Behind the Technology is an ongoing series of questions posed to the people responsible for developing product at the top running brands in the industry.
Chris Hillyer is Senior Innovation Manger for Deckers Outdoor Corp, the parent company of HOKA ONE ONE. Chris is best known for using 3D technology to help develop running shoes and decrease the production time taken to bring products to market. Chris is also involved in combining different materials in unique ways and developing the knowledge for using materials such as R-Mat in ways they have never been used previously. As Chris explains, “Maybe you can say I create a lot of prototypes that don’t work so by the time we go to market, we know what not to do.”
What are your current responsibilities as Senior Innovation Manager at Deckers?
We operate an innovation team at Deckers which has the latitude to influence change across the organization. We are involved in projects related to examining processes, materials and constructions. I have projects ranging from testing new design software to exploring new ways to build shoes.
Who do you work with closest in developing product?
I’m engaged in projects with a pretty vast group across the company. I operate the most with our Innovation development team in China but we also have an Advanced R&D center in France that I interact with.
What’s your running background?
I grew up near Seattle and discovered my love for running in 1st grade. We had a school fundraiser to help us learn the metric system called the Metrathon. I ended up doing 30km over the course of the day. I still remember the 6th graders were calling me “scooter”. In middle school I had the good fortune of being in a program called Outdoor Fitness where our Instructor, Fran Call, was always creating “challenges”. One was walking 55-miles around Lake Washington in under 24 hours, another was finishing a 1/2 marathon in under 2 hours. Pretty solid stuff for 13-year-olds.
I enjoyed running cross and track in high school. I have a great memory of attending Bill Dellinger’s track camp in Eugene and then catching a ride in Pat Tyson’s Mustang convertible to the White Pass XC camp in Washington. I walked on at the University of Washington and red-shirted both cross and track. Running quickly started feeling like a job and I got more interested in rock climbing and mountaineering. I took a solid 5-years off of running and it wasn’t until I met my wife Terra that I started running again. I was studying design in Pasadena and she signed us up for the Baldy Peaks 50k. We got absolutely shut down! All of these old people started passing us. Although we had a rough day, we were hooked.
I took a job out of school as a shoe designer for Salomon in Boulder. We had an all-star crew in the office with guys like Dave Mackey and Bob Africa setting the pace on lunch runs in the Flatirons. I then moved over to France with Salomon and got to play in the Alps a bit. I have been in Santa Barbara for almost 12 years now and love the access we have to epic running. I mix it up with Mountain Biking, Skiing and Climbing but I always come back to running.
How did you get into your current position?
When I was at the UofW, I worked at Super Jock ’n Jill and got some exposure to the world of retail and getting runners into the right shoes. I spent a year during school as a design consultant for Black Diamond Equipment working on headlamps as well as other climbing equipment. After designing shoes for 6-7 years, I switched over to managing product lines for the Teva brand. I had the pleasure of working with their athletes and initiated some interesting projects like a collection of mountain bike shoes. I have always have been drawn to working on product that solves problems for demanding users. Working with the HOKA brand has been an amazing opportunity. The margin for error when your athletes are running 100 miles around Mt. Blanc or heading to the Olympics is small.
Who influences you?
I like to spend time with the users. I like to hear about the details they appreciate and the little things that drive them crazy. I’m inspired by people like Matt Dubberley who just set the FKT on Mt. Whitney. We worked with him to make sure he had the right shoes on and was able to go faster because of his equipment. I’m also influenced by how bold HOKA was to try something so different. Even at the height of the barefoot running craze, they came in at a completely new angle and revolutionized the way we look at running shoes.
Any particular products or brands that you are impressed with?
Oh man… I’m impressed with brands like Brooks who just keep making beautiful product season after season. I’m constantly blown away with the innovations coming out of Nike and the seamless transition from design to marketing. I’m also keeping an eye on Under Armour. They are coming on strong with constructions that are completely fresh.
What unique inspiration outside of running shoes inspire your design of shoes?
I have been around shoes so long that I can’t look at anything without trying to relate it to making better shoes. At this point I spend more time focusing on how brands behave and how their product becomes an extension of the brand. Very few brands have the discipline to tell a consistent story but you can really tell when they are focused. Some of my favorite product segments are: Climbing gear (if you can make something with such pure function also look beautiful, you are a wizard), Bicycles (love the level of sophistication they are achieving while keeping the weight down), Outdoor Apparel & Bags (Love the balance of material selection, durability and style).
What sort of research goes into the design and development process?
Some of us find it impossible to engage unless we can run in the shoes. Research begins with experience. From there, we attempt to apply some science. Technology has really opened the doors to acquiring helpful data. Even something as simple as a GoPro can give us a perspective which would have been virtually impossible to have 10 years ago. We are very committed to learning what is going on when people are in motion. Running is an extremely complicated action and everybody moves differently. We go though many iterations and testing campaigns before we are ready to launch.
What were the design goals of the Clayton?
The working name of the Clayton was the 180 (representing a weight target of 180 grams). It was conceived of by HOKA founder Jean-Luc Diard. He wanted to push our team to see how light we could go while still maintaining our signature cushioning. The designer had some revolutionary ideas regarding the construction which allowed us to accomplish stability and cushioning in an extremely light shoe. It is my personal favorite and feels different than anything in the collection.
What do you see the greatest innovations potentially taking place in running shoes in the next 2-5 years?
Foam. I’m sure everyone is noticing how everyone is talking about their midsole materials. Running shoes have used a pretty generic version of EVA for the last 30 years. If there is one single thing that has room for improvement, it is foam.
Any exciting projects you are currently working on that you can share?
The HOKA brand is still so new that we are just having a blast imagining all of the places we can go. There aren’t any limits when you are still in the first chapter. We are putting considerable effort into a couple racing products. It has blown us away that racing shoes haven’t seen any innovation during our careers. We are also staying authentic to our heritage of making products for the people pushing the envelope. HOKA has an obligation to get people back on their feet who thought they weren’t able to go any further. That always keeps us looking through a different lens.