After more than a century in the footwear design business, New Balance has a history of creating some of the most iconic shoes in the world of sport and fashion. From the timeless 990 running shoe, to the fashionable New Balance 574, the Massachusetts-headquartered company has consistently earned its stripes in the $55 billion global sneaker market.
Unlike other well-known sneaker brands like Nike and Adidas, which manufacture their products overseas, New Balance continues to make its shoes in the United States. With a treasure trove of new designs and updated classics on offer, it's no wonder that 'sneakerheads' around the world continue to choose New Balance.
New Balance has always been fearlessly independent, which means it always does things its own way, particularly when it comes to design. We caught up with 3D Production Manager William Vaughan, Senior Designer Dan Webb, and 3D Production Artist Kayla Roskopf, to find out how the business is revolutionizing its design process using the same technology that built the Death Star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
What tools do you use to design the shoes we see on the shelves today?
WV: "We use a specialist 3D modeling, texturing and rendering tool called Modo. Traditionally it was used by visual effects studios to design iconic objects for movies such as the Death Star or the Batmobile, but we're now using it to create the next generation of New Balance shoes. We've also integrated a tool called Colorway into our workflow, which speeds up the process of iterating and finalizing the look of our products."
How long does it take for a shoe to go from concept to consumer?
DW: "It takes approximately 18 months for a shoe to go from concept to shelf. At New Balance we have a three-step design process: sketch reviews, a final concept debut, followed by three rounds of prototyping."
New Balance has designed shoes the same way for over 110 years. What prompted you to change the process?
WV: "I was brought into New Balance two years ago to help set up a 3D pipeline for the business. Prior to this, New Balance wasn't using 3D for the design or visualisation process at all. Everything was handled with traditional sketches and tape-ups. The team would put masking tape and paper on old shoes and sketch the designs. Initially it seemed like a good idea because it helped us to see the designs in 3D, but I soon realized we could achieve quicker and more accurate results with a 3D modeling tool."
DW: "I used to draw the designs in 2D and send them to our manufacturing partner. After a few weeks we'd receive a prototype, and only then would you get an idea of what's going on with your design. As you can imagine, this left a lot of room for misinterpretation and error. With Modo, you are able to see all sides of the design from an early stage."
KR: "Using 3D design tools was a natural progression for New Balance. Over the years we've built a reputation for challenging traditional shoemaking and pushing the boundaries of what's achievable in apparel design. By integrating 3D tools into our workflow, we're able to continue this legacy."
How did you implement the new software into your workflow?
WV: "When most companies start using a new product they don't train their staff in the right way. At New Balance we developed designated training sessions for Modo and slowly brought it into the pipeline. At first, we trialled the new software with three shoes, but within a year every shoe was being built in 3D."
DW: "It was a slow integration. Modo was initially used as an end-game visualization tool, but now we're starting to use it for the entire design process. We have a lab at New Balance that gathers data and applies it to 3D form, which gives us a good base from which to visualize the designs."
What are the main benefits of designing in 3D?
KR: "The quality of footwear coming out of New Balance speaks for itself. 3D software has helped us push the boundaries of our designs and cater to a wider variety of customer needs. The forms and texturing are getting so much more complicated; it's just not possible to do it by hand anymore."
DW: "When I was working in 2D, my main concern was always how my 2D drawings would translate into the final product. There was always a lot of back and forth between the manufacturer. With Modo you can visualise a design and spin it around while you're designing it. You don't have to wait for it to come back from the factory to see how it would look in 3D."
WV: "Another key driver is that it reduces the number of physical samples needed. The speed at which you can work in Modo makes everything so much easier."
Why did you choose Modo over other 3D tools?
WV: "I've trained 3D artists for over 25 years and I've never seen someone go from zero knowledge to production quality work as quickly as I have with Modo. Someone who's never touched 3D might think there's a lot to learn, but it's amazing how quickly these skills can be picked up in Modo."
KR: "We do a lot of material work at New Balance—complex shading on surfaces, for example. The UV tools in Modo are really strong and keep getting better and better. It makes the job painless and so much more efficient."
DW: "The render engine in Modo is awesome. When you work in a program like Rhino, the rendering can often look a bit flat. With Modo, your design looks great right out of the gate."
You mentioned a tool called Colorway. Can you explain what this is and how you use it to design shoes?
WV: "We have been working with Colorway to help speed up our workflow. It allows us to iterate through multiple designs and styles without having to do more rendering. Our color team can work with Colorway to do the color-ups and different variations of a shoe, without having to learn how to use Modo just to do the coloring. It's growing across the company and I believe it will play a massive part in New Balance's pipeline in the future."
What does the future hold for New Balance?
WV: "Since I joined the company two years ago, New Balance has completely transformed the way it designs its products. Using 3D tools like Modo hasn't altered the DNA of the company; we still create the iconic shoes that people have fallen in love with over the years. The difference is that we now have a platform on which to propel New Balance into a new era of apparel design. We have a team of designers that is equipped with the right tools to be quicker, more creative and efficient than ever before. It's truly an exciting time for the company."
Modo is an award-winning 3D modeling, texturing and rendering tool from visual effects software developer Foundry. Leading artists choose Modo for creating real-time content in product design, games and VR, iterating on concepts and bringing bold ideas to life.
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