Creating a Fictional Concept Sneaker in Photoshop: Part I

By 08/03/2018Uncategorised

Creating a Fictional Concept Sneaker in Photoshop

Part I: Drafting and Refining the Initial Sneaker Concept Design

This article is an adaptation of a workshop first presented by M. Seth Jones in 2015

The Adidas sneaker you’re looking at here doesn’t actually exist. It’s a completely fictional digital composite; a photo-illustration created entirely in Photoshop, combining mostly pre-existing elements from six separate Adidas sneakers.

Finished digital photo-illustration of Adidas NMD EQT concept sneaker by M. Seth Jones, completed entirely in Photoshop.

Combined, the illustration contains 112 layers; 67 of these are pixel layers, 45 of them are adjustment layers. Together these layers are relying on 90 discrete local masks, all arranged within 45 groups. It was completed in two distinct stages; first, the arrangement focused blocking-in process, followed by the refinement heavy finishing stage.

In the first part of this series, I’ll walk through the approaches and considerations I’ve used to design the initial sneaker concept sketch. I’ll use pre-existing design elements from various Adidas NMD and EQT releases for consistency, and introduce an entirely unique feature to create a stronger sense of harmony between the two contrasting aesthetic styles.

The most important concept sneaker design considerations

The main consideration when approaching any form of digital composite, that uses pre-existing raw material from a variety of different sources, is to approach it in the most traditionally sculptural manner possible. Unless you’re incredibly lucky (or able to work with the photographer as they shoot the raw material, and the finished piece has already been through concept and draft development prior to shooting), you’ll likely never find a cohesive, seamless fit occurring when you digitally smash multiple elements together; you’ll encounter colour shifts, disparate surface and edge qualities and luminance, perspective and resolution mismatches. You’re essentially taking pre-existing values for both the outer, defining silhouette and the inner, material surfaces, values that only make sense as discrete entities, and forcing them to play nice together. With this in mind, I like to focus first on simply making sure that all the elements sit together in the frame first, not focusing on how they might align, or errors in if they all snap together, or how noticeable the seams are.

Once I’ve gotten all the defining material features sitting in the frame, I start to think about how I can finish the composite in the most photographically transparent manner possible. By that, I’m essentially thinking “how can I make this look like a photorealistic image”, like something that literally existed in a studio setting and was captured by a real life photographer. That means I need to think about the lighting not only for the overall, global finish, but also how the lighting on every single local element making up the composite sits in relation to the additional local elements that border them, and finally how each of these combines to create a cohesive whole. I need to evaluate the lighting present in actual photorealistic images; even though the majority of the lighting present in the raw material will be optically ‘truthful’, they will be independently so, and in order to make all of these disharmonious elements sit right together as a new, combined whole, I’ll need to extend those qualities found in the raw material to the new, recombined final piece.

Creating unique sneaker concepts from pre-existing designs

So let’s have a look at all the sneakers I’m going to use for this walkthrough.

I tend to approach evaluating the sneakers at this stage in terms of two considerations: outer and inner silhouettes, or perhaps outer silhouettes and inner materials. There’s an overall outer edge to each of these individual pieces, which generally constitutes the sneakers upper, midsole and outsole. Then you have the design elements that exist within the boundaries of the outer silhouette, that contribute equally to defining the overall design of the shoe.

What I’d like to do here is take the upper from the NMD City Sock 1 Primeknit, the midsole from the Originals EQT Support 93/17, and the outsole from the EQT Support 93, as shown above. Let’s break these three sneakers down into just their outlines.

This gives me a cleaner, less distracting foundation to work with for draft sketches. Next, I’ll combine those three elements to see what I’m left with.

What we have, with just these three elements combined together, is pretty minimal. This makes sense, as the majority of the silhouette is dominated by the NMD City Sock Primeknit upper, which is a very stripped back casual/street style release. I’d like to take the aesthetic of the NMD City Sock and combine it with the design language of the EQT range, which tends to be busier in construction, being more of a traditional cross trainer. What I’d like to do is introduce some more design elements to the upper, in an attempt to bring that general EQT aesthetic to more prominence.

To fill the inner silhouette in, I’m going to combine pre-exisiting elements from other NMD and EQT releases. I’ll use the sock cuff and the lace overlay from the NMD R1 Gum, along with the heel overlay and the tongue label from the NMD R1.

So let’s break down each of the already established elements into their outlines first.

With those sneakers broken down into their silhouettes only, I’ll take the inner details from them and combine them with the previous draft mockup sketch, to see how they all sit together.

It’s not too bad really, and a huge testament to how consistent the design standards of both the NMDs and the EQTs actually are, in that they don’t really look that out of place when haphazardly mashed together. I haven’t really presented them with any kind of placement consideration, instead opting to simply align elements as close as possible to where they were on the originals. There’s a bit of a weight issue to me, however, in terms of how the upper and middle areas are sectioned off as well as the overall distribution of a cleaner sense of white space, for lack of a better term. The rear section of the sketch feels a little too long horizontally to me, which in turn compresses the front toe section. I’m also not a huge fan of either the angle, or the length, of the logo stripes, which are pretty integral, as they serve as a sort of right angle intersection for the converging lines of the top and bottom angles. The height and placement of both the sock cuff and the the heel overlay are kind of clumsy and not working together all that well. The downward angle of the heel overlay leads the eye toward the toe, but the length of the side stripes kind of abruptly interrupts the implied line. Then there’s this huge open section at the top of the upper that runs all the way along the cuff seam, which definitely amplifies the expanse of white space in the rear heel area.

Refining the concept sketch and comparing it to our raw mockup

What I might do is use a three panel construction on the City Sock upper itself, with defined seams that trigger a knit texture direction change. Then I’ll use the side overlay from the Originals EQT Support Ultra to create a lace overlay/silhouette top parallel, right angle intersection of the bottom of the side logo stripes, which will also extend the implied line running from the heel overlay. I’ll rework the height and angle of the sock cuff and shift the placement of the heel overlay. Finally, to address the top of the sock issue, I’ll attempt to implement an original design element for the upper: a tongue overlay, or layered tongue, that sits above the City Sock Primeknit upper.

Here’s the final refined sketch, modified with all of these considerations in mind. Compare the subtle changes between our earlier raw mockup, which was arranged with no real placement or design considerations in mind, and our more considered final concept sketch. Even though the difference between the two seems minor, compare the overall weight of the finished design with the original mock up. The seams are more cohesive, and the shifted silhouette lines create a stronger sense of cohesion between each discrete section of the design.

Now what I need to do is start filling in the silhouette with materials. This will be a two stage process, that will first just kind of lay down raw materials and textures to align to a general placement. They’ll likely look incredibly rough and not at all harmonious, as they’re coming from a range of different sources all lit slightly differently, or they exist in an arrangement or perspective not intended for my final concept design. Getting all of these elements to sit cohesively in a finished, seamlessly transparent finish will be the main goal for the second stage, where they will all need to be reshaped, refined and recoloured, lighting added and contoured, and prepared for recolouring.

In ‣ the next part of this series, I’ll walk through the tools and techniques I used to achieve the first stage of these edits in the most seamless manner, and discuss more insights into why we all need to adopt similar approaches for photo illustration.

Image Attribution, Copyright and Intellectual Property

All original illustrations by M. Seth Jones.
All of the photographs, sneakers, logos and trademarks presented here are the sole property of Adidas, and have been used with permission. This article is presented for both educational and editorial use, and as such, I’ve used the photographs, sneakers, logos and trademarks here solely for demonstrative, non-profit purposes.

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