Michael Steszyn

The i-generator project was born in 2000 and Michael Steszyn joined four years later to deal with product innovation, engineering and production. Today he is a partner with Peter Rueegger, who is in charge of marketing and design. Together with two industrial designers on staff, they offer a complete range of services, including brand positioning, innovation research, product design and development, management of production. “The only thing we don’t do is sell. But we take care of everything else: from the concept to brand positioning, up to the delivery of the shoes.”
Some of their most successful collaborations include adidas, for which the company developed the revolutionary Pureboost X upper arch fit concept, and the reimagined adidas Originals (Tubular, Soft Cell) which allowed an iconic product to conquer new market segments. They are also behind the Nike GoPro basketball, designed for training. They also adapted Lululemon’s yoga philosophy to the brand’s new line of footwear. In fact, one of their most outstanding skills is to develop entire lines of shoes for brands that decide to expand into footwear, such as Under Armour (the first football shoe), Scott and Giant.

How would you summarise your company philosophy?
“We strive to introduce innovation that brings real improvements, not so much in terms of the design, but the performance. Our continued goal is to help brands introduce new, relevant multi-season innovations. Also because, in the sports world, investments in new products are so significant that brands prefer to focus on long-term innovations rather than design innovations that could already be considered old the following season.”

When conceiving a new line of footwear, where do you start?
“From the target on which the brand wants to focus, especially if the brand is already established in the different sectors. We believe it is essential to spend an extra dollar on a single marketing story than three dollars on three different stories. Today more than ever it is essential not to confuse the consumer.”

Which of your projects do you think can be considered a step forward from a design point of view?
“Apart from those already mentioned, I think of when we paved the way for the idea of creating a right shoe different from the left one for adidas golf line. Or the Scott triathlon shoe that pioneered both rockered cushioning and a heel entry system, allowing it to be worn and adjusted with a single gesture. It’s a project I’m very proud of: we looked at the triathletes and found a way to improve their T2 transition time by developing a high-performance shoe tuned to address the unique gait of an athlete running a marathon after cycling for 100 miles.”

From a technical point of view, what do you think are the most important aspects to consider when developing a new shoe?
“Automation is becoming more and more essential in the footwear industry. When designing a shoe, you must already be thinking about the production process. A production process that must be fully optimised in order to reduce costs; a process where technical design meets and makes the most of the possibilities offered by technological innovation. In addition, many brands today demand an aesthetic that gives products a higher status than the actual production cost. Keeping all these requirements together is not easy, but it is essential.”

You mentioned automation. The Trump administration is trying to bring a lot of production back to the United States. Do you think that technological innovation can also bring some footwear productions back to the USA?
“Keen is doing this for some of its models. New Balance produces shoes in the US as does Danner Boots. We’ve looked into it for some customers, but we don’t think it’s an option for everyone. The basic problem is that although it is feasible to assemble the footwear in the US, the materials and components will still have to arrive from abroad, with obvious difficulties in terms of timing and costs. There would be no supply chain industry, which would be almost impossible to rebuild in the United States today. The only productions that would be likely to increase are the highly automated ones, such as Crocs[MS1]. Or boots in PU that can be made with injection moulding machines. However, it should be considered that even in these cases, the factories must be set up to run 24 hours a day, so as to make them profitable. That said, there’s always an important manual component in the shoemaking process that cannot be eliminated, whether it involves the application of a label or eyelet. And then, the cost of labour comes back into play.”

You’ve worked with leading brands in the footwear industry. What advice would you give them during this terrible situation for society and the market?
“Today brands need to understand exactly what the consumer expects from them and to make a product that fully meets those expectations. When you think of a new shoe model, you can focus on different aspects (eco-sustainability, fashion, performance, comfort): you have to be clear about the message you want to convey with your product.
The best brands are those that are able to represent the needs, wants and aspirations of their customers.
Because I believe that brands can act as a catalyst for major changes in important issues, such as protecting diversity and the environment, tackling poverty, reducing gender inequalities and promoting racial equality (think about Patagonia’s work). These are issues that a brand can influence, and it is likely that people will increasingly support those very brands that embody their own ideals. Buying a product, after all, is like voting: one dollar, one vote. A form of election that rewards the companies and brands that most reflect their customers’ ideas and aspirations.”

Many people say that they want to slow down the fashion times and no longer focus on frenetic consumption, but on quality. Do you think this will happen?
“I don’t know. It’s very hard to say. Personally, I hope it happens because I think we buy much more than we need. Too much. But profound changes in people’s habits are almost always dictated by strong motivations, and it will be necessary to understand if this pandemic will actually generate strong motivations in people to reduce their consumption, and lead them to choose more expensive, but more long-lasting products. Without considering the fact that there is also a ‘buying opportunity’ discourse to keep in mind: not everyone in the world can afford to choose whether to buy a $20 or $100 shoe.”

What do you think could be the next real and profound innovation to change the shoe design process?
“If you notice, the quality and reliability of any product, even low-cost ones, has grown a lot in recent years. I think digital tools have played a crucial role in this. They have changed and will continue to change the shoemaking experience. Exactly what the next big innovation will be, I really don’t know. If I knew, I would invest in it and retire!
On the manufacturing side, I see more and more solutions that will reduce labour and increase the uniformity of product quality. Robotics and automaton will play a larger role. I also expect a lot from 3D printing, which has been promising great things, but has yet to have a profound impact on the mass market. Increasingly accurate digital prototype/model design tools are helping designers to ‘see’ the product in a highly realistic manner before it is actually made. This brings significant advantages in terms of cooperation, speed and saving of resources. We should also consider less glamorous tools such as PLM software or cutting machines which, however, help companies to remain profitable and reduce waste.”

The latest innovation that blew your mind away?
“As I said before, I cannot point to one idea or process, but rather a steady stream of incremental changes that result in higher quality shoes with higher performance, better fit and a more affordable price. Wearable robotic exoskeletons are a type of innovation that has intrigued me recently. The use of these ergonomic production technologies [which allow a reduction in the accident rate, a decrease in ergonomic issues and greater precision in some activities – editor’s note] is an excellent example of collaborative automation.
A fascinating innovation that, however, I must say, few of our customers are interested in right now.”