Turn a Sketch Into a Photo: AI is a Footwear Designer’s Ally

I recently had the opportunity to chat with an inspiring footwear designer from Italy, Nicholas Rapagnani. We talked about his career, sources of inspiration, his experience with NewArc.ai, and what one needs to do as a designer to stay on top of everything that is going on in the industry.

Nicholas' story is a very interesting one and I think there is something that every designer can learn from it. So let's dive in!

Hello everyone! I'm Nicholas (LinkedIn, Instagram, Behance), a 28-year-old sneakerhead from Viterbo, Italy. Beyond my love for sneakers, I'm an eco-social designer with a focus on footwear design and sustainable materials.

Nicholas Rapagnani

I'm currently diving into AI-driven sustainable materials research as a research fellow at the Free University of Bolzano

My creative process merges traditional sketching with modern AI technologies such as NewArc.ai to create cutting-edge designs.

When I'm not sketching or experimenting, you can find me bouldering, hiking in the Dolomites or trying out new food and recipes.

Design philosophy

My design philosophy combines form and function, drawing on my background in industrial design. As a designer, I try to create organic, dynamic silhouettes that speak not only to the aesthetics but also to the functionality and sustainability of footwear. I want my designs to represent abstract, subjective meanings over being “simply” man-made artefacts.

My inspiration is constantly evolving. From admiring the work of fellow designers and architects to finding the beauty of nature in a flower or the play of light and shadow on a hike. Everything related to the five senses can become a source of inspiration.

There are a few projects in the world of footwear that inspired me to always keep myself years ahead of what is currently going on. 

For instance, the Adidas Ozlucent designed by Mr Bailey, who took inspiration from jellyfish.

Then, I was fascinated by Caskia/Growing a MarsBoot developed by Officina Corpuscoli, where hi-tech and low-tech production processes are the pivot point to grow mycelium-based composite materials to create a boot suitable for Mars environment.

Another one could be Bioweave by Modern Synthesis, which utilizes a combination of robotic weaving to living bacteria that produce cellulose to realize a hybrid-material upper of a shoe.

Other final examples could be the set of fully 3D printed footwear by Zellerfeld, which is working on democratizing footwear design globally yet produced locally.

Workflow and overcoming the Blank Canvas Syndrome

My typical design workflow depending on project to project, follows the method developed by Bruno Munari. It is simple yet well-organized because of its step-by-step repetitive structure.

From a brief/problem/issue/etc. I make a state-of-the-art (research and collect information on what already exists in the same field of the project’s brief), then analyze it, and then include my own ideas, thoughts and inspirations to sketch out possibilities which will solve the initial issue. These steps go back and forth many times until I reach a point where a 3D representation and/or a real prototype help me understand the final details to change, improve and fix. After that, there is the final prototype which is the actual answer to the project’s brief.

One of my closest professors once told me “Projects are infinite unless we want them to finish.” Thus, any project could be brought on, restyled, adjusted, upgraded, changed, or fixed as many times as we want. It's our knowledge as designers that tells us when to pause (or stop)!

But things don’t always go smoothly. The design itself is a constant challenge, both to us as designers and to the projects themselves. Therefore, in my case, I feel a whole new project is always a bit scary and challenging.

If I have to say about my personal most common challenge, which then becomes an opportunity, I would say this is the “blank canvas syndrome” that comes out as soon as I need to sketch down the first designs.

Discovering NewArc.ai

Now it is exactly one year since I have been dealing with Artificial Intelligence - particularly image-generator software. While I was experimenting with Midjourney and Dall-E, I remember I came across NewArc.ai through my connections on Linkedin some months ago.

Seeing the platform turn a sketch into a photo, especially the 3D renderings of footwear, was a true discovery. I was excited to explore the possibilities for a footwear designer like myself.

The ease with which NewArc.ai could turn my pencil sketches into high-quality renderings, reducing the time from days to seconds, was a game changer. It was an open invitation to integrate this tool into my AI design shoes workflow.

Impact on my design workflow

Adding NewArc.ai between the ideation and prototyping stages has been a huge benefit to my design process.

There are two main reasons: 

  1. Now I can spend more time working on sketches because I can have different, multiple visualizations of a single sketch in a matter of seconds.
  2. A lot of high-quality 3D renderings of multiple concepts allow me to spend more time analyzing the most suitable concepts to bring to the actual 3D modelling (or even prototyping) phase. 
One sketch

NewArc.ai greatly improves the efficiency of communicating designs to clients, as they are coloured and three-dimensional renderings. It makes it faster to exchange opinions, feedback and criticism between designers and their clients.

Example of using NewArc.ai

The first project in which NewArc.ai has had a significant impact is one that is currently nearing the end of the 3D modelling phase. 

Here in Bolzano, I had the occasion to collaborate with Project E - a collective of motivated young designers having rich and different backgrounds. Between them two brothers, Amedeo, a grasshopper wizard, and Oliviero, a blender master. Together we are now working on a fully 3D printable shoe to submit to Zellerfeld. We are very excited to see it come to life in the coming months!

3D model

Being an expert in the footwear world, but not very comfortable expressing my ideas in very detailed sketches, I used NewArc.ai to create renderings of the chosen shoe concept, which was incredibly helpful to my colleagues in understanding the outlines, textures and details to be modelled. It made our collaboration quick and easy and saved us a lot of time.


How to get the most out of NewArc.ai

The more detailed your sketches are with defined lines, the higher quality and more realistic the AI-generated sneakers by NewArc.ai will be.

Being clear and specific in your prompts also helps a lot with the outcome of the images. As with every aspect of our design work, quality brings quality, nothing less.

Sometimes, if necessary, I use Photoshop to clean up the image and improve the colors and lighting.

Refined in Photoshop

AI is a footwear designer’s ally

Some would say that using AI sketch to image tools like NewArc.ai is not really "design-wise" because our hands are the first direct link from the ideas in our brains to the drawing that represents those ideas. So for such people and professionals, I must say that young designers are slowly switching to "AI/quick" tools to imagine new concepts or render their ideas.

Like everything else in our lives, it is up to us to study and explore new ways to evolve design practices, first for ourselves and then for the design itself, and to understand where to incorporate new tools like NewArc.ai into our methodologies, without forgetting the basic tools like sketching or rapid prototyping.

As for me, I have never liked using color in my drawings, I love the black/gray/white shades of a pencil on a pale white sheet of paper or notebook. Ever since I was a child I have never liked to fill in the spaces between closed lines. It was hard work to stay within those black lines. Now I understand the importance of shadows to create depth in my sketches, and NewArc.ai turns those layers into colorful, beautiful digital visuals.

And my clients love it. Like: "Where can I buy these shoes?" or "Are these real?". Especially people outside the design world, who have never heard of digitally created images (3D renderings), very often feel that what they are looking at is a photograph of a real product. It is so funny to see their faces when I tell them that it is still a digital rendering!

How to stay on top of everything in footwear design

When I was a kid, you had to be on the street to know what was going on in terms of styles and trends. 

Growing up I always followed sites like Sneakernews, Nicekicks, The Sole Supplier, where I could always find out what was being released or the latest innovations in terms of designs, materials or production processes. More recently I have discovered FutureVvorld and EyesOnMagazine, which also focus on sustainability in fashion and footwear. 

As a designer, it is also easy to get involved in exhibitions, books and social events where there are prototypes that have never been shown anywhere, cutting-edge technologies or never-before-seen materials. 

Networking is the main thing for us today, and the most important phase of designing is to be able to bring projects to life and not just keep them in our heads.

On the social media side, there is Zellerfeld's Discord channel, where anyone can share their own shoe designs and get feedback to improve their work. 

Then there are Instagram pages like ConceptKicks, ConceptNikes, LacelessDesign, Futures__Factory, Designmorphine and others. 

As a community, or let's call it a lab/experimental space, I follow FootwearologyLab, based in Barcelona, where they explore the future of footwear both physically and digitally.

Stay in touch

I am always open to collaborations, connections and exchange of opinions or feedback on footwear projects! Let's stay in touch and shape the future sneaker revolution!

Nicholas Rapagnani (LinkedIn, Instagram, Behance)

Hope you enjoyed my conversation with Nicholas and picked up some useful tips.

Why not give NewArc.ai a shot with your own designs? Have fun with it and share your results with us online. Can’t wait to see what you create!