This summer, 24 young designers from across the United States and as far away as The Phillipines, Denmark, and Israel were selected to participate in a master class at PENSOLE Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Oregon. One of those designers was my friend Sirimol (Muan) On-sri, who recently graduated with a BFA in Product Design this past May!! Each designer was awarded a scholarship to attend the masterclass in June, which were provided through sponsors such as Coroflot, IDSA, Blick Art Materials and Concept Kick. Muan was chosen as one of four semi-finalists for the Kids category, with other categories including Performance, Made in USA, Sustainable, Dress, and Lifestyle. After a round of judging by a panel of footwear industry leaders and voting by the Google+ community, Muan continued on to Las Vegas as a finalist, where she showed off her designs at the Pensole booth during August’s FN Platform—North America’s largest footwear trade show! Muan is back in New York City now, so I got the chance to chat with her about her incredible experience!
Syd Chan: Hey Muan, congrats on your award! It must have been quite the experience. How did you find out about this opportunity?
Muan On-sri: I actually found out about PENSOLE two years ago when D’Wayne Edwards, the founder of PENSOLE, collaborated with Parsons and ran the program here in NYC at our downtown campus. At the time I was already committed to an internship for the Summer so I couldn’t apply to the program. This year PENSOLE was having the ‘Future of Footwear’ program, which also runs as a competition in Portland, Oregon. The program gives out scholarship for students from Parsons and other partnerships and I was very fortunate to be selected as one of the 24 students in the program.
SC: What did you need to do to prepare for your application?
MO: The application was very simple. D’Wayne asked for ‘hand’ sketches of shoes under different categories we would like to apply for; dress, kids, sustainable, made in USA and performance and I applied to almost all of them. Unlike many other applications that look for fancy digital rendered shoes, D’Wayne believes that a shoe can speak for its creativity without having it polished up by computers, a simple hand sketch with just pencil and paper shows a lot about how a person design a shoe.
SC: Can you describe your program? How did the classes differ from your experience at Parsons?
MO: PENSOLE is quite a different program that doesn’t run like a regular class where we take one class and go to the next class etc. I think D’Wayne try to make this program more like a professional environment where we have briefs in the morning about what is expected to be done each day and we go on, schedule ourselves and manage our own time to make sure that the work is done, just like how people work in real life. D’Wayne wants us to think by ourselves and act seriously while still being able to ask for suggestions when we are concerned with certain things about the project. We’re no longer “babied” and “fed” like when we used to be in school. Though, we still do different workshops to gain a solid foundation of what we need to know about the shoe industries. We have an intensive 3 days material workshop with Suzette, the former and the first material designer at NIKE. This materials class is heavily focused on footwear both athletics and commercial shoes and it definitely is something extremely valuable. I mean, how much closer can you get to learning about something specific in the industry when you’re being taught by the person who worked in the that industry?! We also have series of guest speakers from the shoe industry, including the Vice President of Jordan Brand, Howard ‘H’ White. He was a very powerful and inspirational speaker. And lastly, we got to visit the home of two biggest footwear companies, NIKE and ADIDAS, in Portland.
SC: Sounds like a truly rewarding learning experience!! What kind of new skills did you gain during the masterclass?
MO: There is so much that I’ve learned throughout my four weeks in Portland that I can just go on and on about…but I guess I put down the five most important things I truly learned from the program: One: Responsibility (2 seconds late means you are late!), Two: Time Management (there is no second chance in school…if you don’t get things done on time, you will be fired in real life!), Three: Teamwork (Being a designer, you will never work alone, and so I really started learning how to work with people) and Four: Organization (Life will be much easier if we sit down and organize ourselves like how we organize the way we design), and lastly FIVE: Self-believing (If you can’t believe in yourself, how could others believe in you?). Even though I finished the program, I am still learning to get better with all these skills. The program is just the beginning!
SC: Can you talk about the inspiration for your design?
MO: Yes! So us 24 selected students got assigned to design shoes under different categories. I was originally assigned for dress shoes and later got switched into Kids as D’Wayne realized that dress was my background, and he wanted me to try something I’ve never done before. Each category comes with a brief, my category was to design kids shoes under a brand called PLAYSHUZ, and we each interpret our own meaning of play. For my design I interpret ‘play’ as education. Kids learn anything and everything through playing, and I wanted that action of play matter. Since I was designing a shoe, I wanted to design something that make shoes become the medium that encourages kids to play, while constantly learning in every step they take. I visited KinderCare and set up appointment to talk to the assistant director about the most common things kids learn before pre-school and the struggles they have while learning. After many concepts, I decided to go with something everybody can relate to; shapes and color. Kids have the mentality to learn color and shapes since they’re 18 months old, but some kids still struggle to grasp this understanding; some are still learning at the age of 4. The reason I went with this concept is really because I realized the importance of color and shapes when it comes to children’s safety, especially relating to road signs and traffic lights. If kids are able to recognize and later understand the meaning of stops sign I think we are on to something that can really help make a change. I guess this is what inspired me the most.
SC: I definitely see how your inspirations translated to your sketches! Can you tell me about your final design?
MO: So my final design was a shoe that is flat-pack, customizable, and educational. I incorporated different geometric shapes into a shoe outsole each shapes represent different color (primary and secondary). The outsole comes with six different straps with different shapes at each end for kids to match with the outsole. The straps are reversible, one side with one color and the other side with another color so kids can learn about the difference between shapes and color when reversing sides but still matching the same shape. I hope that these very simple shoes can make a huge impacts on kids—not just learning about shapes and colors, but to also develop motor skills while playing, expand their creativity, and learn to make their own decisions when choosing what colored straps they want to put on each day. Lastly, I hope it helps strengthen the relationship between parents and child every time they help their kids put on a shoe! The shoe also comes with a special packaging, which I designed to promote constant learning even when they are not wearing the shoe. I packaged each color straps into a color book, each matched with an image of a different color fruit and vegetable. Through this project, I learned to recognize a problem and be able to dissect exactly what I want the design to do and why. I think sometimes designers are so overwhelmed with so many resources and all things we hope to get accomplished that it becomes a struggle to deliver the right idea because there are so many ideas to narrow from. I learned to organize my thought process and this is definitely something I want to continue to develop.
SC: How do you think your Parsons education helped you with your masterclass and your design?
MO: Parsons definitely gave me a great foundation when it comes to research, concept, and development. Having been in Product Design program, I learned to be open-minded and take whatever briefs I was given to and enjoy the process of learning about new things. Sometimes we don’t know if we’re going to be working with wood, plastics, ceramic, metal, etc. or what product we are even going to design, and it challenges us to get out of our comfort zone and learn. I liked the fact that each time we were given a project, we knew nothing about it, and as we researched and developed the project, we were able to educate and convince ourselves to learn everything about it! I liked to be taught as a THINKER!
SC: Seems like it really paid off! Can you describe the judging and selection process for the PENSOLE competition?
MO: After the intensive three weeks, we each had four minutes to present our designs. For selecting semi-finalists, the judging process was based on both voting and by judges who are design directors, designers, developers, and engineers from the top footwear brands. I wasn’t as nervous as I thought, but I think I felt more honored and excited to have these professionals hear about my design. The presentation was live streamed online and it was amazing to have my parents and family in Thailand being able to watch me presenting live!! After the presentations, they select 2 students from each category to go into the semi-final, in which we get to showcase our projects at MAGIC FN Platform—the largest apparel and footwear trade show in North America, which takes place in Las Vegas. Our program was really fortunate to have Zappos and FN Platform sponsor our trip to there. It seems almost impossible to have a student booth in a tradeshow like this, especially where footwear brands across the world were there!! The second day of the show was the day they announced the winners. The selection process this time was by judges from Zappos, FN Platform as well as other creative professionals.
SC: And then you won the award in the Kids Category!! What did you find most rewarding about your win?
MO: Even though there is only one winner for each category, I felt like everybody already won for having the opportunity to even be there! Sometimes I think it’s not always about what you are being awarded with, but it’s the experience and the friendships you make that are the most rewarding. Through this project, I’ve learned so much more about myself, and winning this award proves to myself that your mentality can really change struggles into strength. And the best part of it all is having so many people looking at my project and really appreciate what I do!
SC: Seems like you gained some pretty incredible industry exposure with your design. Will your shoes be available for sale in the future?
MO: The shoe is still under development before it gets into the production stage, in which Zappos will later consider for it to be sold across the US.
SC: That’s so exciting! So one last question…I remember seeing your Senior Thesis project during the Product Design show in May, which was also focused on shoe design. Is shoe design the direction you’d like to go into for the future? What is your dream job?
MO: I personally find that footwear is the best integration between fashion design and product design. I like the complex construction of shoes and how it impacts the posture of our body. However, product design broadens my interest to do so many things, and I love to be experimental with materials, function, and form. Footwear definitely is one of the applications that I love to apply my inspirations to. I don’t want people to think that I’m a footwear designer or a product designer—I am just a designer who like to create and make a change. It is hard to say what exactly my dream job is because I’m still in the process of stepping into the real world and learning what it’s all about. I want to be at a place where I still work really hard, but it doesn’t really feel like work because I love it so much. Even though it’s important to have a goal of where you want to be, I don’t want that goal to restrict myself from being open-minded. I want to see the other opportunities that come! I like to just take everything step by step and make the most out of the opportunities I have now. In ten years, I hope Imm in a position where Imm able to make a greater impact on this world, elevating people lives in some way or helping to change the way we use things that may impact the environment. My thesis is the start of this mission and I hope that I can pursue this dream in a larger scale.
A special thanks to Muan On-sri for sharing her inspiring story with me. Congratulations once again on your amazing achievement Muan!! You’ve definitely got a bright future ahead!