Adidas' Robbie Fuller talks about designing shoes for the NBA's elite
Portland’s Moda Center fills easily these days, with the Blazers a hot ticket in town. Head Adidas sneaker designer Robbie Fuller joins right in, watching one of the company’s lead athletes, Damian Lillard, perform in his new signature shoes. The same sneakers Fuller designed. But while Fuller watches the D Lillard 1 shimmer on the court, he never steps away from his role of planning and designing.
“Designers are designers,” he tells SI.com. “If it is your passion, you have a hundred concepts you are working on at any one time. Watching games, at museums, online, you have gut reactions to certain materials and always have a story ready. If I don’t have paper, I’m sketching on a paper cup at the game. Or I’m texting with other designers while I’m at the game, saying ‘can you draw it?’”
Fuller, now in his 14th year with Adidas, says the art of designing a sneaker involves a blended recipe between the designer, the marketing and the athlete—the place where everything starts. Whether working on a signature athlete’s sneaker or a mainline product, those athlete insights drive design different directions.
When working with a signature athlete, the design starts with the individual. “You make a list of tendencies, what exactly they like, colors,” Fuller says. “You don’t have to serve multiple masters.”
For design, the goal is "to make (the sneakers) as signature and different as each of the guys are.” But sometimes those differences overlap. “(John) Wall and Dame (Lillard), they are buddies, they have similar things in their closets and sometimes a pattern or color feels right for both of them,” Fuller says. Still, though, each comes from a different part of the country and each leads different lives, so there’s plenty of uniqueness to differentiate a product line.
For the athletes, having a signature shoe is more than just marketing. “Some are very involved and sneakerheads and basketball was their dream come true and having their own shoe was a dream come true,” Fuller says. “It is so great to have amazing guys always willing to give tons of insights into life and things that are important to them. We take those insights and do justice to bring to life and tell their story well. Their voice is always in the room.”
[daily_cut.NBA]Lillard, for example, was in the room as much as possible. “I was around so much because I live in Portland,” Lillard tells SI.com. “I was here and on top of it. Every little thing, nothing came as a surprise.”
Before Fuller gets to design inspiration he hones in on a particular move or style of play from a technical aspect.
For a mainline product, designers hit the road, taking feedback from streetball courts in New York to elementary gyms in Austin to high school players in Miami. Gathering feedback—along with the hundreds of requests the marketing team gets every year for new product—helps designers focus on both aesthetics and technology.
“If I go on the road and hear light, light, light over and over again, that is going to resonate with as many of the athletes as possible,” Fuller says.
No matter the shoe, signature or mainline, design starts with the technology. “Technology is critical,” Fuller says. “Stories don’t make you run faster. Traction makes you run faster. Support, feeling confident with every move.”
But Fuller knows that a good story goes hand-in-hand with a new technology, a way to highlight and easily explain the concept. “If you are going to tell a story about Dame’s step-back move, it is critical you have an amazing traction pattern or new material to do that move better than ever,” Fuller says. “Lucky for us, the way you see Dame, see him playing, that step-back move works well because we have integrated learnings of traction into the D Lillard 1.”
You can’t fit all the technology into every shoe. With more technology—Fuller knows spending time with materials experts, for example, helps him more clearly understand technology—comes more complication, so Fuller strives for a simpler way, a focused way so that athletes and kids can understand it.
For Fuller, he thinks of each shoe as having a superpower. “What is the superpower of each project?” he asks. “And then focus in on it.”
When he starts a project, he starts with a technology to highlight, whether the Boost cushioning or the lightweight Sprintweb fit technology. Having a superpower, though, requires a balance. “When you go light, you also want something that makes you feel really secured,” he says. “We have those kinds of discussions about how to balance the product. You see opportunities to turn up the nob on certain benefits.”
With technology settled and a main aesthetic determined, next comes the layering. Every shoe has an on-court read, even from the arena’s cheap seats. “We want to make sure we get that right, that from the 300 level you are going to remember and be able to tell people after the game,” he says. “Once you get up close at the shelf on the store or zooming in close, we want to make sure you have that second and third read.”
As Adidas signature players have depth, Fuller wants his sneakers to incorporate depth too. Beyond the main story, telling smaller—sometimes hidden—stories can help keep a shoe fresh. On the Lillard shoe, for example, inside on the sockliner are rap bars the All-Star point guard has written himself.
“I really like the fact that each shoe has a story behind it,” Lillard says. “That was something that was big to me, to have it relate to part of my life, an experience.”
“There are those things you work in and hope get noticed,” Fuller says. “Whether it is text that is hidden, even the way you decided on a certain color in a certain area. I think it is awesome there is so much interest in footwear and the stories behind them that people can go and find that third and fourth layer of design.”
One layer that's always evident on an Adidas product, though: the three stripes.
There’s a tendency to always place the stripes on the side, he says, but with the Derrick Rose line, the stripes moved to the back and created “fresh” looks for different products. John Wall’s shoes have them on the side near the heel, but vertical. Lillard has stripes with words on the back of just one shoe.
“We have terrific logos and terrific branding,” Fuller says. “In conversations with other leaders in design about what to do next, it is cool we have the freedom with some strong recognizable logos. Some sets of consumers want to see strong prominent three stripes, others are pushing us to do it in a new way. I would never say (designing with the stripes) is a bad thing. It is a challenge, but it is a challenge that every designer who is here and sits down with a blank sheet of paper is proud to put three stripes on performance products.”
Even if that blank sheet of paper starts as a paper cup in the at-capacity Moda Center.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.