Decoding the UltraBoost - An Interview with Ben Herath | Grailify
Decoding the UltraBoost - An Interview with Ben Herath

Decoding the UltraBoost - An Interview with Ben Herath

The UltraBoost uncaged embodies the look of today, but it's much more than that. In fact, it's like a Trojan horse - so minimalist on the outside that it's easy to miss how advanced this running shoe is. Get the full backstory in this interview with Ben Herath, Vice President of Design for Running at adidas, and exclusive images of our favourite running shoe of 2016.

Ben, before we talk about the "uncaged" business, can you please briefly introduce yourself?
Yes, a few words about myself: My name is Ben Herath, I am the VP of Design here at adidas for the running category - I lead the team here. I've been with the company for about 13 years now and have had the opportunity to work on a lot of great running projects over the years, including the first Energy Boost that we launched in 2013. Also the Pure Boost in 2014 and last year the UltraBoost, which leads to the exciting new project we are talking about today: the UltraBoost Uncaged.

That's a whole series of successful shoes. To be honest, our first reaction when we saw the UltraBoost Uncaged was, "Is that really a running shoe!"? Is that a common reaction and how do you feel about it as a designer?
Yes, it is absolutely a performance running shoe. For me, it's a great question because we are really pushing the boundaries of what a running shoe can look like. So I love hearing that question - it means we're breaking new ground and changing the way a running shoe can look. You hit the nail on the head with the UltraBoost Uncaged: The biggest challenge we had with this shoe was how to "expose" the UltraBoost while maintaining the great performance characteristics of the original. We wanted to make sure this shoe was suitable for any distance, whether it was a 5K, 10K or marathon, but also create a new style and personality for the UltraBoost.

When Sam Handy was working on the ZX Flux, he mentioned in an interview that it's much easier to "add" something to a shoe - like layers or elements - than to take something away. Would you agree with that?
Absolutely. One of our design ethos here is to be daringly simple, and we take that as a challenge in how we can constantly simplify our products. I think the UltraBoost is a great example of that. We've stripped it down to the essential components needed to perform, and each part works harmoniously as a cohesive system. But we constantly question each part: do we need it? Can one part do the job of two parts?
For us, that simplicity is something we strive for here at adidas. That's what led us on the journey with the Uncaged: our pursuit of a simpler design; something that works and performs great, but with fewer parts.

How can we imagine the cooperation between the performance department and the lifestyle or fashion department at adidas? Are you in constant contact with each other, do you exchange ideas, or is it separate?
We feed and cross-fertilise each other, I would say, and exchange ideas. That's something I like about working here, all the talented designers from different fields and how we work together. This is an example of that - the UltraBoost, as we were finishing the design and getting close to the end, became almost the benchmark for Primeknit and Boost, and we pioneered the experience of how those two technologies come together. At that time, there were designers all over the company grabbing the UltraBoost, examining it, taking it apart, sending me pictures and asking questions. "How about you take this off?" ... that was a really fruitful area where we could share a lot of ideas. That kind of co-creation is something we really encourage in our design community here at adidas.

When you look at the evolution of the Boost from the Energy Boost to the UltraBoost to the UltraBoost Uncaged - was that part of a linear plan that you set up or did it evolve more over time?
I would say that with each iteration of the Boost we are often at the forefront of what we know, so we push the boundaries of what we can do. We always learn from that, and that then feeds into the next iteration. For example, when we launched Energy Boost, that was the first time we used Boost. At that time, we learned a lot about how Boost behaves and that we want to transfer the feeling and experience you have with Boost to the whole shoe. So with the UltraBoost, we thought about how we could design every part around the Boost to give that experience as well - every part should work in harmony with the Boost. That was a big learning process we went through between the Energy and the UltraBoost.

Speaking of simplification, what were the biggest challenges for you in designing the UltraBoost for the Uncaged?
The biggest challenge was that the cage of the UltraBoost was an integral part of the fit of the shoe - it's an essential part of the performance - so if you cut the cage, you really weaken the performance of the shoe. Our challenge was how to fit the shoe without the cage without compromising its performance. We took inspiration from our spikes. With our track and field spikes, we pioneer the lightest and fastest shoes we make, which have been tested on some of the best athletes in the world - they're basically our race cars, reduced to a minimum and built with minimal materials. On the inside of these shoes, we use a soft, seamless suede with a high strength-to-weight ratio. It also feels good on the foot. We took that construction from the track and applied it to the UltraBoost Uncaged, on the inside of the Primeknit, and that's how we were able to make sure it has the fit you need to run distances beyond 5km, 10km and up to a marathon.

The UltraBoost has this great extended heel area near the Achilles tendon, but in the UltraBoost Uncaged you left it out completely for the collar. Why did you do that?
With this design, we wanted to create a new collar design that would work better with a simpler silhouette: We wanted to create a new silhouette that has a different attitude than the UltraBoost. We explored many different shapes for the collar, but ultimately came back to the simplest and most adaptable - we wanted a construction that could adapt to different foot shapes and sizes. What we liked about it was that it continued the story of the silhouette and blurred the lines between the shoe and the leg by keeping the slim shape and making it bigger towards the leg.

What kind of runner would take this shoe as opposed to a regular UltraBoost?
We tested both shoes together so that they perform the same. We wanted to offer something that performs the same as the UltraBoost but also has a different style and personality - something unexpected from us. So it really comes down to personal choice of the style of the shoe.

What are the next steps for you guys and what can we look forward to now?
Without giving too much away: The journey we are on is trying to make big steps in terms of performance, design and look of running shoes. We are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we know - using as much technology as possible. It's going to be an exciting journey you'll see from us in the future - I'm not sure I can give too much away yet though.

OK, thanks Ben, it's been a pleasure and please keep us updated on future milestones.
I really appreciate being able to share some of our stories. Thank you guys.

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