PENSOLE Offers Real-Life Experiences

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The projects at Pensole Footwear Design Academy don’t come as theoretical class concepts, instead placing students in intense real-world scenarios with brands looking to create new products designed to hit mainstream markets.

Pensole turns design class into design life.

And the students come away from the variety of Pensole offerings with not only a better sense of how to design a sneaker, but how to interact in a business environment and, for some, with a dream job.

Founded by former Jordan Brand footwear designer D’Wayne Edwards, the downtown Portland school sits in the hotbed of sneaker culture, with the worldwide headquarters of Nike and Jordan just outside of town, the North American headquarters of Adidas nearby and a slate of other footwear makers—Under Armour, for example—locating design offices in the city. For the sneaker capital of the world, having the only design school dedicated to the discipline proves fitting.

To leverage relationships and give students a concentrated opportunity to learn, Edwards created multiple Pensole offerings. Pensole partners with the Portland-based Pacific Northwest College of Art to give Pensole an accredited 12-week class where students align with brands on specific projects. Think of it as a pre-internship, Edwards says, as students communicate with the brand and become part of the design process. The Pensole-created Master Class has garnered plenty of attention with about four each year running three weeks in duration.

Operating in partnership with brands or retailers, each Master Class has a unique theme or concept. The most noteworthy comes from retailer Foot Locker teaming with Pensole and then bringing in another partner, Asics, leading students create a new footwear product eventually sold at retail. “For Foot Locker, it is a way to contribute back to the industry,” Edwards says.

As close to 1,000 students from around the world apply for the 18 slots in each Master Class, the competition proves extreme just to get in. And it doesn’t stop there. Students group together to work on footwear design, color, material deign and brand design, all vying to earn the top prize of seeing their concept turn into reality.

The 2016 version of The Fueling the Future of Footwear Master Class came full circle in February 2018, with the Foot Locker–sponsored effort sending 1,000 pairs of the winning Asics Fresh Up Gel-180 sneaker, designed by Australia’s Vince Lebon and the U.S.’s Brady Corum, to select global Foot Locker outlets.

“The most important part I learned was what was possible,” Lebon tells HOW. “You learn a lot about yourself and the design process. In today’s world, we are a generalist society and we focus on our weaknesses. Honing in on your strengths allows you to be a master and pioneer of a particular space. Having a school and academy like (Pensole) allows you to do that. It allows you to ask all the questions you want and to learn from the greats in the industry.”

Sarah Bishop, Asics America vice president of marketing, says that the Lebon-Corum Fresh Up design shows the level of talent and innovation embodied by the next-generation sneaker designers, and using a Pensole Master Class allows Asics to “unleash” that potential.

Edwards tells HOW that the Pensole model acts as a professional development academy. “You get the tools needed to function as a professional creative in any industry,” he says. “We are teaching the proper way you should design product through the same lens the way professionals design product. The process can be assigned to any object.”

For Lebon, that industry remains footwear. After his winning Foot Locker-led Asics design, he landed a job at the coveted Adidas Brooklyn Creator Farm design office, just one of 300 graduates since the first 2010 Pensole class now placed in a footwear company worldwide. For Corum, he returned to school and immediately won an industrial lighting design challenge with the knowledge he gained from Pensole.

“The whole experience was pretty eye-opening,” he tells HOW. “I didn’t know much about sneakers when I got here. It taught me about the soul of a product, and our shoe ended up being something bigger than a shoe.”

James Malimban, Foot Locker North America senior buyer, tells HOW that Pensole offers the number-one global retailer in sport athletic an opportunity to invest in the future.  “We need to bridge into the next generation,” he says. “We need guys like Vince to do things differently.”

Lebon says the process first taught him to empty his bucket of everything he thought he knew about design and the industry. From there, he could use the expertise of Edwards and Pensole materials lab founder Suzette Henry to help learn about design life, materials, communication and a new way to look at the process.

The winning team paired with Foot Locker and Asics professionals to then help provide direction for concepts that eventually narrowed down into the winning Fresh Up design. “For us it was about thinking about starting with the consumer, who is influenced by athletes, and what are athletes inspired by?” Lebon asks. “They are being inspired by music and hip hop. Instead of just a cool shoe for the sake of it, we needed to understand where we were going to go.”

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As students work together inside, they get a sense of life on the outside, whether through the constant Skype meetings with brand professionals or even the Pensole layout. Edwards designed the academy with different spaces, separated physically, forcing students to overcome those barriers to communication. “When you work corporately, that is one of the biggest issues,” Edwards says. “A lot of what we are trying to implement is having students understand the importance of collaboration and communication. We want to create that environment to force them to collaborate.”

To round out their understanding, Pensole has an entire maker lab on the floor above the design space, immersing students in the practical ramifications of their design decisions on production, cost and materials.


With every aspect of the footwear design pipeline covered—either in the comprehensive three-week Master Class or the 12-week PNCA partnership—Edwards still tries to dial everything back to the purest form of design. He sees design as a “blank piece of paper and you have a pencil and do something.” Through Pensole that “something” has a specific purpose, backed by real-world business knowledge and understanding of the entire process.

When that number-two pencil hits the paper at Pensole, expect more than a class on footwear design. Expect design reality.

Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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