

The main obstacle to achieving the ultimate combination of comfort and stability was the primitive moulding technology available at the time. Standard dual-density soles up until then were formed by cutting up sheets of EVA foam and layering an extra wedge for the heel. This structure offered cushioning on impact and excellent springiness, but the compression didn’t offer much in the way of controlled stability.

New Balance’s solution to this quandary debuted on the 995 model in 1986. ENCAP – a shortening of the word ‘encapsulated’ – featured a stiff shell of PU with a core of cushy EVA hidden inside. The outer walls retained their shape on impact to prevent ankles rolling, while the soft core absorbed energy and bounced back for a more comfortable and efficient ride.
Unfortunately, the two materials are chemically incompatible. At the time, nobody was able to figure out how to combine the beneficial properties of each into a single sole unit. Once again, New Balance found a simple solution to a vexing situation. Their development team came up with a way of suspending an EVA core in a mould, around which they could hot-pour PU to create ENCAP. Problem solved. Runners rejoice.

Epilogue

With so many shoe brands vying for attention with bold, over the top designs in the late 80s, New Balance had the foresight to stick to their principles. The 574 was the end result of endless tinkering that distilled each element of the shoe down to the essence of perfection. It may not be as flashy as its contemporaries, it may not have debuted with overwhelming fanfare, or been loaded with technological gimmickry, but nevertheless, the 574 is a remarkable success story.

The 574 range is available now online from New Balance.

Next story Previous story

The 574 Story
How to live forever

574 Collector
Kevin Downie Interview

Shoichi Aoki
Fruits of Tokyo

All Time High
The Best Limited Edition 574s

Material Matters
Refined by design

574 Variants
The spice of life

Designer Minds
A Chat With The Creator Of The 574 Sport

Made in the USA
The Lawrence NB1 Production Process

Remastered
The Shoe Surgeon's New Balance 574 Sport

2018 Releases
The 574 Revival