Learn the Basics of Shoe Design

The shoe design industry is interesting, highly creative, and demanding. Because the industry is also highly competitive, it is important that those entering this career path have a thorough knowledge of the fashion industry.

Shoe designers or footwear designers specialize in creating footwear. While shoes are a practical accessory, they can also be seen as original and innovative works of art. A shoe designer must use their knowledge of various fashion trends, different types of materials and design techniques to conceptualize and develop their own footwear designs.

Because the shoe design career path is multifaceted, designers are required to also have a thorough understanding of the fashion industry. They must know how to draw, how to design their pieces, how to cut and sew fabric, and how to utilize certain design programs and other software on the computer in order to develop their designs digitally.

Creating close contacts within the industry via internships or other programs may also help shoe designers become successful. Additionally, a degree from a fashion design school is not necessary to become a successful shoe designer, but it can be beneficial when applying for internships and securing employment in the industry.  In fact, most employers prefer designers who have a thorough knowledge of footwear design from a reputable school.

Training programs through colleges and universities, fashion institutes, or vocational schools focus specifically on shoe design, while other programs may focus on both shoe design and accessories design. Topics covered often include computer-aided design (CAD), footwear marketing strategies, collection development, and applied footwear design, drawing, pattern drafting and other related courses.  And, although getting an education is important, work experience is vital.  Therefore, participating in internships and apprenticeships through retailers and manufacturers while in school or after completing your education can help earn the respect and attention of prospective employers.


Develop Industry Specific Skills

Master the Fundamentals of Design to Be Successful

While anyone can try their hand at shoe design, investing your time in learning more about the craft and developing your skill set is the best way to make your mark within the industry. It is important that a shoe designer has a clear understanding of colors, lines, shapes, textures, and movement, and how these concepts interact with the human body in motion.

While it is important that you have artistic ability, learning to conceptualize your vision is also necessary; how your designs will look with many different wardrobes, styles of hair, and makeup.  The shoe design process requires lots of research, ideation, and prototyping before you can present a complete collection. Before a shoe designer can begin creating their designs they must first ask themselves a few basic questions:

  • Who are you designing for?
  • What do they need?
  • Where will your designs be worn?

Once you have the answer to these questions, you can begin to execute your designs. While the design process may vary depending on your customer and your ultimate vision, this basic process is one that should be followed.

It is also very common for shoe designers to work in collaboration with other artists and designers to gain knowledge and experience. This is a great way to learn more about different design methods and gain experience by forming design concepts as a team. As a shoe designer, developing your skill set is paramount. Whether you choose to practice with a hands-on approach or via independent study or through an accredited Bachelor's degree program is up to you.

The shoe design industry is one that is ever-changing, requiring those who enter this field to hold a certain set of skills that are adaptable. At minimum, it is important for shoe designers to understand color theory, have a basic knowledge of cutting and sewing, pattern making, and fashion sketching. Designers must also be familiar with the fashion industry, have a broad knowledge of textiles and materials used in making different kinds of shoes, and understanding of shoe engineering, illustration skills, proficiency with CAD software programs, and modeling software, strong marketing skills, knowledge of trends within the industry, and of all the differs kinds of footwear on the market today.  Designers might also decide to specialize in one type of footwear, such as leather boots, or they may decide to design many types of shoes, sandals, sneakers., etc.  They may decide to design for women, men, children, or enter the practical and growing field of orthopedic footwear design. 


Build Your Portfolio & Pursue Professional Development

To become successful in the shoe design industry, it is important that potential designers learn to build a strong portfolio, their own personal brand, and industry connections. 

Whether you chose to build your portfolio online or with physical prototypes, this is an extremely important first step in your shoe design career. With a strong portfolio, you have a greater chance of being accepted for an internship program. You also increase the chance of selling your designs. This is also a great way to start building your reputation within the industry, as insiders have a reference point when considering your designs, and how you’ve progressed overtime.

With the invention of the Internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle, it is more important now than ever before to build a personal brand. As such, success within the fashion industry relies heavily on your personal brand. While it is always important to keep in mind who you are designing for, it is also a good idea to have a clear brand identity in mind to separate yourself from other shoe designers. Your individuality and unique design style are what people will remember, and what will ultimately land your first job.

The fashion design industry is highly competitive and because of this, making the right connections is one of the best ways to make sure your shoe designs are seen. While it may be hard to know where to start, applying for an internship or apprenticeship, studying under designers who are already successful in the industry, and investing in continuing education are all great ways to make lasting connections in the industry. It should also be noted that New York and California employ most shoe designers, so designers who wish to have the best chance of gaining employment and becoming well-known may want to consider relocating.

Get to Know Our Experts

Burju Perez

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Burju Shoes
  • Where:
    Boston, MA
  • Experience:
    7 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Business. Upon graduating, I started a career in finance when, after three years, I realized that the corporate world was not for me. I decided to quit my job and pursue my dreams of becoming a professional salsa dancer. My husband and I have been blessed with an amazing dance career that has spanned more than 15 years. While working and traveling as a professional dancer and choreographer, it was difficult to find stylish dance shoes other than nude or black. Being that Salsa is such a lively and vivid dance, I felt that none of the current shoe brands reflected that nor my personal style. I realized that there was a tremendous opportunity to fill the gap between highly functional and comfortable shoes with high fashion style; and with that, the inspiration to start my own shoe line began!

    Although I didn’t have a background or education in design or manufacturing, I threw caution to the wind and I gave it go! Burju Shoes was born in 2008. We featured our first Diva and Stiletto collection in 2010 and the brand just took off, becoming a global dance and special occasion (currently offered in street soles) shoe brand worldwide. My husband and I still tour both national and internationally, however, we are on a limited schedule since we now have an 11 month old daughter.

    Every day is different, but I mostly deal with our shoe suppliers and manufacturers, as well as delegate and manage day-to-day responsibilities. I work on new design concepts for both our shoe collection and apparel, approve prototypes, as well as handle the buying. I also provide support to my customer service team to make sure that we provide exceptional service to all of our clients. I work very closely with my marketing and public relations team to strategize on events, photo shoots and any other marketing projects.

    I love creating…whether it’s a new design, a photo shoot or new systems to help us be more efficient. I love when my team and I brainstorm to come up with new ideas for marketing, products or events. It’s all so exciting! What I dislike is that there are never enough hours in the day to accomplish all the ideas that we come up with.


    The more you learn to start, the better prepared you will be

    It’s been a steep learning curve since I have no background in design or manufacturing. It may have been a little bit easier if I knew more about the process from the very beginning, but it has been an incredible learning experience and journey both on a professional and personal level.

    Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty

    There is no better experience than hands-on life experience. I would recommend that while starting off can be frustrating and difficult, you have to be willing to put in the work from the very beginning. Do your research, network and try to study or obtain an internship with a designer or company within the fashion industry. Remember, everyone starts from the beginning.

    Don’t forget to learn the business side of things

    Everyone has a story that brought them to where they are today. Whether you’re interested in the creative side or the business side of the industry, I would, however, also recommend that you learn both sides. If you dream of starting your own business, you’ll need to know everything there is to know about running a business and with time and success, you will be able to focus on what it is that you love most. And when you work with another company, you’ll just make yourself more valuable to the company with your knowledge and experience.

    Networking opens a lot of doors

    There’s a saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” So, start networking now and putting yourself out there. You never know who are you going to meet and who can lead you in the right direction or connect you with someone who will give you the experience you are looking for. Again, do your research on companies you like and admire, look into internship programs, go to networking events or job expos and always ask questions. Never stop learning and always stop thinking you know everything!

    Autumn Parham

  • Title:
    Shoe Designer
  • Company:
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    5 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I studied Apparel Merchandising and Design with a double major in Entrepreneurship at Central Michigan University. I also spent some time studying abroad in Paris, France. For shoe design, I have taken several shoe making and shoe design classes. Professionally, I have worked as an assistant to a celebrity stylist, an assistant to a luxury clothing designer, and as a sales specialist for a luxury retailer.

    I don’t have an average workday. Some days I am focused only on sketching, and other days I am focused on sourcing leathers, fabrics, and other materials. Each day is different depending on deadlines and what needs to be done. I love designing shoes and seeing them come to life! I also love the process sourcing for materials, and being inspired by all that’s out there. There isn’t much that I dislike. It is hard work but well worth it to do what I love.


    Seek out other young people that are interested

    I wish I would have known that there is a community of young people, even in the US, who know about or are interested in shoe design and shoe making. I think it is a great idea to network and even learn from those who are in the same field as you are.

    Don’t give up, and never stop learning

    Learn all that you can, and don’t give up! I think that it is very important to learn and to know how to actually make shoes. This will help when it comes to designing shoes that are practical and constructed to last. There is no right or wrong path to get into shoe designing. However, I do believe that interning for a shoe designer or shoemaker would be an excellent place to start!

    Maya Levi

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Olive Thomas
  • Where:
    Tel Aviv, Israel
  • Experience:
    7 years in the industry
  • Understanding My Career Path

    • When I was living in London after my compulsory Army duty, while looking for a course to enroll to that I stumbled upon Industrial Design. After a long period of not knowing which path to take I suddenly felt that I had found “my calling”. I returned to Israel and started my degree in Industrial Design at Hadassah College in Jerusalem.
    • After finishing my degree I decided to look for an area that was less tech and computers and more hands on and tangible. I enrolled in a one year course in Israel’s first school for Footwear Design and Technology.
    • After finishing the course I continued working at the bar where I had worked during my year at the footwear school. I half-heartedly pursued professional options at retail companies in Israel but the work seemed more like a buyer than an actual designer. Simultaneously I started looking around for shoe manufactures and started developing shoe styles for production.
    • I found a good manufacturer (whom I work with still today), and in February 2008 I filed to become a self-employed footwear designer. My first collection consisted of 4 styles.
    • I started turning to shops to interest them in my designs and started, slowly but surely, to sell my shoes. Unfortunately, the retail in Israel is based on consignment, which means that you only get paid for the items sold, and the shoes that don’t sell are returned. The first few years were a difficult balance between trying to get the brand out, being seen in as many shops as possible and trying to keep my stock low.
    • In 2012 I opened my own shop, which made a big difference to the brand. I had to make sure that there are enough styles and sizes to entice new customers, while still keeping to the identity that I had built up to that point.


    On education

    I think that you don’t necessarily need a formal education in Footwear Design or Manufacture, but I think that understanding design is a must. I studied Industrial Design, a colleague of mine studied Graphic Design, and another Fashion and Textiles- we all had the basics and the understanding of “design” before we turned to footwear. Because of my degree, I also know what it means to start a project, to actually finish a project, and to meet a dead-line.

    Due to the fact that I don’t actually make the shoes myself, rather work with a modeler and a manufacturer, the actual process of making a shoe is something that can be learned in time. I feel understanding the process and development of the shoe from a sketch to an actual article that you can wear makes me a better designer and the shoes of better quality.

    3 best tips

    • Do get an education in some form of “design”. It will make the difference between being mediocre and being good.
    • Take a deep breath. It takes a lot of time, money and effort before your name is known, recognized and appreciated. You will learn a lot about yourself and your business, but always remember you values and beliefs. They will become your identity and the reason why customers return.
    • If pursuing a career as an independent, self-employed designer, understand that about 15% of your time is spent designing (and that’s being generous) and the other 85% of the time is spent managing a business. If you aren’t business/financially/mathematically oriented, make sure that you have help from someone who is.
    Shoe Designer Infographic