written by Francie King

D’Wayne Edwards’ influence on shoe design began when he was a teenage assistant in the mailroom at LA Gear. Each day he drew a new shoe for the suggestion box, along with the phrase “Hire me.” Executives took notice and after six months of creating designs during his break, he was promoted to a design position, the youngest hire ever to hold this coveted title. He later moved on to create for L.A. Gear and Skechers, ending his career at Nike, having led the JORDAN brand as a Footwear Design Director. One of an elite crew who has designed an AIR JORDAN (for the Jordan line), D’Wayne shaped the vision by cutting shoe weight, utilizing new materials and adding new technologies into the look. Upon his early retirement, he began a first-of-its-kind school for Footwear shoe design: Pensole Academy.

PENSOLE ACADEMY: A STRATEGIC CRASH COURSE IN PROFESSIONAL SHOE DESIGN

Pensole came from an unmet need. While at Nike, D’Wayne noticed that he was expected to hire workers that were ready to go right from the gate. In footwear, like most industries, employees of all levels are faced with tight timelines and complex projects, and it is imperative that they come to the table armed with advanced skills. D’Wayne saw an opportunity for improving this disconnect between green workers and employer expectations. Clearly the talent was strong, but they hadn’t had access to proper training or experience with real world projects. The answer: a strategic training center focused on footwear.

Pensole Academy was born in 2010, and has grown from a class at University of Oregon to a global program with headquarters in Portland, OR. Today, courses at Pensole are typically a month-long, and provide a unique opportunity to collaborate with top designers while learning from other young artists. The school’s curriculum is tough, yet fair; competitive, yet collaborative.

“Collaborating alongside other designers from all over the world creates a real life experience that is unmatched,” said D’Wayne. Students arrive with various skillsets, speaking different languages, and at the end of the course are not only comrades, but talented designers with a common design language and the ability to connect as comrades.

 

THE TOOLS ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS THE PEOPLE USING THEM

Tools are an important part of the curriculum at Pensole Academy. Students are exposed to state-of-the-art software, hardware and trend research. D’Wayne has used Wacom pen displays and tablets for 18 years because he believes not only that the tools work, but that they foster creativity.

The new Bamboo smartpads save time because students can immediately export a hand-drawn sketch into a vector file, easing workload. Now students don’t have to scan their work, as their sketches are automatically captured. The new larger size of the new smartpads (they hold an 8.5 by 11 standard paper) makes “more space to create,” D’Wayne says. He calls himself old-fashioned because he needs to hold something in his hand while working. Having used many products, he only provides students with the latest technology, saying, “We want people to come here and have the best experience they can.” Providing the students proper tools allows for no surprises when they arrive in the workforce, as they’re already ahead of the curve.

Once you’re in the Pensole family, you’re part of a well-connected, focused crew dedicated to providing opportunity.D’Wayne has assembled a dream team dedicated to fostering community and creating best in class designers. Suzette Henry, Color Material Director of MLab by Pensole has known D’Wayne since 1999 at Sketchers, where she managed materials while he managed design. They also worked together at Jordan, where she was the Material Designer for Footwear. Today, the growing MLab is committed to innovation, relationships, and color and materials. Working alongside Suzette is Anna Smith, an artist with a background in dance and industrial design. Anna went through the rigorous training at Pensole three times, became a teacher’s aide and is now full time as a Creative Design Resource Manager there. She says of her role, “To work at Pensole, you have to be open to cool stuff. It’s a special place that really comes from the heart of both D’Wayne and Suzette.”

A PHYSICAL TOOL-BELT FOR A DIGITAL CREATIVE

Anna appreciates that the Bamboo Slate and Bamboo Folio are quick to respond and digitize. “Workflow efficiency no matter who you are is important,” Anna says, adding that Wacom tools support talent in many ways. “When you don’t have those tools you can’t be as efficient and get your thoughts across effectively. You need these tools to do your job.” Design is about pen and paper, and the best design is simple, she continues. “Products must be functional and be made of the right things,” Anna says. “Anybody can sketch, but to apply what materials make a product functional is a process that takes a different talent.”

The fourth member of the Pensole team is Herbert Smith, a marketer, designer and athlete. He knew he wanted to design shoes at a young age, but like D’Wayne before him, wasn’t certain how to get there. He found Pensole and kept applying until accepted. Portland called his name as he knew the shoe industry resided in the Pacific Northwest and wanted to be closer to his goals. Today he is Pensole’s Brand Designer. “The Bamboo Folio is a physical tool-belt for a digital creative. The interaction is with the paper, which is my comfort zone,” says Herbert. As someone who is constantly “striving for improvement,” he has used the Bamboo Folio to create a workflow system that works for him. He continues, “Design is linear. With the Bamboo Folio, you’re creating a visual timeline where you can see where things change and progress.”

D'Wayne Edwards of Pensole Academy using the Bamboo Folio.
D’Wayne Edwards of Pensole Academy using the Bamboo Folio.

By putting practical training and state of the art tools at the forefront, D’Wayne creates win-win situations for students, teachers and cohorts. “Our partners endorse what we do and it shows the world and the industry that we’re doing something right,” D’Wayne says. “We make a point to not do the same thing over and over,” he explains of the evolving structure of educational content. The program’s success is a true testament to the team’s dedication, combined with student’s talent, and the support of both sponsors and partners. Large brands are utilizing Pensole as a training ground to try new things and take their designs to the next level. This winter, a Youtube Red show will be filmed in Portland, chronicling the school, its innovations and its collaborations with numerous brands. D’Wayne’s talent is as a connector. He truly believes in the power of people, and the strength of community. His main objective for Pensole Academy has stayed true since inception: the team aims to create opportunity for young designers, serving them up as top talent to leading companies around the world.

For more about Pensole Academy, click here.

For more about the Bamboo smartpads, click here.