Design Museum LIVE: Sketch Series, Draw Footwear with Michael DiTullo Recap

Design Museum LIVE • June 2020

By Sara Magalio

In our June Sketch Series, we welcomed Michael DiTullo, one of the founding board members of Design Museum and a prolific and successful designer in his own right, to take viewers step-by-step through the process of sketching an original, functional shoe design. Michael has worked professionally in design for over 20 years, designing noteworthy products and experiences in almost every industry including footwear, consumer electronics, IOT smart devices, medical instruments, robotics, and toys. Michael has been designing shoes specifically for over eight years, working with such renowned labels as Nike, Converse, and Jordan. 

Before beginning the sketching tutorial, Michael noted that even though technological advancements now allow for more complex, three-dimensional models of designs to be produced, being able to sketch a design quickly and effectively remains an important skill for the designer to possess. 

Michael cited a specific example of the value of sketching as the time when he worked with Michael Jordan to design a Nike Jordan sneaker. By hand-sketching his design ideas with Jordan present, Michael was able to receive immediate feedback in real time, something that producing a digital model would not necessarily allow. Michael noted the importance of this immediate feedback to quickly rectify design flaws and foster the inherent collaborative nature of the design process.

Michael also noted that with shoe design specifically, the objects being constructed lend themselves to both creative and functional features. Michael explained that he thinks about the kinds of people he is specifically designing for, from a commuting businesswoman to a professional basketball player, and how they want their shoes to look and feel.

To exemplify how to create a more casual, versatile design, Michael guided viewers through drawing a simple, white summer shoe, with a couple of stylistic design flares. Below are the general steps that Michael enumerated in guiding the sketch session, and relevant tips that Michael shared throughout the process are also included below each step. 

Before beginning the sketch process:
  • Michael recommended cutting a pair of old shoes apart to see what the individual components of the shoe are actually composed of. This allows the designer to sketch a more realistic design, because they can better understand how all of the different materials that make up the shoe interact. 
  • He noted that it is also important to study how the material works, including how pliant or rigid it is.
  • Michael also said that he likes to draw with bold materials, such as markers and pens. He equated this to when someone is having a conversation, they cannot take the words back once they have said them; similarly, when Michael is drawing, he likes to roll with the mistakes and see where they take him.
Drawing the underlay (the imperfect base, or outline) that the design will be based off of.
  • Michael recommended starting by drawing the shoe from the side view, because this is the way the customer sees the shoe on the shelf at the store. It is also important to think about the distinctive lines of the silhouette of the shoe, which help the item to stand out in an online shopping setting, where a small icon may be all that is working to catch a customer’s attention.
  • The toe spring is the space between the front of the shoe and the ground, and the heel kick is the space between the back of the shoe and the ground. Curving these upward in a sketch makes the shoe look more real. A running shoe will typically have a higher toe spring as compared to a casual shoe like a boat shoe.
  • Proportion, or the relative size of all of the parts of the shoe in relation to each other, defines the shoe. It is critical to get these dimensions right early on, or the shoe will look off, according to Michael.
  • Clearly mark where the tooling line is. This line separates the upper, primarily cloth portion of the shoe with the sole below, which is generally made of molded rubber.
  • The throat of the shoe is where the foot is inserted. Michael noted that a common mistake that people make when sketching the throat is that they make it too narrow, which may look cool, but is not practical for actually fitting a foot in the shoe. 
Put the underlay sheet under a new sheet of paper. Use the underlay as a type of tracing stencil. Drawing over the underlay, make modifications based off of the original and add more details.
  • Throughout the design process, it is important to continue thinking about the function of the design. Michael noted four distinct components to pay attention to:
    • Performance: How far can you walk in the shoes?
    • Manufacturing: How can the materials be combined to make an efficient assembly process?
    • Branding: Does the brand you are designing for have a history or design knowledge that needs to be taken into account?
    • Style: Does the shoe fit stylistically with what people want to buy? Can the design stay relevant over multiple seasons?
Take the underlay out, then begin shading, and use a finer tipped pen to add more detail.
  • In this step, Michael recommended using a partially dried out Sharpie marker for shading purposes. He also noted that when adding these details, it is important to keep in mind how the different materials in the shoe design interact with each other.
  • Michael also noted that it helps to start shading lightly and build up as you go along, because you can always go darker but can’t go lighter when working with permanent ink.
  • Michael also suggested a technique using fabric samples to mimic the texture of mesh in the sketch. He put a square of textured material under the paper and used the broad side of a pencil to rub the paper and imprint the texture onto the sketch.
Sketch the bottom view of the shoe, and take into account any side details that would impact the sole design.
  • Michael noted that it takes a lot of practice to draw the footprint of a shoe well, so a helpful trick is to print out an image of the bottom view of a shoe and trace it out.
  • Overall, Michael encouraged viewers to not become discouraged if they are new to design, for he equated becoming truly great in design to learning the humor or nuances of a foreign language, which takes consistent, dedicated time and practice.  
Michael’s final notes:
  • When designing shoes, it is important to be aware of what’s going on in the industry, but it’s not good to get trapped in the status quo of design.
  • Designers are always doing research for their work, whether it’s people watching, going to concerts or walking around museums, inspiration can come from everywhere.
  • It is important for the designer to formulate a way to catalog all of this acquired inspiration, because past inspiration even from years ago can still inspire a new idea later down the road.