Alum designs shoes that go for the gold

bboy pose

Breakdancing will make its long-awaited debut as a demonstration sport in this year’s Olympics and as a medal event at the 2024 Paris Games. And while these events will be many people’s first introduction to the form, it’s a pursuit that Columbus College of Art & Design alum Jeme Khammanotham (Industrial Design, 2018) has loved for many years. In fact, this athletic form of dance was at the heart of his senior capstone project at CCAD. 

Just how did a kid from Columbus get into breakdancing? Growing up, says Khammanotham, his parents didn’t want him to play sports--“even though I felt like I was a pretty athletic kid”--because they were concerned he might seriously get hurt. In search of an outlet, he discovered breakdancing (aka b-boying or b-girling). 

And at CCAD, Khammanotham found a way to pursue his interest in shoe design. That included learning from--and ultimately having his work recognized by--professionals from Sitrana, a Santiago, Chile-based leather goods company specializing in men’s footwear. In fall 2016, Sitrana teamed up with CCAD students on the project, which asked them to create a premium dress sneaker that reflected Chilean culture as well as the Sitrana brand. From the submitted designs, Khammanotham’s was selected to be transformed into a prototype and eventually brought into limited production.

Since graduating, Khammanotham has continued to take strides in the footwear industry. He has interned for industry titan Timberland and studied at the Pensole Footwear Design Academy, where he recently completed its L.E.A.D. by Design (Leaders Emerge After Direction) program. This program is intended to help newly graduated students who are people of color or minorities gain a foothold in the product creation industry, and it focuses on footwear design, color & material design, functional apparel and accessory design, and product marketing. Khammanotham was one of four people in the footwear design trac. He says it was an honor to be selected for the program.

“The program was split into seminars; each seminar is 812 weeks long,” he says. “We learned about product creation and had the opportunity to present our final footwear concept to D’Wayne Edwards,” the academy’s founder and a former designer for Nike’s Air Jordans. 

person holding shoes

A native of Laos who grew up in Columbus, Khammanotham currently lives in Portland, Oregon. (Yes, HQ of footwear behemoth Nike.) He recently took some time to answer a few questions about breakdancing, shoe designing, and industrial design and to give advice for people who wish to follow in his footsteps.

What is it about shoes that you find so compelling?

I love that there's a story behind every pair. Shoes, to me, are the amalgamation of industrial, fashion, graphic design that come together to create something super intriguing. 

Your senior thesis was about designing breakdancing shoes. What sets breakdancing shoes apart from other styles of shoes?

The b-boying scene started in the South Bronx in the ’70s. Now for the first time, breakdancing is recognized as a sport in the upcoming 2024 Olympics. B-boys and b-girls are athletes but don't have their signature shoes like other athletes. 

What did you learn as an Industrial Design student that has helped you today?

Sketching and prototyping are things I'm continuously working on. I learned great design is beyond just aesthetics. You have to consider the end user and use design methods to address their problems, needs, and desires.


You spent six months interning for Timberland and ultimately saw one of your designs hit the market. What did you learn from that experience?

It was a privilege learning footwear design from so many smart and talented people at Timberland. I work with senior designers, creative directors, and developers to bring to life seasonal footwear collections. I assisted with CAD designs, prototyping, and market research. 

What is the difference between a good shoe design and a great one?
In my opinion, footwear is very subjective and depends on individual taste. But I believe something that all great shoes have in common is that they can establish an emotional connection with people, making their value more than just a shoe. 

Do you have a favorite pair of shoes? Is there a shoe design that influences your approach to designing? 

The Adidas Futurecraft 4D is one of my favorite shoes because it embodies what the future could look like for performance footwear. This design is manufactured using 3D printing technology, enabling designers to address problems previously not possible using traditional manufacturing methods. 

What are your career goals?

My career goal is to work as a footwear designer and learn as much as possible. One day I want to launch my design studio focused on solving problems through footwear designs.  

jeme jumping

Four tips for aspiring shoe designers

Khammanotham has four pieces of advice for people who want to pursue careers in footwear:

1. Invest in yourself and your craft. 

2. Learning CAD (computer-aided design) is a plus.


3. Consider applying to Pensole.

4. Network with recruiters and learn what hiring managers are looking for.