Deconstructing the Hype: Interacting with the Abstract to Empower Sneakerheads

Master of Design Thesis — Preliminary Research Documentation

Nike Air Yeezy 2 by Julian Body

spent my formative years in Portland, Oregon under the shadow of two gargantuan stylemakers. Eight minutes north of my childhood home lies Nike World Headquarters; twenty minutes north and you’d be staring at the Adidas U.S. Headquarters. Exploring their campuses from time to time, I bore witness to massive shrines in dedication to planet Earth’s greatest athletes, entertainers, and influencers. In addition to these individuals, the objects that adorned their feet were given equal prominence by way of paintings, sculpture, and exhibits. It was here that sneakers made their impression on my mind; I was, and still am, inspired by these simple but powerful artifacts.

While I was more avid in past years, I describe my involvement with sneakers now as a casual enthusiast and collector. I follow a few sneaker publications and check release calendars occasionally. When certain sought-after sneakers catch my attention I utilize a few platforms to enter online raffles, naive and hopeful that I will get a pair. Soon after, the notification comes through that the sneaker is sold out, signaling another loss. This is not uncommon to many sneaker enthusiasts; it is an everyday occurrence in the era of hype.

Investigating stories, memes, and anecdotes about this phenomenon uncovered common patterns. Much of the process of being a sneakerhead nowadays has little to do with the sneaker itself. Often, the only interaction with in-style sneakers transcends the physical object. For the purist, the ultimate prize is seeing, feeling, and wearing their coveted pair. For many others, however, beating the system is the prize in itself. Nowadays, being a part of sneaker culture lies in (successfully) navigating the chaos of the hype.

For an increasing number of sneaker releases, the majority doesn’t acquire the limited supply, so an abstract interplay with hype largely defines their relationship to the artifact. How might sneakerheads engage in a nuanced conversation with hype? It’s imperative to document the trajectory of sneaker hype in the 21st century and consider how designers might learn from and thoughtfully create in conjunction with this phenomenon.

Secondary Research: Defining hype

In order to ground the thesis, I continue to define and distill a working definition of hype. Exploring its constituent parts enables me to obtain a firmer grasp on this amorphous subject matter.

Meaning

Looking at how humans derive meaning from everyday objects and artifacts became my starting point. A work in particular that I consulted was The Meaning of Things by Halton and Csikszentmihalyi. Examining studies on object-self relationships, objects of action vs. contemplation, and the second order effects of these dynamics grounded my study in an elemental understanding of ordinary possessions. Extending these concepts to consumer behavior and experiences, studies by Gilal & Zhang elaborate on consumers’ appreciation of the embedded symbolism of our possessions. In sum, the object itself translates meaning to the social environment.

Influences

My subsequent step involved a consideration of the forces that inform consumer behavior. I was repeatedly directed towards Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Coolhunt.” Gladwell delightfully chronicles grassroots vanguards who establish cool, the corporate hunters who track them, and the mass consumers who are ultimately influenced by the cat-and-mouse game. Now fueled by social networking platforms and mega-influencers, I’d argue the amplitude and wavelength of hype cycles have significantly warped in recent years.

Importantly, social psychology and networking theories are the undercurrent of sprawling ideas and influence. In particular, various readings on diffusion studies, memetics, and social contagion gave me insight into phenomena that influence group dynamics and decision making.

Nike Dunk SB Low Staple NYC Pigeon via StockX

Context

Hype has tangible manifestations and acute consequences. Storied instances of sneaker hype gone too far include Jeff Staple’s Nike Dunk release in 2005 and Air Jordan’s Concord XI pre-Christmas release in 2011. With mobs and riots caused in Seattle, Atlanta, Oakland, and NYC, these moments live in sneaker hype infamy. On the other end, businesses have tried to control the system as best they can. For instance, distinguished retailer Bodega partnered with Shopify to build custom defense software to eliminate bots from spoiling their releases in 2019. Finally, I’d be remiss to overlook ways in which these behaviors negatively impact other stakeholders, including nonhuman ones. In particular, sneaker hype has fueled environmental pollution, exploitation of natural resources, and unethical labor practices that violate human rights.

All of this considered, I present the following definition of hype:

The perception of scarcity or desirability that creates excessive demand over a product or service and includes its subsequent reverberations.

Primary Research

Expert interviews

I conducted expert interviews with a footwear designer at Reebok, a former material designer at Nike, an art curator featured in The Design Museum of London, and a shoe store owner in Seattle. Some upcoming interviews that were unable to fit within this timeframe will be with a former longtime director of marketing at Nike.

Gaining insight into the industry machinery fascinated me from an academic and personal perspective. Interestingly, the designers I spoke with involved with footwear creation expressed efforts to address hype responsibly in the minutiae of the development process.

Strategic terminology, like tier-zero (exclusive collaborations with shops and celebrities) and energy sneakers (limited edition shoes to build buzz around a specific model), was used to explain the codification of hype. From a historical perspective, I learned that brands decided to capitalize on the passion of Japanese sneaker connoisseurs, creating a phenomenon of hype in America in the early ‘00’s. Now, brands systemize the experience by releasing shoes built to create hype followed by support sneakers, watered down versions with increased quantities that quench the thirst of the remaining consumers.

Semi-Structured Interviews

To learn more from the sneakerhead point of view, I conducted semi-structured interviews over the course of 5 weeks. I interviewed 4 individuals, diverse in age and geographies, who have been active in buying and selling sneakers. Additionally, I had more casual conversations with consumers in sneaker shops to get a general sense of the current landscape. These interviews revealed patterns of information gathering that sneaker enthusiasts conduct as well as idiosyncratic habits and rules that guide their purchasing behavior. Some of the more powerful content came from introspective frameworks of hype as well as stories about grail sneakers, or pairs held in highest esteem.

Insights

  • A few noteworthy mechanisms and patterns emerged after conducting preliminary research. Firstly, the participants I talked to expressed an opt-in or opt-out mentality to sneaker hype. Being a casual collector seems increasingly unattainable for them. Specifically, I heard patterns of getting bots (computer software to obtain sneakers released online), joining cook groups (exclusive Discord groups that advise on sneaker acquisition), or reselling to continue to participate in their passion. All of these measures were in stark contrast to behavior they participated in when first taking interest in sneakers.
  • Despite subscribing to sneaker trends and movements, these enthusiasts unmistakably identified as outliers. They almost always described ways in which they were different from other sneakerheads via their mannerisms or purchasing practices. Even though they’ve been forced into the mainstream in some respects, they’ve expressed subtle means to stand out.
  • One interesting framework came from an interviewee who described two categories of hype (Hype vs. hype). Uppercase Hype applies to limited, expensive sneakers that few people could acquire. They likened these sneakers to a Ferrari automobile. On the other hand, lowercase hype characterizes popular sneakers whose quantities were so numerous that they neutralized extreme behaviors (analogy: the Apple iPhone). The interviewee expressed displeasure when hyped shoes become Hyped, most recently observable with the Nike Air Force One.
  • Finally, these sneaker enthusiasts looked externally for remedies to hype. Expressing concern for other individuals, they cited “the other’s” need to change behavior detrimental to the culture. They voiced relief in seeing these individuals develop authentic passion and style.

Poster show

One of my deliverables involved the creation of a visual for the MDes fall poster show — it’s intent was to articulate the problem statement, background, and primary research. I found value in expressing my ideas within a bounded space, and the act of arranging content on the poster helped eliminate unfruitful directions.

Fall 2021 Poster

Opportunities

Given the lack of design focused studies covering the domain, a formal documentation and analysis of sneaker hype culture appears timely and could greatly enrich academic discourse.

Within this frame, there are a few areas that I’d find intriguing to probe. Firstly, I’d like to explore hype as an agent through which we can speculatively embody. Say for example you had the blueprint to orchestrate hype and were tasked to be the conductor? How might a model of this phenomenon provoke and inform an understanding of hype? Secondly, there’s a trove of narratives around certain hyped sneakers that are worth collecting and disseminating. Remove the physical artifact of a sneaker completely and try to derive form and meaning from untold stories. How might a thoughtfully designed amalgam provide more substance to sneaker enthusiasts?

Conclusion

I end this quarter weary yet inspired by the direction my thesis will take me. I strive to push boundaries, investigate with more granularity, and confront my own assumptions with this thesis over the next six months. My work is just beginning, but I am proud of my efforts in engaging different perspectives and overcoming — to put it mildly — unexpected challenges. Here are a few of my takeaways from the quarter:

Although I should have learned from previous MDes graduate Heidi Biggs’ thesis process paper, I learned the hard way that research is not synonymous with finding solutions. One of my biggest challenges was approaching every research task as a needfinding task — this is a manner in which I have often approached design previously. Up until recently, I was hellbent on creating an intervention that solved a user need. However, it became increasingly apparent that this mindset was quite limiting. Asking questions, and repeatedly refining them, was simply all that necessary to put me on the right path.

That being said, I look forward to asking more questions and falling deeper into the black hole of sneaker hype. See you on the other side.

-JB

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