How to Become a Shoe Designer: 10 Steps

One of the most often asked questions we get at Shoemakers Academy is “where do I start?” We meet so many aspiring shoe designers looking to learn, improve, and advance their skills in order to find gigs and careers in footwear design. You want to design shoes for a big brand like Nike, Adidas, Converse, Puma, or Vans. You have dreams of making it big. You are not sure where to start. This article is for YOU.  
You can do it!

You can draw shoes

I’m going to be totally honest with you, landing a shoe design job at a top brand is difficult, but if you work hard and don’t give up you can get into the business. Don’t be afraid to start your professional shoe design career with a small company or work as a freelance designer. I landed my first shoe design job as a freelancer after spending four months unemployed. While searching for a job I spent over 50 hours a week drawing shoes.

10 steps toward your goal to be a shoe designer:

Learn to draw shoes…

1. Learn to draw shoes and everything else:
If you want to be a professional shoe designer, of course, you need to learn how to draw shoes. This will be your language, you need to know it well. Your shoe drawings are how you communicate your ideas. You have to be good, and your drawings need to show your passion and creativity to others. In a design meeting, the drawing that captures the imagination but also shows real possibilities will be the design that makes it all the way to production!

You need to master concept sketching and some rendering skills. Do you think hand drawings are old-fashioned? Think again. Check out the Render Demo series of books and videos. Pro tip: Make sure to spend time drawing outsole bottoms and midsoles. A designer that can draw outsoles will always be in demand. Work hard to draw shoes that are fresh, creative, and break the rules of shoemaking, however, you also must show that you know and understand the rules of shoemaking.

2. Go to school:
There are more and more school programs for shoe design and fashion design. Is a 4-year design school a must for shoe designers? Maybe not, but the skills and experience gained from a 4-year college or design school will really give you an edge. There are many great programs for Industrial Design or ID. Industrial Design is what you are looking for, NOT engineering. ID programs include classes on materials, drawing, human factors, etc…  In design school, you will work with many creative people and you will definitely be challenged. Design school will help you to become a shoe designer. 
We have new courses for all levels for shoemakers and designers. See Courses



Find a footwear mentor…

3. You will need a shoemaking mentor:
I have been very lucky in my shoemaking career. Along the way, I have met and worked with many great people. If you are not afraid to ask questions, and patient enough to listen, you will learn a ton from mentors and coworkers. I guarantee that while working in the shoe trade you will meet people from all around the world with many different experiences. I count a Canadian, an Englishman, and many Korean and Chinese men and women as my great friends and mentors in the shoe trade.

4. Learn computer drawing software: Start with Adobe Illustrator
There are many drawing programs you can use. Adobe Illustrator is easy to learn and is a great tool for refining and detailing your designs. While Illustrator is not a 3D CAD program, it’s still critical for you to master. If you are an engineer, use 3D modeling software. As a designer, you should start with Adobe Illustrator for drawing shoes. 

5. Build a great shoe design portfolio to get a foot in the door:
There are many ways to get noticed and get started but a great shoe design portfolio is your launching point. In this day and age, an online portfolio is a must. With an online portfolio, you can show hundreds of drawings. Let people see what you can do! Other tools? Surfing can get you some contacts. Reach out to footwear professions online, ask for a portfolio review. There may not be an open job, but feedback on your shoe designs can help!

Check out Nike’s online career website at Nike and Converse combined currently have more than 1700 open positions. More than 200 of them contain the word “Footwear.” They also offer paid summer internships around the world in many fields of study.


6. Study the classic sneakers:
Study the classics. Not the masterworks of Italian painters but classic shoes. Learn the modern history of shoes. There are many good books out there. Get to know the classic silhouettes from the big brands. Don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of the shoe giants! Study fashion shoes, sports shoes, and brown shoes. All of these types have unique shoemaking lessons!

7. Fill your mind with great designs:
To be a great shoe designer you need to look well beyond shoes. There is a multitude of great industrial designs out there. Fill your mind with images – Ferrari, Prada, Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck, Apple, Porsche, etc. There are many websites where you can see brilliant modern designs for products aside from shoes. Fill up your brain, and let your eyes drink up this design stew.

8. Books   Books   Books:
I have collected dozens of design, design history, manufacturing, architecture, branding, and packaging design books. Surround yourself. If I have a design problem I can’t solve, I just dive in and start flipping pages. The answer is always inside, you just need a new way to let it out. There are many good shoe design books for beginners.

9. Cut up old shoes:
You need to see how shoes are put together. Learn the hows and whys of shoe assembly. Brands like Nike and Adidas have masterminds of shoemaking at work, you can learn a lot by looking inside their shoes. You can see “inside” a variety of shoes that we have cut up and analyzed (including Nike and Vans) in our book, the Shoe Material Design Guide. A great drawing of a shoe that cannot be manufactured will never make it off the page. A stunning new shoe design that challenges your development team can be a winner. Invest in this book, it’s highly recommended.

Take chances

10. Fortune favors the bold: 
Take chances! Your shoe designs should pursue perfection no matter what kind of shoe it is. Do something new and different. Work hard to understand shoe design challenges, then attack from a new direction. Find a new material for your shoe design, use an old material in a new way. Visit the shoe factory and see what they can do, see what they can’t do. Don’t take no for an answer!

You can be a shoe designer. It takes a passion for product design and imagination to see something that can be. For me, this is the best part of being a shoe designer, seeing the future in my mind and working to create it.