If You Can Dream It, You Can Make It: A Shoe Story

Posted on: September 13, 2023

photo of Quinn and Jared in The Makery looking at the shoe sole design on a computer

What does it mean for JMU that all students, faculty, and staff can use cutting-edge technologies like 3D printers, laser cutters, and 3D scanners in The Makery, a makerspace in the Libraries? For Industrial Design major Quinn Gagne, it meant getting to make his innovative footwear design a reality.

photo of a row of Converse shoes designed by students

In Spring 2023, visiting professor Anna Smith gave her students an ambitious assignment—to design 3 pairs of shoes in one semester. “We started with making Birkenstocks, and then deconstructing Converse to give students the experience of making shoes by hand, the way it’s always been done,” Prof. Smith recalls. “The third shoe was a concept piece. Their designs were supposed to address some kind of social issue and use artists or designers as precedent to gain inspiration from. One was about life on Mars, a concept space boot designed with advanced materials and technology to provide exceptional performance, protection, and comfort for future expeditions on Mars. Another wax inspired by the Black Widow as a muse to comment on women, who are perceived as fragile, yet are fierce and capable. We had 19 different projects by 19 different students.”

The students were not required to seek help from The Makery, but Prof. Smith let them know it had a 3D scanner, large 3D printers, and staff available to help students learn how to use them. Parts of the experience were even new for Prof. Smith. “I had never used 3D printers before, personally,” she recalls. “After learning from my colleague Kevin Phaup that JMU Libraries had a 3D scanner, I scheduled a meeting with Andrew Strack [Director of Media Production and Makerspace Services]. He assisted us in making a 3D scan of a shoe mold—called a last—then the 3D design process really began.”

Quinn Gagne, a student in Prof. Smith’s class, came to The Makery seeking help with printing a prototype of his shoe using a more flexible material than the 3D printers in his department could accommodate. He didn’t realize the 3D printers in The Makery were larger than the ones he had worked with before. “There I was printing these little 3-inch prototypes, and in walks someone else in my class with a full-scale 3D-printed outsole. That’s when I realized I could actually print the whole shoe.”

Quinn standing in front of a poster showing the shoe he designed (left) and wearing the shoe he designed (right)
JMU senior Quinn Gagne created a website for his Web Design course to accompany the shoe project, OUTLIER. The website walks the user through a series of questions and image prompts that result in a unique sole design based on their responses.

JMU Libraries employee Jared Wark was working in The Makery that first day. “If you want to print with a different filament, you have to use different settings,” he explains. “It was a lot of trial and error, but we figured it out.” Jared worked with about 5 students on 3D printing their shoe designs. Some of the students also used the embroidery machines in The Makery to create designs on the fabric of their Converse shoes.

photo of students dressed in black modeling shoes

At the end of the semester, a joint effort from Prof. Rob Mertens’ Fibers Studio, Prof.  Smith’s Industrial Design Advanced Studio, and Prof. Mark Rooker’s Metals Studio held a Wearables Runway Exhibit to celebrate the students’ work. It was a proud moment for Prof. Smith, Jared Wark, and all the SADAH students.

photo of student modeling shoes in a fashion show with sunglasses and a leather jacket

“The Makery does two things,” Wark explains, “it gives JMU students and faculty the opportunity to use technologies that they couldn’t access otherwise because of cost and other limitations, and it also gives people a really empowering experience of turning their ideas into something real. After the fashion show, I wrote to several of the students and told them, ‘What you’ve made is amazing! Please keep making things and getting them out into the world.’”

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