Interview | Mike Friton, Nike’s Innovative Footwear Designer

Mike Fri­ton has an unas­sum­ing, quiet pres­ence. He recently trav­elled to Hong Kong to teach a five day innov­a­tion work­shop with Dutch foot­wear school SLEM, and attends to stu­dents in a care­ful and con­sidered man­ner. Yet under­neath this quiet demean­or, Fri­ton pos­sesses a stel­lar port­fo­lio of foot­wear design work in career span­ning thirty years. His jour­ney star­ted at the Bower­man Lab, an ath­let­ic think tank cre­ated by Nike co-founder Bill Bower­man, before he joined Nike in 1998. Dur­ing his time at the com­pany, Fri­ton cre­ated icon­ic mod­els such as the Nike Presto and the Nike Woven, before leav­ing the com­pany in 2011 to estab­lish his own com­pany, Fri­ton Design. We talk to the man about the future of foot­wear, why he loved (then left) Nike, and the reas­on ath­leti­cism isn’t everything any­more.

Interview | Mike Friton, Nike’s Innovative Footwear Designer

YOU GREW UP IN PORTLAND ORE­GON, WHICH HAD A STRONG RUN­NING CUL­TURE. WHAT DID THIS MEAN GROW­ING UP ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS ?

Well I actu­ally I grew up in Eugene which is south of Ore­gon, where the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon is loc­ated. When I was young, Steve Pre­fon­taine was the rock­star of run­ning and every kid knew about that. The schools that I went to, the coaches all were run­ners and ran with Bill Bower­man. The sport was so pop­ular primar­ily because of the favour­able envir­on­ment, which brought the sport to a new level.

WHEN WAS THE FIRST MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU THOUGHT TO YOUR­SELF THAT YOU COULD MAKE A CAREER OUT OF DESIGN­ING FOOT­WEAR ?

I grew up in a fam­ily of stone­ma­sons, artists and build­ing fire­places, so I was always around hands-on craft. Also with stone masonry, you have to learn how to see things in a three dimen­sion­al from. So you are look­ing at a pos­it­ive shape and see­ing how it will fit into a neg­at­ive shape in a three dimen­sion­al space. That was sort of the basis of the appre­ci­ation. And then when I star­ted run­ning a lot, I was always ques­tion­ing what was going on with the shoes I was wear­ing. I star­ted cut­ting shoes up and play­ing with them before I star­ted work­ing at Nike. Bower­man saw that and appre­ci­ated that, and he took me into his shop and I star­ted work­ing with.

AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPER­I­ENCE LIKE WORK­ING WITH BOWER­MAN ?

My first exper­i­ence was actu­ally with stone masonry. He wanted to build a water foun­tain on the track. Run­ners had to go a long way to find water so he wanted some­thing right on the track to hydrate. He showed me the stone and mater­i­als and said he would see me in a couple of days. I fin­ished in almost one day and he came back and was sur­prised.

 

Interview | Mike Friton, Nike’s Innovative Footwear Designer

AND WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRES­SION OF HIM AS A PER­SON ?

He was a very strong man. He was one of the best coaches the United States has ever had in track and field. He was also a per­son that knew how to bring people togeth­er and accom­plish things. Even at Nike, people saw him as inde­pend­ent and on a path of his own. But he didn’t do it alone, he had a com­munity of ten doc­tors he worked with as well as ath­letes who were involved. He knew how to bring the right people togeth­er, and that’s what I really appre­ci­ated about him.

WHAT ARE SOME LES­SONS YOU’VE LEARNT THROUGH­OUT YOUR CAREER ?

There are so many les­sons I’ve had, its hard to pick one. When I was young­er it was really about being an ath­lete and what I could do to achieve a higher level of ath­leti­cism, includ­ing what I could do with the pro­duct of the shoes. Now it’s about doing the right thing in a healthy way– try­ing to find a bet­ter way to make things health­i­er for people, such as work­ing with ortho­pedic com­pan­ies, mak­ing braces, work­ing with people of dis­ab­il­it­ies… Not just elite ath­letes but people with dis­ab­il­it­ies. I actu­ally learn more from them than I do with ath­letes, since there is a chal­lenge.

YOU LATER WORKED AT NIKE FOR A GOOD NUM­BER OF YEARS AS PART OF THE INNOV­AT­IVE KIT­CHEN. WHAT WAS SPE­CIAL ABOUT THE EXPER­I­ENCE ?

Well it has changed a lot and is part of the reas­on why I left. In the begin­ning, we played and learned. It was more open to explor­ing any dir­ec­tion we wanted to go. It was also only a small num­ber of people, but now it’s huge ! There are hun­dreds of people and it has got­ten more focused, partly because of the size. But as it got more focused, it wasn’t as appeal­ing to me because I couldn’t explore or go off on dif­fer­ent tan­gents. I wanted to go out and do it on my own and it’s been a great exper­i­ence ever since.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN DUR­ING THAT TIME IN THE INNOV­AT­IVE KIT­CHEN ?

It was really about hav­ing the will­ing­ness to play as an adult. As a child you have the freedom to play. But as an adult, you are expec­ted to have ser­i­ous approaches to things. And it’s unfor­tu­nate, because you really need that play zone to let your mind and your body and everything par­ti­cip­ate and bring out new ideas. It’s much more dif­fi­cult to tak­ing a ser­i­ous approach to solv­ing prob­lems than it is with a play­ful approach.

HAS YOUR BEST SHOE MOD­ELS AND IDEAS COME FROM PLAY­ING ?

Yes. And it can be play­ing as in par­ti­cip­at­ing in sport and being an ath­lete and doing things. I think to be a great ath­lete you need to have that play instinct at a pretty high level. You can’t just be a robot, you have to make a little magic hap­pen.

YOU LEFT NIKE IN 2011 AND SINCE THEN HAVE PLACED A GREAT­ER EMPHAS­IS ON TEACH­ING, SUCH AS THIS WORK­SHOP WITH SLEM. WHAT ARE SOME KEY PRIN­CIPLES YOU TRY TO COM­MU­NIC­ATE ?

Well it’s not just about what they get, but also about what I get. I actu­ally learn a lot more from them than they learn from me. So that’s really import­ant for me. It helps to keep the excite­ment alive in what I do. You show some­body some basic thing that you learn and all the sud­den if you allow them to, they go off into a mil­lion new dir­ec­tions. I show people things and then let them go, let them play. I don’t try to con­trol them. I tell them here’s a tool you can use, use it any way you want. So I see a lot of things that inspire me. And I see things from today’s work­shop that I could incor­por­ate into my explor­a­tions as well.

The best play is a shar­ing pro­cess, and in a big envir­on­ment when you have a lot of people, play can become more selfish. But if it’s a smal­ler more col­lab­or­at­ive group, it’s very pos­it­ive. I think that’s the nature of human begins, if the bubble is too large its too hard to man­age.

 

Interview | Mike Friton, Nike’s Innovative Footwear Designer

RIGHT NOW WE LIVE IN AN INCREAS­INGLY COR­POR­ATE CLI­MATE WHICH PLACES GREAT­ER EMPHAS­IS ON THE DOL­LAR LINE. DO YOU FEEL THIS DIS­COUR­AGES AN ENVIR­ON­MENT WHERE PEOPLE CAN PLAY ?

Not neces­sar­ily. I think there are com­pan­ies who are bet­ter at it than oth­ers. I mean if you look at Google or even Nike in some pock­ets, it works. Even in the Innov­at­ive Kit­chen, there are some groups. It depends a lot on how the man­ager handles it. There are people who are good man­agers, and there are oth­ers who are not. I see it in the cor­por­ate world, where there are people who aren’t really ready or don’t make good man­agers and they are pro­moted any­way.

I’ve seen a lot of great design­ers pro­moted and put into pos­i­tions where they have to man­age and I ask why. They were doing such a great job and now they have to man­age to get a pro­mo­tion. Why not just pro­mote them as they are ? But that’s the cor­por­ate poli­cy. I don’t think every­body is cut out to be a man­ager. I don’t do well as man­ager. I don’t ever want to be in a pos­i­tion where I have to man­age a lot of people, but I love to play and I love to teach.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME KEY INFLU­ENCES THAT ARE CHAN­GING THE WAY FOOT­WEAR WILL BE DEFINED IN THE FUTURE ?

I see a lot of tex­tile innov­a­tions espe­cially in knit­ting and weav­ing. Those are things we worked on in Nike many years ago, so we’re see­ing it com­ing to the fore­front now, which is pretty amaz­ing. When we star­ted, the tech­no­logy wasn’t as advanced as it is now so we were strug­gling. But now you can see things hap­pen­ing that we wish we could have done then. There’s still oppor­tun­it­ies to see this pro­gress more, with new tex­tiles and tech­niques. But what I’ve seen over the years with fash­ion trends, things can change really drastic­ally at times. So with this whole tex­tile phase, you nev­er know. We could go back to leather, or plastic.

YES, FASH­ION DOES HAVE A PRO­FOUND EFFECT ON THE EVOL­U­TION OF TRENDS, AND DIC­TATES THE DIR­EC­TION OF PRO­DUCT DEVEL­OP­MENT.

Yes, in ath­let­ic foot­wear, fash­ion and man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses come before fit and com­fort unfor­tu­nately. But that’s the same with high-end fash­ion shoes like pumps and high heels. Fash­ion rules. It goes back to human nature and ego : we want to look good. But for design­ers, and that’s where I’m push­ing, if there is an aware­ness of the health aspect, they can improve this and do a bet­ter job. But if you leave this to the man­u­fac­turer or a high-end fash­ion design­er who doesn’t have that know­ledge, then you might as well go back to foot-bind­ing [laughs]. You’re just des­troy­ing people’s health.

AND DO YOU FEEL THIS NEEDS TO BE TAUGHT MORE IN SCHOOLS ?

Well that’s my part, I‘m try­ing to do that with stu­dents I teach. I’d like to get more inform­a­tion out on my web­site. But I don’t want to do that alone, I don’t want it to be just my opin­ion, but also those from the med­ic­al and bio­mech­an­ics com­munity as well. My opin­ion is con­stantly evolving as I learn more, so it has to be sup­por­ted in a pos­it­ive way to reach it’s full poten­tial. That’s what I learnt from Bower­man.

Image Source : Mike Fri­ton, SLEM

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SLEM, and attends to students in a careful and considered manner. Yet underneath this quiet demeanor, Friton possesses a stellar portfolio of footwear design work in career spanning thirty years. His journey started at the Bowerman Lab, an athletic think tank created by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, before he joined Nike in 1998. During his time at the company, Friton created iconic models such as the Nike Presto and the Nike Woven, before leaving the company in 2011 to establish his own company, Friton Design. We talk to the man about the future of footwear, why he loved (then left) Nike, and the reason athleticism isn’t everything anymore.

image

YOU GREW UP IN PORTLAND OREGON, WHICH HAD A STRONG RUNNING CULTURE. WHAT DID THIS MEAN GROWING UP ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS?

Well I actually I grew up in Eugene which is south of Oregon, where the University of Oregon is located. When I was young, Steve Prefontaine was the rockstar of running and every kid knew about that. The schools that I went to, the coaches all were runners and ran with Bill Bowerman. The sport was so popular primarily because of the favourable environment, which brought the sport to a new level.  

WHEN WAS THE FIRST MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU THOUGHT TO YOURSELF THAT YOU COULD MAKE A CAREER OUT OF DESIGNING FOOTWEAR?

I grew up in a family of stonemasons, artists and building fireplaces, so I was always around hands-on craft. Also with stone masonry, you have to learn how to see things in a three dimensional from. So you are looking at a positive shape and seeing how it will fit into a negative shape in a three dimensional space. That was sort of the basis of the appreciation. And then when I started running a lot, I was always questioning what was going on with the shoes I was wearing. I started cutting shoes up and playing with them before I started working at Nike. Bowerman saw that and appreciated that, and he took me into his shop and I started working with.

AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE LIKE WORKING WITH BOWERMAN?

My first experience was actually with stone masonry. He wanted to build a water fountain on the track. Runners had to go a long way to find water so he wanted something right on the track to hydrate. He showed me the stone and materials and said he would see me in a couple of days. I finished in almost one day and he came back and was surprised.


image

AND WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRESSION OF HIM AS A PERSON?

He was a very strong man. He was one of the best coaches the United States has ever had in track and field. He was also a person that knew how to bring people together and accomplish things. Even at Nike, people saw him as independent and on a path of his own. But he didn’t do it alone, he had a community of ten doctors he worked with as well as athletes who were involved. He knew how to bring the right people together, and that’s what I really appreciated about him.

WHAT ARE SOME LESSONS YOU’VE LEARNT THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?

There are so many lessons I’ve had, its hard to pick one. When I was younger it was really about being an athlete and what I could do to achieve a higher level of athleticism, including what I could do with the product of the shoes. Now it’s about doing the right thing in a healthy way– trying to find a better way to make things healthier for people, such as working with orthopedic companies, making braces, working with people of disabilities… Not just elite athletes but people with disabilities. I actually learn more from them than I do with athletes, since there is a challenge.

YOU LATER WORKED AT NIKE FOR A GOOD NUMBER OF YEARS AS PART OF THE INNOVATIVE KITCHEN. WHAT WAS SPECIAL ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE?

Well it has changed a lot and is part of the reason why I left. In the beginning, we played and learned. It was more open to exploring any direction we wanted to go. It was also only a small number of people, but now it’s huge! There are hundreds of people and it has gotten more focused, partly because of the size. But as it got more focused, it wasn’t as appealing to me because I couldn’t explore or go off on different tangents. I wanted to go out and do it on my own and it’s been a great experience ever since.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN DURING THAT TIME IN THE INNOVATIVE KITCHEN?

It was really about having the willingness to play as an adult. As a child you have the freedom to play. But as an adult, you are expected to have serious approaches to things. And it’s unfortunate, because you really need that play zone to let your mind and your body and everything participate and bring out new ideas. It’s much more difficult to taking a serious approach to solving problems than it is with a playful approach.

HAS YOUR BEST SHOE MODELS AND IDEAS COME FROM PLAYING?

Yes. And it can be playing as in participating in sport and being an athlete and doing things. I think to be a great athlete you need to have that play instinct at a pretty high level. You can’t just be a robot, you have to make a little magic happen.  

YOU LEFT NIKE IN 2011 AND SINCE THEN HAVE PLACED A GREATER EMPHASIS ON TEACHING, SUCH AS THIS WORKSHOP WITH SLEM. WHAT ARE SOME KEY PRINCIPLES YOU TRY TO COMMUNICATE?

Well it’s not just about what they get, but also about what I get. I actually learn a lot more from them than they learn from me. So that’s really important for me. It helps to keep the excitement alive in what I do. You show somebody some basic thing that you learn and all the sudden if you allow them to, they go off into a million new directions. I show people things and then let them go, let them play. I don’t try to control them. I tell them here’s a tool you can use, use it any way you want. So I see a lot of things that inspire me. And I see things from today’s workshop that I could incorporate into my explorations as well.

The best play is a sharing process, and in a big environment when you have a lot of people, play can become more selfish. But if it’s a smaller more collaborative group, it’s very positive. I think that’s the nature of human begins, if the bubble is too large its too hard to manage.


image

RIGHT NOW WE LIVE IN AN INCREASINGLY CORPORATE CLIMATE WHICH PLACES GREATER EMPHASIS ON THE DOLLAR LINE. DO YOU FEEL THIS DISCOURAGES AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE PEOPLE CAN PLAY?

Not necessarily. I think there are companies who are better at it than others. I mean if you look at Google or even Nike in some pockets, it works. Even in the Innovative Kitchen, there are some groups. It depends a lot on how the manager handles it. There are people who are good managers, and there are others who are not. I see it in the corporate world, where there are people who aren’t really ready or don’t make good managers and they are promoted anyway.

I’ve seen a lot of great designers promoted and put into positions where they have to manage and I ask why. They were doing such a great job and now they have to manage to get a promotion. Why not just promote them as they are? But that’s the corporate policy. I don’t think everybody is cut out to be a manager. I don’t do well as manager. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I have to manage a lot of people, but I love to play and I love to teach.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME KEY INFLUENCES THAT ARE CHANGING THE WAY FOOTWEAR WILL BE DEFINED IN THE FUTURE?

I see a lot of textile innovations especially in knitting and weaving. Those are things we worked on in Nike many years ago, so we’re seeing it coming to the forefront now, which is pretty amazing. When we started, the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now so we were struggling. But now you can see things happening that we wish we could have done then. There’s still opportunities to see this progress more, with new textiles and techniques. But what I’ve seen over the years with fashion trends, things can change really drastically at times. So with this whole textile phase, you never know. We could go back to leather, or plastic.

YES, FASHION DOES HAVE A PROFOUND EFFECT ON THE EVOLUTION OF TRENDS, AND DICTATES THE DIRECTION OF PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT.

Yes, in athletic footwear, fashion and manufacturing processes come before fit and comfort unfortunately. But that’s the same with high-end fashion shoes like pumps and high heels. Fashion rules. It goes back to human nature and ego: we want to look good. But for designers, and that’s where I’m pushing, if there is an awareness of the health aspect, they can improve this and do a better job. But if you leave this to the manufacturer or a high-end fashion designer who doesn’t have that knowledge, then you might as well go back to foot-binding [laughs]. You’re just destroying people’s health.

AND DO YOU FEEL THIS NEEDS TO BE TAUGHT MORE IN SCHOOLS?

Well that’s my part, I‘m trying to do that with students I teach. I’d like to get more information out on my website. But I don’t want to do that alone, I don’t want it to be just my opinion, but also those from the medical and biomechanics community as well. My opinion is constantly evolving as I learn more, so it has to be supported in a positive way to reach it’s full potential. That’s what I learnt from Bowerman.

Image Source: Mike Friton, SLEM

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