Why Shoe Designers Shouldn’t Be Afraid of AI

Shoemakers got a deep dive into the uses of artificial intelligence for footwear design on Monday, when Andy Polk, senior vice president at the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, hosted an informational webinar with innovation consultant Chris Hillyer and Nicoline van Enter, CEO of Footwearology Lab in Spain.

Their message to designers: AI programs can be a powerful tool in the creation process and will gain even more importance as the technology evolves and matures. But it’s not coming for your job — at least not anytime soon.

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“In a lot of ways, what artificial intelligence is suggesting is quite threatening to the design industry,” said Hillyer. “I sympathize and understand, but the positives for me — and the way I like to present it to others — is that it’s purely inspirational. It’s a better funnel for getting inspiration and for suggesting things that haven’t been done before.”

The panelists noted that many of the generative AI-based applications (think: Chat GPT) are only in their first year and the technology is still gaining knowledge.

“It’s like you have an army of little aliens that are fantastic at drawing or making photorealistic shoe images,” said van Enter. “They were just not raised on this planet and have no idea what a shoe is. They’re basically just trained in a certain shape, say, ‘This is a shoe,’ but it does not understand the construction of a shoe.”

For instance, when van Enter demonstrated creating design ideas in Midjourney, an online photo creation platform, some of the results looked more like drink Koozies than a shoe. And, she pointed out, the program botched the lacing on one boot because it didn’t know what a D-ring eyelet was.

AI design apps have a number of limitations related to understanding specific footwear components, techniques and materials. For that reason, the panelists said, the renderings are not yet usable for production purposes.

There are also legal issues surrounding ownership, for those considering using those photos or designs in the public domain. “From a legal standpoint, that is your responsibility to determine whether that is something that your company is legally capable of releasing or not,” said Hillyer. “And that’s something that’s quite important to do. You can get into a lot of trouble with this.”

But when it comes to generating ideas during the design process, he noted that AI apps can not only provide inspiration but help speed up the process. “We’ve all had those pressures in our design creation calendars, where you need to come up with some stuff real quick,” Hillyer said. “AI is such a nice solution as a way of generating lots of variations of things. And the more finished [the design is], the easier it is for people to say, ‘That looks like the kind of shoe I’d like to have in our assortment.'”

Additionally, van Enter explained, imaging programs like Midjourney, NewArc and Kaedim are cloud-based, so companies don’t need to invest in more computing power to create 3D design renderings. However, as the apps have gained popularity, they’ve implemented paid tiers, which can impact the speed of your results.

Untimately, Hillyer concluded, AI is not a replacement for designers in the short term — or even long term. “Getting cool pictures that are inspiring? We’re there and that’s cool and that has value in my opinion,” he said. “But if you think you can reduce a headcount or something like that [with AI], you’re quite mistaken. This is absolutely no substitute for people who know how shoes need to be manufactured.”

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