Ask An Expert: Footwearists’ Nicoline van Enter on the Importance of Digital Design Skills

Madeleine Streets

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The rate of change has never been greater — or faster — for the footwear industry, with new challenges popping up every day in nearly all corners of the business, from navigating cash crunches and supply chain issues to understanding the latest technological advances. In its “Ask An Expert” series, FN asks industry leaders — all solutions-based providers — to take on some of the most timely topics.

Despite being known for its slow adoption of technology, the footwear industry has undergone a rapid period of innovation in recent years. As brands develop cutting-edge products, footwear designers and product developers need to keep up with the latest digital tools in order to maintain their place at the forefront of the industry. Skill-building and technology training has never been more important.

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CEO Nicoline van Enter of Footwearists, the membership-based innovation platform for footwear professionals, spoke with FN about the value of continued learning; the most critical skills for designers right now; and how to implement them in an impactful way. 

FN: The footwear industry is undergoing a period of substantial innovation. Why is it so important for designers to continually learn and develop skills?

Nicoline van Enter: The academic system is different from industry, and there’s not such a good connection [between the two]. A lot of people learn to make footwear by hand, for instance, which is interesting, but not really how things work in the industry. So as you transition from school to work, you need to learn a lot more. And then, especially over the past decade, so much has changed in product development, manufacturing, the materials. People are trying to catch up as they go along or have to rely on information that comes from their suppliers –— and sometimes that’s good information, but it can also be very biased because the supplier has an interest in sharing certain aspects. I would love to see us combine learning in the industry, as most people learn most effectively on the job.

FN: Are there any particular areas right now that you think would be valuable for workers to focus their attention on, or even be considered crucial for long-term success?

NvE: There’s basically one big area now: the whole process of digital transformation. We talk about digital transformation in a very broad aspect, from the ideation part of development and design, the manufacturing or even just essentially rethinking how we are making our processes most efficient, sustainable, creative. And it’s not about computers being a goal; they’re a means to an end. But now, because of the coronavirus, so many things that people before were very reluctant to do — work remotely, digitally — finally, they’re catching up. It’s very important for workers to make sure that they have the skills to be able to work digitally because it will greatly enhance their opportunities, either within the company they work for or to find a job. I don’t even have enough people coming out of my courses in digital 3-D design, for instance, to fill the demand that I’m getting from other companies.

FN: How can employers and managers help their employees in these learning initiatives? Are there particular resources that you think are valuable?

NvE: In general, the approach should be that people first look at this from an organizational and a management perspective, because too often when we talk about digital transformation, the first thought that comes to mind is, ‘what software do my designers need to learn?’ And it’s way more complicated than that. Essentially what you want to think about is ‘how can I organize my entire process better, and which tools are available?’ You first have to define that. I have been teaching digital design for many years now, and I noticed that people would take my courses, but then never use the software again. And I figured out that it had nothing to do with the courses not being good or the software not being user-friendly; it had everything to do with unrealistic expectations. I started teaching management about the transition toward 3-D design, and then we could get realistic expectations on either side to make sure that it would work.

FN: What are some ways that unemployed designers in our industry can discover new resources for themselves?

NvE: It would be really good for them to go through that thought process of ‘where are my strengths, what are things that I can really bring to the table and what software would then be most suitable for me.’ Because price-wise, there are several programs that are quite close together, so it depends more on the contents: What is it that you really want to learn? The software is a means to an end goal.

We changed our entire school system to make it as accessible as possible. We offer everything in small installments. Designers who want to start with 3-D design but have no budget, for them we started a course called Blender which is completely free, really good software; it’s not lesser quality, it’s open source. And if you have the time, again even if you don’t have any money whatsoever, there’s a website called SneakerFactory.net and they have a lot of different videos up there on how sneakers are made. There’s a lot available, really a lot. But you have to go and Google it.

FN: How would you recommend people maximize the time available to them right now?

NvE: I suggest for the unemployed workers to practice, practice, practice and start publishing. Start publishing your work because you have to get yourself out there. You have to get people to see your work to know what you’re doing, to see your skills. Look toward different markets, toward the Asian brands that are looking to hire designers and are still very keen on hiring designers from Western countries; you could potentially work remotely for them.

For anybody who is employed, it is a great opportunity to rethink your current process from scratch. All the companies that are still operational now, they will have to think about how can we improve our system, how can we cut back on costs, but in a smart way. You want to have training that you can use right away, so that whatever time you have to spend on training, it’s not seen as a cost – it’s a benefit.

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