Pioneer in focus: sports shoe designer Christoph Döttelmayer

Christoph Döttelmayer is about to make a name for himself in the shoe design business, which is actually foreign to the media. Together with his mentor Laszlo Tapolcai, he gives an insight behind the scenes of the design world in an interview.

The shoe mentor

Footwear designers aren't necessarily the paparazzi's favorite subject. A lot happens in their world from which the rest of society is usually excluded and still benefits from it. Christoph Döttelmayer is one of those designers who always knew where they would end up later. With experienced mentor Laszlo at his side, he made his way in the design industry and made his mark on the athletic shoe world. We met the two to find out details about development, passion and design.

Sportalpen.com: Hello you two. Your shared passion brought you together... but how did you meet in the first place?

Christoph: When I told my parents that I wanted to design shoes, they told a friend who also knew Laszlo. So I just called him and visited him. That was in 2006.

Laszlo, you supported Christoph as a mentor almost from the start. How long have you been in the shoe design business yourself?

Laszlo: My father was doing an apprenticeship as a shoemaker at the time. And even though he worked as a police officer, somehow I've always been in contact with shoes. Then I learned design, went to the United States and worked for Converse. Later I ended up as head designer for footwear at Adidas and now I'm active as a consultant.

Why sports shoes?

Christoph: For me it actually started with the fact that I wanted to become a basketball pro. Michael Jorden was and is the biggest inspiration in my life. And that brought me to the shoes he wore: the Nike AirJordan. The story behind the shoes also fascinated me and I knew: I want to do that too! That's why I studied product design.

What tasks does a shoe designer take on?

Christoph: Design isn't just about making the visuals, it's about the complete "package". Of course, it all starts with the look, because you think about who the shoe should be made for and for what purpose. At the same time, of course, you also have to think about the material and its properties. Structure and technology also fall into this phase. But we also work with developers who then ultimately implement the shoe.

What makes sports shoes so special?

Christoph: For me, design is about emotions and shoes are the perfect product to tell the story. That's one of the nicest parts of my job. There are those things that only you know about the athletes you work with. And then you try to build it in.

Laszlo: The challenge is actually always to create an identity for each shoe. But that also makes the job exciting. After all, you don't want to copy yourself or anyone else. character is important.

How much does it help if you practice the sport you are designing shoes for?

Christoph: You also have to get used to the product. Of course, it helps if you actually practice the sport yourself and know how the product is used. It would be a bit strange if I designed shoes for mountaineering, but not at least occasionally in the mountains.

A little journey through time for you Laszlo: What was it like when you started in the design world?

Laszlo: Of course we didn't have such tools as a computer. Sketches, drawings and prototype models all had to be made by hand. The whole process might not have been quite as simple as it is today. But even then there was a step-by-step approach that we got along with (laughs). Several designers have often specialized in certain sub-areas and divided up the work process in this way. Then the computers slowly came along – and I had to learn something again. However, there are still companies today that insist on hand drawings.

And how does it look today in general? How much work does a designer do on the PC?

Christoph: I work with a large graphics tablet. In the end it's pretty much the same as if I were drawing with pen and paper. At the same time, however, there are many advantages on the computer, such as direct integration and further processing. For example, you don't need to create new drawings if you want to change the color.

Does this mean that more people – who may have less talent – ​​have easier chances in the design world?

Christoph: Of course you can “trick around” a bit with the computer. But a lot depends on whether the designer understands what the shape of the product should look like. A shoe has a very complex shape that moves in all directions. If you don't have the feeling for it, it's also very difficult with the computer.

What does the general flow of the shoe design process look like?

Christoph: There are two processes here. Either you design completely freely based on an idea or you start with certain specifications. The client specifies what the shoe should be able to do and roughly cost. Then you start thinking about which technologies to use. In the best case, you invent new ones.

With the first sketches, the suggestions are then put on paper. Detail improvements and color selection are the next steps.

How is the first prototype created?

Christoph: A kind of "cheap" model is created so that you can get an initial 3D idea of ​​the prototype. A shoe dummy is masked with painter's tape and the design lines are drawn. So you can also see the three-dimensional variant of the lines, which look completely different on the plan. This is also good for checking the sketches. The next step is the individual layers of the shoe and the cut-out of the materials.

Laszlo: In addition, you have to think about which materials are used in which parts of the shoe. At that time I got myself a foot skeleton on which I marked potential pressure points in colour. For example, you can always see at first glance where no hard parts should be used. However, you have to play through the whole thing twelve times, because there are different sizes - and the shape does not change proportionally to the size.

What then happens before the shoe can be released for mass production?

Laszlo: Then the "tooling" begins - the production...

Christoph: ... and that involves enormous costs.

Laszlo: It may well cost half a million dollars to produce one size. Although two sizes often fit in one shell, the investment is still enormous. That is why it is extremely important to work correctly in the design. The sole is always expensive, or rather its mold – usually the most expensive part of the whole shoe.

Christoph: The whole process – from the idea to the market launch – then takes up to two years.

What is it like working with a sports professional?

Christoph: That is exactly the reason why I started the job. Some time ago I had the opportunity to develop a product together with David Lama (climbing shoe, ed.) that tells his story. At the same time I could try to help him to become even better. It was great!

Laszlo: At that time I was developing boots at Raichle together with a snowboard world champion. I didn't know much about it, but he told me exactly what he wanted from the shoe. And then we implemented that.

How much difference can a shoe actually make in competition?

Laszlo: The team that developed Usain Bolt's shoe certainly looked at the running process as a whole. Through discussions with the athletes and the scientists, new ways to improve something are always found.

In the same way, unnecessary weight on the heel of running shoes has disappeared because it is not really needed for fast running.

Christoph: Of course it can't be determined, but I'm sure that some competitions could have ended differently.

How much marketing is now in the shoe design process?

Laszlo: That also depends on the company. At Adidas, the development department starts a project. At Nike America, the marketing department is often the initiator. Most of the time, you do this together anyway.

Christoph, you have now landed at Dachstein and are also responsible for the mountaineering department there. How did you come to this?

Christoph: First of all, I have to say that I never thought I would find a job as a footwear designer in Austria. Unfortunately, there aren't any big companies in this country that also have their design department here. Coincidence also played a part in my engagement with Dachstein. Thank God! Because it is very nice to be able to be active at home.

Can you also imagine turning your back on shoes and designing something else?

Christoph: I could imagine that, but certainly not in the near future. Many people ask me: Designing shoes over and over again – doesn't that get boring? But it's a new challenge every time. And I am always enthusiastic and full of passion.