Hengbo Zhang

In Conversation With: Hengbo Zhang

May 1, 2021

Global Footwear Awards Category winner Hengbo Zhang discussed Off-Normal, GFA 2020 winning design.

Making its debut on the international design stage, Global Footwear Awards (GFA) has begun its global search to identify the most innovative design in footwear. Off-Normal was awarded the best in Men’s Dress category for student level.

Off-Normal Off-Normal is designed for recent graduates dealing with the transition in their identity, mindset, living and working environments from a classroom to an office. These shoes have both the characteristics of a traditional formal leather shoe and the personality and comfort of a sneaker that match the identity of recent graduates. Inspired by the classic Oxford shoe, Off-Normal’s sense of elite flows through every detail of it. These details are both the future a graduate seeks and the protective color he uses to hide his current self.


Hengbo’s background

Hengbo Zhang is a designer passionate about creating unique and meaningful experiences and products for people. In his work, he looks to decode culture and recognize the human in the spaces, objects, and interactions surrounding us in our daily lives.

Design is a language worth a lifetime of learning to Hengbo. Visual language integration is his tool to express his ideas, but he is still seeking opportunities to combine it with more senses to integrate experience for products.


GFA talks with Hengbo about  his winning project.

What does this award mean to you personally?  

I am very honored to receive this award for my work. For a budding footwear designer, this is certainly a great encouragement and recognition. My major is industrial design, but I really like designing shoes, so I gradually shifted my focus to footwear design during my university studies. Since footwear design courses are rarely offered in college, I was mostly self-taught in this field. This award is not just an honor for me, but also a guide to what a good footwear design looks like.



What is your guiding design principle?

I’m a designer passionate about creating unique and meaningful experiences and products for people. In my work, I look to decode culture and recognizing the human in the spaces, objects, and interactions surrounding us in our daily lives.



Where do you get motivation and inspiration from for your work?

My source of inspiration can come from anywhere, from what I see on my travels, from conversations with friends, or from thinking about nature. Anything that can form a question in my mind can be the start of an idea. As an industrial design student, the instinctive starting point for my exploration of design is to solve problems. I hope that the way I find and understand inspiration is all driven by problems.



How do you feel footwear design has evolved over the past years and how do you see it evolving in the future? 

I generally see the latest designs and attempts in this field through footwear designers and related accounts that I follow on instagram. With the gradual expansion of social media influence, footwear design is spreading more widely and tending to be more mainstream. And with designers having more accessible design tools, they can take a pair of shoes from an initial idea to a full-fledged rendering in a very short period of time. Except you can’t touch them with your hands, you can even try them on with AR devices. I think this is great for facilitating the exchange of new ideas, but at the same time I would be concerned that it would be more than worth losing the exploration of the physical shoe making process as a result.



What’s your creative process and what creative software do you use?

The implementation of my design ideas always starts with a sketch. Because I need to keep trying and adjusting in the initial stage of the idea. Sketching is the fastest way I know how to do it. When I get to the refinement stage, I use my familiar 3D modeling software to refine the details, and Rhino and SolidWorks are the ones I use the most all the time. But in the last two years I’ve also been using a VR design software called Gravity Sketch to help me instinctively make detailed models with two-handed manipulation.



What kind of culture or structure needs to exist to foster successful team collaboration?

I think the advantage of teamwork is not only the efficiency gains from multiple people working together, but also the feedback between members of different areas of the team is especially important. Adequate communication is a prerequisite for the quality of a product design. I think this kind of open and honest partnership and working environment will allow people to let go and do real creative work.



How has the pandemic affected your work and design process?

I’ve been working on design collaborations online in addition to school and work before the pandemic. I think the pandemic has brought more of a boost to online collaboration, and online work has been accepted on a larger scale. However, I encountered many difficulties when I was making the physical model for my award-winning work, my thesis project. The main reasons were communication and time issues. The person you interface with online is often not the person who will make things for you, but their contact person, who specializes in consulting. It made my communication costs and time costs unpredictable throughout the process. But, In any case, I hope that the pandemic will end soon and bring people closer to each other again.



With so many designs coming out daily, how do you keep pushing boundaries in footwear design?

I always hope that I can make good designs that can stand the test of time. I want to discover new and exciting design breakthroughs through observation and understanding of new things. In addition to the technical aspects, I also want to use design language to make shoes have the ability to give a voice to young people starting out in the workplace. But I know that until I reach this goal, all I can do is to keep learning and experimenting.



What advice would you give to future aspiring footwear designers?

There are two points in total. First, there are so many ways to learn these days, don’t hesitate before you even start, as long as you have access to them as a place to start. Then, digital models and renderings on social media platforms are certainly very cool and appealing. But there is also great value in the wisdom of materials and craftsmanship contained in traditional physical models, and there is no substitute for that hands-on touch. Footwear design is challenging and fun. I hope you enjoy it.