A good skate

Considering RIT's reputation as a national hockey power, it seems especially fitting that a graduate has a career designing skates.

Her designs go beyond the ice rink, however. As creative director for the Nike Products division of Bauer Nike Hockey Inc., Stephanie Howard '94 (industrial design) designs ice hockey, roller hockey and inline skates as well as accessories such as sports bags.

"How I ended up in footwear was kind of a fluke," says Howard, "but it turned out to be the perfect career for me." Howard, a runner, inline skater and roller-hockey player, notes that "I really like the purity of design in the sport of hockey. The players need their equipment to give them speed, mobility, and protection. It's a well-defined goal."

As an undergraduate, Howard worked on a variety of projects ranging from pneumatic air hammers to toys. She thought she likely would work for a consulting company and began her job search by interviewing for free-lance work.

"Because of my portfolio and the preparation from RIT, I had choices when I graduated," she says. "People were really open to talking to me."

A contact with Brian Keating '92 (industrial design), who was working for New Balance in Boston at the time, led to her joining that company as a designer of running shoes. After three years, she moved on to Reebok. Three years later, she joined Nike.

Howard works from her home in Boston, traveling to the company's Greenland, N.H., facility once or twice a week, and frequently to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., as well as to Montreal, where Bauer Nike Hockey's research, design and development center is located. The arrangement works well for Howard: her husband, industrial designer Benjamin Beck, is a partner in a Boston-based consulting firm.

Howard's projects begin with a brief from the marketing department explaining the concept for a new product. "I do lots of hand sketching, trying to think of all the ways the product can be approached," she explains. "Function is always the primary concern."

She surrounds herself with images and gathers reference information on materials. Eventually, she meets with a team to review ideas. Ultimately, she goes to the computer and begins working in Adobe Illustrator to create a detailed rendering of the new product.

That goes to consumers and dealers for feedback. After further refinement, her design becomes a prototype. Howard's part in the process typically takes a few months; the road from idea to finished product can take 18 months to two years.

There's never a shortage of new projects. "Nike is constantly looking for ways to innovate," she says. Style is a consideration, but Nike places a premium on technical advances to improve comfort and performance. In the quest for better products, the company makes use of industrial designers, engineers, bio-mechanics experts and testing labs.

Howard goes to sporting events to talk to consumers about their likes and dislikes to get ideas. Although she's been in the athletic footwear field for a decade, she continues to find the work interesting — and challenging.

"When athletes compete, or set out to reach their personal goals, they want excellence," she notes. "I don't think I'll ever be bored."

The University Magazine, Fall 2003