Grails: Stories of Our Most Coveted Sneakers

Master of Design Thesis — Preliminary Research Documentation

Fall Recap

In the fall of 2021, I explored the sneaker landscape with a particular interest in hype culture–that is, the perception of scarcity or desirability that creates excessive demand over specific artifacts. To ground my inquiry, I began secondary research into how humans derive meaning from everyday objects and explored the sociological forces at play within consumer hype. Turning my focus towards primary research, I interviewed sneaker enthusiasts within my network to understand their point of view on hype within this space. On the other end, I immersed myself in the bowels of sneakerhead culture, scouring sneaker subreddits and consuming hours of sneaker content on Youtube. I even joined Discord ‘cook groups,’ communities dedicated to helping people acquire sneaker releases and obtain computer bots to game the system in their favor.

It’d be a lie if I claimed I wasn’t lost in the sauce at this point; getting so deeply involved in this world was dizzying. Sneaker hype is an unwieldy force, and to design an intervention to address it would have been an enormous challenge. Coming into this quarter I needed a change and a clearer focus on how I was to approach the sneaker space.

Winter Pivot

From the outset, a primary goal of mine was to encourage individuality and personal meaning in a culture that's trending towards the monolith. Incidentally, a discussion with a friend led me to share stories about my favorite sneakers from childhood, the Nike Zoom LeBron IV. This conversation sparked the unshakeable idea to compile a collection of stories just like mine. What could we learn about ourselves from our most cherished sneakers? I decided to follow this direction and see where it would lead me.

Research

The program designates winter quarter as the “making” phase, where design students begin creating artifacts and interfaces to bring our projects to life. I went in the opposite direction, deciding instead to conduct further primary research on sneaker grails through structured interviews. I made this decision in part because I felt it would be valuable in my development as a designer, and believed it would ultimately make my thesis stronger. And of course it would be fun to talk sneakers all day long.

For my second round of research, I planned out formal, structured interview sessions and attempted to recruit a diverse set of participants. Disseminating a screening survey through Facebook sneaker groups, sneakerhead subreddits, and word of mouth, I received close to 90 responses from individuals across North America. From these respondents, I selected 23 individuals to interview about their sneaker grails. I asked participants why their grails were special to them, what actions they’d take (or had taken) to acquire them, and their attitudes towards wearing these prized possessions. I also invited participants to speak on their most nostalgic memories around sneakers and how their loved ones perceive their passion for footwear. Organically, a variety topics came up in the discourse that led us off script, but many of these moments contained the richest stories from all of my conversations. In addition to these talks, I asked participants to share pictures of their sneaker collections and the most meaningful pairs that they currently owned (grail pair or not) to glimpse inside their sneaker world even more.

Some of the broad themes that emerged from this study were:

  • Connection: Grails embody fond memories and represent an individual’s connection to particular communities. While they represent a broad form of social acceptance to some participants, most do not convey the meaning of their grails to loved ones or close friends whatsoever.
  • Capturing: Obtaining a grail is likened to acquiring a piece of fine art or a piece of history.
  • Rewinding: Owning a grail revises past disappointment or an unfulfilled desire.
  • Diverging: Grails represent a way to distinguish one’s self, even within the sneaker space. Interestingly, grails often represent an instance where one can contradict their own public persona & style.
  • Achievement: A grail is symbolic of personal achievement & development (outside of sneaker culture).
  • Completion: Obtaining a grail signifies completing one’s personal mythology.

Design

With such a rich collection of stories, my direction now focused on sharing these narratives in a compelling way. I landed on creating a print publication consisting of stories and excerpts from my interviews; organized by the themes mentioned above, I’m creating an artifact that embodies the lifelong journey a sneakerhead embarks on to find their grail pair.

I gravitated towards making a book, primarily because of its tactile form. Last quarter I wrote about sneaker culture becoming less about the physical object, so this is a direct response to that observation. Furthermore, the book (at least our traditional conception of a physical book) is quite susceptible to change and aging but still holds immense value–like a sneaker. Finally, publication design is something I’ve never done before. My curiosity to explore unfamiliar spaces is one of my core motivations as a designer, so the opportunity to do that here was something I looked forward to.

Current Work

I began by planning the layout of the book, and iterated on a couple of page maps (which are ever-evolving). I am currently in the process of content layout and typesetting, in addition to compiling visual content to accompany the interview excerpts in the book. Afterwards, I will turn my attention to material decisions, refining the final form, and final production.

For the next few months, I’ll be on the grind to pull the book together and curate my exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery. In June, I’ll defend my thesis with a formal presentation and thesis document. I’m excited for what’s next and can’t wait to share my project with everyone. I’ll try to peek my head out a few times to share the good work. See you on the other side.

-JB

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