How Ideas Become Shoes: Creativity in Process

Using shoe design to understand human creativity

Naomi Braithwaite's footwear sketches for a design course at London College of Fashion
Naomi Braithwaite's footwear sketches for a design course at London College of Fashion Naomi Braithwaite

It used to be that most people liked to think of creativity as a flash in the dark—some sudden, mysterious, epiphanic bolt that set in motion the creation of a painting or poem or innovative business. But there’s a growing interest in dissecting and analyzing the creative process.

With the release of Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, the science of creative acts has been on the media’s mind recently. Lehrer did a great interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air last week about his book, which focuses specifically on creativity in the workplace.

By exploring the cognitive and behavioral minutia of, say, the product development team that came up with the Swiffer, Lehrer gets at the notion that creativity is not, in fact, the exclusive turf of geniuses. A whole chain of events and scads of people are often involved in inching an idea along until it becomes a great one.

Buzz about Lehrer’s book began just about the time I was reading up on the same topic in a much more remote domain. In a way, Imagine gives some pop culture validation to people like Naomi Braithwaite, a scholar at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, whose doctoral dissertation looks at the role of creativity in shoe design in the British fashion industry. Her research “responds to contemporary culture’s proclamation of the shoe designer as ‘creative genius,’ where the of what this creativity entails remains notably absent. Symptomatic of design discourse is that creativity is often equated to…the inspired imagination of the individual designer. In this context, though, creativity appears as an immaterial process that poses the question: How do ideas become shoes?”

Like Lehrer, Braithwaite contends that a creative product—in this case a shoe—doesn’t emerge from one individual’s flash of inspiration, but from “a network involving many persons, processes and materials; it is both relational and transformative. A ladies’ high heel shoe, for example, is composed of at least 12 different materials and will have moved through over 50 different productive operations.”

Braithwaite undertook an immersive ethnographic study in which she not only observed and interviewed shoe designers, she also trained to become one herself at the London College of Fashion. What she found over the course of her research was that there was a strong connection between the sensory elements of shoemaking—the smell of leather, the feel of snakeskin, the sound of hammering, the physical motions of pedaling a sewing machine or stretching a toe—and the final form of the shoe. Any one of these sense-based experiences can evoke memories or images that influence the style, shape, color, texture, and spirit of the design. “Materials themselves are a massive trigger through bodily engagement, “ she says, “It is sense experience that seizes and acts upon the body of the individual designer, stimulating creative thought.”

Braithwaite’s approach follows the “paradigm of emplacement,” a theory presented by Canadian anthropologist David Howes in his book Empire of the Senses, which suggests that there’s something beyond the mind-body connection in acquiring knowledge or acting creatively, there’s a “sensuous interrelationship of mind-body-environment.” In other words, your shoes might have a satin lining because the designer wore a satin tie to a particularly memorable theater performance when he was 5.

But that’s not terribly surprising. Most of us take for granted that our life experience informs our creative output. What I found interesting from Braithwaite’s thesis was that industrialization and mass production of shoes (or other products) doesn’t necessarily diminish the role of sensory experience in creativity. The context changes—shoemakers occupy factory floors, operate giant heat presses and laser cutters and sergers—but our bodies and senses are still entirely engaged with the process. “Although manufacture is technology driven, all machines and processes are initiated by bodily gestures,” she points out, “The is done in a machine, but a person puts the shoe there, wraps the material, and the machine is being guided, whether by the foot or by hand. It’s a skill, you have to learn how the machine works, how the motion goes. You have to learn to control it. Craft is still a very evident skill in the modern shoemaking industry.”

Because mass-production creates such consistent products, it’s rare for consumers to detect the subtle human elements embedded in their shoes. But the designer always sees it, says Braithwaite. “What struck me most when I worked with shoe designers was that they never wore their own shoes except at a commercial event where it was required for promotion. They couldn’t bear to see their shoes on their own feet because all they could see was how it wasn’t as perfect as they imagined.”

And this observation reveals what in my opinion is the most surprising and fascinating piece of Braithwaite’s research (though really it’s the subject of an entirely different book, and if nobody’s written it, I hope they do). The phenomenon she describes, of designers being consistently dissatisfied by their creation when viewed on their own feet, was only experienced by female designers. Male designers, on the other hand (at least the very vast majority), wouldn’t put a woman’s pump on their own foot to evaluate its aesthetic worth, and therefore wouldn’t experience a connection between personal self-criticism and the critique of their work. In fact, Braithwaite says, the men she interviewed reported more often feeling disappointment with a shoe upon first seeing it emerge from the factory, and that it didn’t look “right” until they saw it on a woman’s foot. It strikes me that this finding has some significant implications for the experience of male versus female designers in any industry in which products are gendered. If anyone has research, resources, or general thoughts on the subject, I’m eager to hear.

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