When you pick up the upcoming NB 890 off of a shelf in a store, you will probably sense a certain harmony to its look, shape, and style, but you might not immediately know why. When function, design, and aesthetics are all considered together in the service of bigger questions throughout the creation of a new shoe, in the hands of the designer every detail, every choice, every line tells an important part of the story. This is purposeful design. And the resulting finished piece has a certain consistency and wholeness to it, that you can see and feel even if you don’t know much about the choices that produced it.
The New Balance Design Innovation Studio, led by JF Fullum, is about asking and following up on open-ended questions, and sometimes those questions become pathways to creating new products.
“What can the minimalist design of this foul weather jacket, or the seamless contours of that bra, teach us about new ways to think about structure and materials?” “How can we use technology and learning tools to help a runner who wants to improve their form?” Some of these lines of inquiry are kicked off by requests from elsewhere in the company; others are hatched from the team’s own observations and pointed introspection.
The project that led to the development of the upcoming 890 with RevLite technology has its roots in questions like “What would a shoe designed by runners outside of the footwear industry look like?” “What would a truly ‘no-BS’ shoe be?” As a first step, Fullum and the Innovation Studio team did some initial research along these lines and put together a short presentation that included design inspirations, potential approaches, and conceptual goals rooted in making a lighter, simpler trainer without sacrificing any key performance traits.
As it turned out, this research aligned well with a larger New Balance initiative focusing on lighter, more minimal shoes across the board. Additional conversations and research firmed up those initial questions into more pointed ones like “How can we make a lightweight everyday trainer that doesn’t sacrifice cushioning, ground feel, or support? How can we shave a full 2 ounces off of our neutral cushioning shoes and still deliver a great ride and keep the key measurements the same?” From there, development began in earnest and the RevLite project was born.
The following photos and their captions trace the design and development process Fullum led that culmonated in the upcoming NB 890 with RevLite – a process that also influenced and inspired innovation across NB product lines:
Benchmarking: The team rounded up similar shoes from competitors in the market and calculated the average of all of their key measurements, to establish some numerical goals.
Purposeful Design Exercise: The team dissected a shoe comparable in terms of cushioning and stablility in the company’s own line. They pinned it up for observation like a dissected frog and relentlessly re-evaluated each piece, asking questions like…is this piece serving an essential need? Is it possible to achieve this same effect with less weight? Can we do the same thing with fewer pieces? How can we reduce the number of parts while not sacrificing fit, support, comfort, quality?
Sketching and Exploration: From here, Fullum took to paper and pen and started to sketch. “I always see it as different parts within one shoe – I like to figure out each piece separately and then bring it all together.” The sketch phase usually takes about two weeks. At some point, Fullum finds a single element that makes sense, and he then focuses on that until it’s locked down. One detail falls into place first, and then he works through that, freezes it, and goes back to sketching until another detail emerges.
First Design Insight: In this case, a sketch of possible forefoot language is the first detail that both visually and structurally looked and felt right to Fullum. It was a single approach to an element that spoke to the overall goals of the project in its simple, purposeful design.
First Detail: A sketch of some diamond shapes similarly stuck out to Fullum as something to investigate further. As it turned out, cutting some diamond-shaped pieces out of the midsole in relief created a sort of independent suspension that reduced weight, created an interesting design aesthetic, and preserved the sole’s comfortable ride and smooth transition. The diamond motif would also show up on the sole pattern, where it helps with grip and transition.
Sole and Arch: With Good Form Running principles in mind, Fullum made the arch flat to assist with forefoot or midfoot striking, removed the plastic scoop that sits in many arches (which also saved weight), and created diagonal lines in the sole to help ease the transition from the foot’s initial contact with the ground through the full stride.
The Midsole: Fullum next challenged the engineering group, including Sean Murphy and Pat Choe, to come up with a new, lighter-weight foam that wouldn’t sacrifice feel or durability. After working with materials vendors and a number of compounds, they arrived at what would become RevLite. “It’s very light and feels really responsive,” reports Fullum. As an initial indicator of performance (prior to more pointed testing) for each foam under consideration, he took existing NB soles, shot the foam into them, and took off down the hall to see what it would feel like under his feet. RevLite was a clear winner, even in the hallway test.
The Tongue and Laces: Most shoes have a big piece of foam across the tongue, there to help cushion the top of the foot against the laces and knot. But in the quest to reduce weight and simplify to the absolute performance essentials, Fullum found he could reduce the amount of foam in the 890 to just the middle section without affecting comfort. For laces, he looked at the flatter, softer laces of typical racing flats, and found them to be a good fit for the 890. Based on the flat shape of this lace, he also made the holes flat instead of round, which helps them lock into place.
Aesthetics and Materials: The purposeful design process Fullum followed on the 890 all along saw aesthetics considered hand in hand with function, so many of the design decisions were already made once the structural elements were finalized. The team’s goal for the overall look of the shoe was to allow for an easy transition between running and everyday wear, a trainer that performs as well with jeans as it does on the track. To achieve this, they reduced the number of visible technical elements and surfaces to an absolute minimum, chose soft but durable synthetics and suedes, and reduced color palettes down to a few key colors.
Fullum describes the resulting 890 as a shoe for the runner who is interested in trying something new and exciting on their feet, but still wants to be confident about maintaining his or her current, traditional running practice. With its fairly traditional heel lift and neutral cushioning, it serves as an exciting alternative everyday running shoe to fans of the New Balance 759 or Nike Lunar Glide, both of which it beats by over an ounce at 9.65 oz., rather than those seeking a truly minimalist, barefoot-inspired shoe like NB Minimus. The 890 will be available in retail stores and on Shop New Balance in February. Watch for updates to a number of New Balance lines in the upcoming months based on the approaches and principles outlined above, bringing lighter-weight, more streamlined designs to many of your favourite styles.