“It’s a lot of work, but it’s been really rewarding,” said the Nike designer-turned-founder of Portland, Ore.-based footwear design school Pensole Design Academy. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to provide better talent for the industry because I don’t think the industry needs more designers, I think it needs better designers.”
Edwards debuted his curriculum in 2011 and has already sent more than 35 graduates to work for firms including Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Wolverine World Wide Inc. Now, the academy is turning its focus on professionals newly employed within the industry. Through its recent relationship with Two Ten, Pensole will launch professional development courses that will focus on concept development, material design and creating product briefs. The courses start in conjunction with the Northwest and Northeast Apparel & Footwear Materials shows next month.
This year, the academy also has an exchange program lined up with Italy-based shoemaking school Ars Sutoria, in addition to a new collaboration with Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas and the returning Future of Footwear design competition at FN Platform.
“We’re about two years ahead of where I thought we’d be at this point,” Edwards said, adding that he’s funded the entire operation on his own since leaving Nike in April 2011. “The next phase is to get enough investment capital to hire a full staff to really keep up with the growth. It can be a lot further ahead than it is right now.”
Here, Edwards talks about Pensole’s latest venture and the next step for the organization.
1. What was the motivation behind the new course program for working professionals?
DE: The idea was to focus on the professional side of the business. I do a lot of work with colleges and high school kids, but one of the things I’ve realized is that new designers are just thrown in to figure things out on their own. Designers need to be empowered. Depending on the company they work for, they’re really important or they’re not as important. Sometimes that could break a designer’s spirit, interfering with their creativity. What I wanted to do was just provide them with a proper design process, so that no matter the environment, it’s easier for them to stay inspired on a daily basis.
2. Do footwear companies get nervous having their designers interact with competitors?
DE: Not really. Some larger companies want the program specifically for their design team, which is an option we offer as well. Others are OK with their designers being in the same room with [those from] other companies. I think it’s healthy for a designer to see how others work and think. It’s similar to playing sports: If you’re able to see how your opponents play, then it makes you better. We don’t really know who’s going to be in the classes — whether they’re a direct competitor or if they’re just someone else in the footwear industry — but it’s not like company secrets are being revealed, because we’re coaching an overall process that can be applied to any company.
3. What’s the next step for Pensole?
DE: What we’re trying to do now is add a sample facility. The school is two floors, with the main floor being 4,700 square feet and another 4,400 square feet upstairs. I’m trying to build a digital studio and full sample facility upstairs so we can teach the whole strategy and design process downstairs and the go upstairs and physically make the samples. The next phase is to get enough investment capital so I can hire a full staff to really keep up with the growth.