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Waffles, Nike, and the future of product design

autodesk university
June 29, 2016

Great innovation begins with inspiration, which can strike at any time. We all know iconic inventor stories like Sir Isaac Newton’s falling apple and Benjamin Franklin’s electrified kite. You may remember last year’s AU Las Vegas Innovation Forum, when Roman Mars told us the incredible story of Almon Brown Strowger, the Kansas City undertaker who invented an automatic telephone switching system to outsmart his rival—whose telephone operator wife was sending all the funeral business in town to her husband—and revolutionized the telephone system in the process.

But have you heard about Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman’s breakfast? In honor of National Waffle Iron Day (yup, it’s a thing), here’s the story:

The legendary University of Oregon track and field coach and “born tinkerer” found inspiration on his plate 1 morning in 1971. He’d been looking for a way to make his team’s running shoes better grip the newly finished artificial track surface at Oregon’s Hayward Field. When his wife Barbara served him a homemade waffle, Bowerman saw a design that he thought “just might work.” He used her old waffle iron to press 2 rubber soles, which he then glued to nylon uppers to make the world’s first pair of surface-gripping running shoes.

Nike waffle iron 2

Bowerman may have ruined his wife’s waffle iron but he created the prototype for Nike’s Waffle Trainer, which debuted in 1974 and changed the running world (and arguably the wider world) forever. This unique approach laid the foundation for Nike’s innovative design process that continues today. The process involves working closely with athletes to define performance goals and designing new products to meet them.

Autodesk is honored to have Bill Bowerman’s original waffle iron on display in the Autodesk Gallery. If you’re in San Francisco, stop by and see the Nike exhibit for yourself.

From Nike’s original waffle sole, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump (well okay, maybe there were a few more steps) to the new face of footwear innovation: mass-personalization. At AU last year, we introduced you to Matthew Flail and Timothy Ganter of Footprint Footwear who create customized footwear using 3D scanning, generative modeling, and 3D printing to fit your shoes perfectly to your feet. Check out their talk to get a glimpse of the future of your feet. (We’d love to know what Bill Bowerman would have to say about it.)

As technology continues to evolve, so does product design—and Autodesk is committed to helping you bring every great idea to life. We haven’t crossed the innovation finish line yet—in fact, the race is just getting started.

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