Senior Product Design Manager
Look out of any office window throughout the Portland area, and an urban landscape unfolds in the valleys between the ocean and the mountains. Portland’s industrial terrain seems ripped from the pages of a noir film, with rain soaked streets running between skyscrapers and bridges. From these scenes, traveling in any direction, the concrete and steel gives way, returning to verdant valleys and dense temperate rain forests. It is amongst these diverse settings that the world’s most talented outdoor apparel and footwear designers have gravitated, seeking to draw inspiration from both town and country.
Aaron Barker is one those new faces in the Portland footwear design scene. He brings more than 10 years of experience learned from one of the top design institutes in the country. Hired by Danner Boot Company and Lacrosse Footwear in 2009, Barker brings an urban sensibility to the legendary boot company, known for its rugged outdoor ethos. His experience at New Balance and Adidas has brought to Danner a new approach to footwear design. The new line of lifestyle oriented footwear combines new fashion sensibilities with the rugged lineage Danner has been known for since 1932.
Did you begin designing in high school? What’s the earliest thing you remember designing?
Believe it or not, I actually started sketching shoes in middle school. I was really curious about shoes from an early age. My father used to run marathons, so there were always Runner’s World magazines around the house. Once a year, they would publish a shoe guide with the best shoes of the year. I would read through that and just get really interested in the design of the shoes. I started sketching my own shoes at that point.
So right from the get go, it was shoes that got you interested in design, even though you went on to study industrial design at the University of Cincinnati. Did you envision a career in footwear design?
Actually I didn’t even know that there was such a profession, an official shoe designer profession, but I kind of learned that later. I knew about product design, but I never really thought of shoes quite in that way. There was another kid in college that did an internship with New Balance, and I immediately thought to myself, that sounds really cool, I think I’m going to try that too. Later, I actually went to work for New Balance
What was the first thing you designed that you could see in production?
About 10 years ago, I designed an adventure shoe for New Balance. They had an outdoor line at that time. Since that time I’ve gained experience in the athletic shoe industry working for New Balance, Converse and Adidas.
Cincinnati has a really good industrial design program and it’s one of the top rated in the country, and at times it has actually been rated number one. It’s right up there with the very best industrial design colleges, so it was a really good start to understanding how to put things together. It had a lot of focus on the logistical side of design – in construction of things, materials and processes – things like that. There were co-op programs that I got a lot of on the job experience from. I did six internships during school and that was a requirement, so I would do three months of school and then three months of on the job training. From that I got experience for everything from cycling components, to toys, to business machines — all kinds of things.
What is the impact of the natural environment on the design process? As a designer, how is Portland different in terms of inspiration?
That’s a great question. In terms of cities, I worked on the East Coast before coming here. It’s a different lifestyle, and the inspiration is really different. There is more of an urban feel on the East Coast, whereas here, I draw more inspiration for the creative process from the outdoors, and the natural environment. I think a lot of the categories that we compete in are really outdoor inspired or outdoor driven. Whether it’s work, or it’s hunting or military, they are all built for rugged performance, rather than like say strictly an urban performance inspiration.
Was there an About Face moment in your career when you realized that your work would primarily revolve around apparel and active wear design, rather than industrial design? Do you still yearn for other forms of design?
I appreciate all types of design. I have always done footwear professionally but I have always enjoyed other types of design, like furniture, automotive, and many kinds of product design. I am a little OCD when it comes to looking at any product. I will analyze it, tear it apart and think of how I could improve upon it. I have done side projects on my own, more personal projects, such as bags or furniture — things I will always enjoy designing. Who knows? Maybe I won’t be doing footwear in 10 years from now. But right now, I really enjoy what I’m doing.
What inspires you outside of work, and how does that influence what you do for Danner and Lacrosse?
Besides the corporate confines, I find inspiration from outdoor gear, fashion, technology, art, apparel, automotive design — anything that opens my mind to a new idea. When I sit down to draw, music always gets me in the mood to be creative, takes me out of my head. I enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities. I like mountain biking and hiking the local trails in Oregon and Washington. It helps me recharge. I am not involved in hunting or some of the categories that I design for here, but the hiking elements definitely provide the strongest connection to product, and that’s a big inspiration for me. It’s great to have access to the outdoors because it provides direct and an indirect inspiration for the product here. It really refreshes your mind and gets the creative usage flowing again. And directly, you can test out the product in the outdoors.
Compared to other active wear companies like Adidas and New Balance where you have worked, what are the differences and similarities of working at Danner?
I would say the differences are the categories and types of activities are very different. There was a little bit of cross-over in hiking with New Balance and Adidas because they were very sport driven. At Danner, it’s still sport driven, but it’s also hunting and military. Though those aren’t sports, those customers are doing some pretty challenging physical things. And the same goes for law enforcement. The other thing that’s really similar is there are some really specific performance requirements that you have to design for. People are doing physically demanding things, and you have to be able to understand what they are doing, and how to design the product to help them do that activity.
We designed some military/law enforcement boots for training on base, called the Tachyon. It’s really light weight but it still looks like a military boot, and it is offered in tan and black and green, so you can get it to match your uniform. But it is really almost like a running shoe in disguise. It’s light enough and flexible enough that you can train in it with more mobility, but it also has enough protection to be a combat boot.
Are aesthetics a big part of what you do? Do you have a personal design philosophy that guides your creative process?
Yeah for sure. I think that most people think about design as heavily aesthetically oriented. I think of design as problem solving. A lot of it revolves around function. It’s almost a given that they have to look great, but only if the overall design is well thought out. It’s going to look good as a direct result of something being organized. You are taking all these chaotic ideas and pulling them together into something that’s really cohesive. There is an elegance about how these things are put together. If everything is thought of, and all the pieces fit together perfectly, you’ve achieved the ultimate design goal.
Danner has recently launched a new line of lifestyle shoes, offering more of an urban appeal, something to wear on the town, as well as in the woods. How is the perception of the brand evolving as you do that?
I think that we are able to appeal to a wider consumer base, including younger consumers. The lifestyle products are really trending right now, and it’s a perfect synergy of being able to be ‘Made in the US’ with craftsmanship. People are really gravitating towards American made products, and they want to buy something they can enjoy for a long time. They’re willing to spend a little bit more for it because of the quality and design, so it was a natural thing for us to do. It’s part of our heritage. A lot of these things are inspired by our classic boot designs, or even direct re-issues of some of the older styles that we have done in the past. We updated them and made them a little better overall.
At the Danner store, I saw new designs. Caramel and oxblood colored leathers, and boots that seem designed for more fashionable urban use, even bearing names inspired by Portland, like the Forest Heights, Piedmont.
For a few seasons now there has been more of a focus of that. We keep expanding the lifestyle category. We’ve always had the heavy-duty products, and performance products covered, but a new part of our focus is expanding into really rich constructions. They’re still really sturdy constructions, but also more elegant or a little bit more formal. Products that people can wear for casual wear, or even a little bit more formal occasions. It’s just kind of a natural progression of what we do already.
What do you think makes Portland such a close fit for the lifestyle design and it’s more urban look – they dovetail well together?
Portland’s style is definitely modernizing too. It seems like Portland is a hub for a lot of creative things and is becoming a bit of a focus of fashion. The Northwest style includes things like the logger look and things like that — it just works together because Danner has this heritage in logging and work products.
It escorts the brand. I mean it’s a very old brand and its quality and craftsmanship has always been a huge focus, and that is authenticity.
Does the rugged lineage carry through into the new lifestyle products as well?
Yeah everything is still a super-durable. A lot of it is recraftable, so you can wear them for 10 or 20 years and you can have them re-heeled, or re-soled as well. Still using super heavy duty Vibram soles, but made more comfortable, and using a little bit more elegant shapes that lend themselves towards every day wear, with really rich leathers and really nice materials.
I also noticed you’re offering lighter weight designs that appear to be more like athletic day hikers.
We are also focusing on building up the line from not just super-heavy duty product, but lightweight, more flexible, comfortable, athletic base platforms that there tend to be a little bit lower price points too.
When I buy some new Danner boots, how long until I love them? Don’t they reach their finest when they’re really broken in?
That’s something most modern products don’t really have because they’re more disposable. A lot of the Danner boots reach their most comfortable point later on after you have been wearing them awhile and they really conform to your foot. But we’ve made improvements to the comfort as well over previous generations. For example the Quarry boot. If you look at the collar of the generation right before it, we improved some very specific things. It has a really comfortable tongue, and a really comfortable collar. We basically analyzed the parts of the boot that needed a little bit of improvement and implemented those improvements. And the comfortable polyurethane foot bed has already been around awhile. Getting everything to fit really well and improving this collar were a big part of the construction and the improvements on that boot. But otherwise you could barely tell the difference visually from the last generation.
Where do you think that Danner and LaCrosse product lines are heading? Are there any interesting developments on the horizon, things that are in the cooker?
Sure, yeah there is a lot of new things. We are always looking at new technologies. There is an expansion into lifestyle for sure. There are definitely some new technologies we are looking at using to improve the product from a performance standpoint. So everything is getting more comfortable, and more ergonomic all the time, and that’s always a really big focus. In terms of LaCrosse, we are doing some really interesting things with boots that are molded, primarily for hunting and work, so they are basically one big injection mold that forms to the foot and personalizes the fit to the consumers foot. That’s on the LaCrosse website right now. On the Danner side, I can’t reveal too much, but it’s along the lines of lighter, faster or more comfortable products. We’re also expanding into newer price points, where we haven’t played in the past.