The Creative Process of Rik Olthuis: A Conversation on the 2023 Emerging Sport Apparel Designer of the Year

April 20, 2023

Rik Olthuis is the mind behind the emerging sport apparel design of the year, the Voronoi Runners. His innovative design combines sustainable materials and technological advancements to create biodegradable sneakers, free of adhesives and harmful chemicals. Inspired by the Voronoi structure, a natural cell-building pattern that provides strength and flexibility, Rik used 3D printing and scanning technologies to tailor the shoe’s compression and force distribution needs to each individual’s foot. In this interview, Rik takes us through the journey from the concept to the final product, his vision, and inspiration for creating sustainable designs, and the importance of proactive waste management.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey? How did you start designing sport apparel?

My name is Rik Olthuis, I’m an Industrial Designer raised in a small town in New Zealand. It’s an amazing place to grow up in outdoors with beautiful beaches and walking trails. Having spent so much of my childhood outdoors this naturally developed into partaking in a wide range of sports including, trail running, cycling, football, ultimate frisby and adventure racing. Industrial design gave me the perfect opportunity to combine my love for sports and the outdoors with my talent for design and creativity. I have delved into a wide range of product design but I am continuously drawn back to designs for outdoor activities. Ultimately this has led to steering my career into the footwear design space where I continue to explore performance, podiatry and sustainability ideas.

Can you walk us through the process of creating the Voronoi Runners, from concept to final product?

It began with identifying the issue. Through my research of areas to improve within the footwear industry, I was continuously diverted back to the large issue of waste. I wanted to target the core of the issue and focus on proactive waste management as opposed to reactive. To do this I wanted to look at the materials and manufacturing methods used and offer an alternative design and construction. I began making materials in my kitchen with guidance from the DIY biodegradable materials community to get a range of materials. I was able to explore the varying strength, compression, flexibility and textures that could go into the design of a sneaker. With some experiments showing promise, I began working on a design that could accommodate these materials and allow simple yet strong joining methods that could also be taken apart at the end of the product’s life. Moving through the process I created 3D models to help provide more detail that can be missed in imagery alone and explored how algorithmic patterns such as the Voronoi pattern can be used to encapsulate and add strength to the foam component. A lecturer of mine used to say a picture is worth a thousand words, and a model is worth a thousand pictures. These models are then used in visualization to access the different lattice patterns as well as colors and finishes. With the final design
reached, I went through a few model iterations before arriving at the functioning prototype. With a set of plans and research and testing behind me, I was able to craft and machine the final work that best represents the development process, this involved the final 3D prints, soft fabrics, and biomaterials and bringing them together for a strong proposed solution to the problem.

What inspired the vision for the design of the Voronoi Runners, and how did the idea of using the Voronoi pattern come about?

The most poignant principle I followed is the growing design principle of using nature as a coworker in the design process. This meant I wanted to get a visible presence of natural patterns and structures in the design. When looking microscopically close at natural structures they are all based on cells. The way cells attach and build up together to fit any size and shape space I knew this would be a great basis for the sole of the shoe. I saw a resemblance in the Voronoi pattern and decided to use this to frame the design, tieing together the natural structure with hints of the more industrial manufactured materials.

What motivates you to create designs with a focus on sustainability? You mentioned that the Voronoi “ are fully compostable and break down within 1 year”. Did you literally try and what are the results?

My motivation came from the facts. While researching it’s difficult to not find the startling effects of waste material from the footwear industry. I didn’t feel like I have much of a choice but to try to work towards a solution to reducing these startling figures. All the materials that went into the design are noted as being fully biodegradable so the only testing necessary was for my own creation of bio Foam. For this test, I did have samples submerged in soil for 4 weeks. The stage of decomposition after this short period of time showed great promise for having the material fully degraded before the 1-year mark.

How do you see the Voronoi Runners fitting into the larger conversation surrounding sustainable fashion?

The introduction of additive manufacturing within footwear provides amazing opportunities to create a new manufacturing method as well as new filaments for printing. The Voronoi runners are a mere example of how achievable this manufacturing method is while intertwined with sustainable considerations. I wanted to start more conversations around how these practices can be implemented at larger-scale manufacturers.

What did you find most challenging while working on the project and what did you enjoy the most?

Most important to me was ensuring that the work I produced I was proud of and to a high enough standard. I wanted to push and challenge myself when developing the project brief. I had been told developing a pair of shoes would be difficult and to make sure it’s achievable by cutting back in areas that would be too difficult. This made me want to showcase my skills to have a resolved functional pair of shoes that will reflect my work and abilities. The biggest challenges came around learning completely new areas, as an industrial designer I had a lot to learn about soft fabrics and found these
have a completely different form and movement.

What does winning the FIT Sport Design Award mean to you in terms of validation and recognition of your work in the sport apparel design industry?

To me, the FIT Awards provides great validation, not just as a designer but in footwear specifically. Footwear is a huge market and it’s difficult to know where you stand. The Global Footwear Awards have helped ground my work and see that this exploration is seen and valued.

What can we wish you for the future?

I hope to be able to continue my work in the footwear design industry and take my skills and ideas abroad.