Designed by Computer


29 January 2018

“Runners asked for one shoe that could do it all: offer more cushion from the impact of each stride, give them the energy return needed to stay fresh late in a run, feel light underfoot and also be able to withstand wear and tear of impact and elements run after run.”

Forgive the marketing bumph, but the press release for Nike’s Epic React Flyknit does a neat job in summarising the brand's ambitions for its new running shoe, as well as capturing something of the manner in which the American brand wishes to speak about its ongoing material research and development.

The Epic React Flyknit (henceforth referred to as the somewhat less bombastic “ERF”) is the vector through which Nike is presenting its new React foam to the market, a composite material that uses synthetic rubber as its primary ingredient and which represents a break from the industry standard of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) or polyurethane cushioned soles. The use of rubber, Nike claims, creates a sole that offers good energy return (the energy fed back to the runner when their foot hits the ground), while also providing soft cushioning.

“Sinking into something is great, but [runners] want it to propel [them] right back off the ground,” says Bret Schoolmeester, Nike's senior director for global running footwear. Runners, Schoolmeester argues, want a shoe that is soft and cushioned, but also responsive to impact. “That’s a difficult brief because those two things are by nature mutually exclusive. Things are soft because they absorb energy and don’t give it back; things are responsive because they don’t absorb much energy and give it back to you,” notes Schoolmeester, also stressing the need for a running shoe to be lightweight and long-lasting. He summarises the design brief behind the ERF as follows: “How do we create something soft, and yet responsive, and yet lightweight, and yet durable?”

Launched last week, Nike has set up ERF as a design that somehow cuts the Gordian knot set out in that brief. Rather than impale itself on the horns of the dilemma, the ERF is presented as a design solution that offers the best of all worlds by neatly bypassing perceived material limitations. “Synthetic rubber is really durable and has great energy return,” says Schoolmeester. As regards the material’s typical lack of softness, however, Schoolmeester is sanguine: “We thought that with the right accoutrements and add-ons could we get it there.” Somehow, by making a series of chemical additions to a synthetic rubber base (what exactly these additions are the company has not divulged) Nike's chemists have achieved what the brand had previously described as the impossible – making rubber responsive, but also soft ("11 per cent softer [than previous Nike running shoes] to be exact," the company's website boasts somewhat gnomically). React, the reasoning runs, is a rubber with all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks.

Nike has past form in this area. Lunarlon, a composite material made from EVA and nitrile rubber, was launched in 2008 as a new material to produce lightweight, bouncily cushioned soles. In 2012, this was followed with Flyknit, a method of constructing the uppers of shoes from knitted fabric to ape the lightness, flexibility and fit of a running sock. In each case, the new technology was presented as a panacea to resolve whatever drawbacks might have beset earlier products (“Today’s runner is not willing to make sacrifices and we don’t think they should have to”), but also as the result of meticulous, scientific material research.

The underside of the ERF is a tracery of furrows, bumps, grooves and dimples, all of which have been computationally designed. During the shoe’s production, Nike’s chemists developed 400 versions of the React foam, while finite element analysis (FEA) was employed to virtually model iterations of the shoe in response to data gleaned from athletes. “FEA is a process where we take athlete data, feed it into an algorithm based on the specific benefits we’re looking for, and the outcome delivers better product,” says Schoolmeester. “It lets us vet things without having to build products, which really helps us to iterate and speed along the process. Every time you actually make a shoe you’re slowing down a little bit, whereas our software programmes don’t need a break and can have a different idea every minute. Those different tools really help us speed it along.”

Alongside these benefits in terms of speed of development, computational design brings with it benefits in terms of the communication of the product. FEA is a scientific process, with all of the attendant benefits of folding real data into the development of a design and thereby moving the process away from the more nebulous realm of a designer’s intuition. Equally, however, the citation of such techniques is a marketing strategy that presents performance sportswear as calculated mechanisms designed to eke out every drop of an athlete’s potential – the design has been exactly calibrated, you are assured, such that the final result is as good as it might be. It is a classic application of the maxim that computers do not make mistakes; any failure in performance must be traced back to the athlete instead.

When stuck on the horns of a dilemma, Nike’s messaging runs, only tools as precise as computational design and advanced chemical research provide the means through which to cut the knot. “I think there’s a big future for computational design,” notes Schoolmeester, and in this respect he is no doubt correct. As both a design strategy and a marketing tool, the system is likely to pay considerable dividends.