Creating the perfect football boot: Nike's Lim Aik Leong
The clouds are moving in, it looks like a downpour is on its way. But Lim Aik Leong is still standing gamely out in the open, doing a piece direct to camera. The rain holds off thankfully, and he returns to the safety of the cafe, safe and dry and ready for his interview.
"Right, who's next?"
FourFourTwo are just around the corner from the Artscience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, waiting patiently for our turn with Nike's Footwear Product Line Director. We speak to football stars, to coaches and even to backroom staff on a weekly basis, so it's nice for a chance to sit down with someone different.
Singaporean born-and-bred, Lim Aik Leong's now part of Nike Global Football's product triad team at its Portland headquarters. This means he works closely with elite and aspiring athletes to identify product trends, analyses the data and helps the brand deliver game-changing innovative products to stay ahead of everyone else. A former S-League footballer with SAFFC (now Warriors FC) and Woodlands Wellington, Lim started out with Nike in 2007 and hasn't looked back since.
Now back in town for Nike's exhibition, Hypersense: The Art & Science of Modern Football, the gregarious designer is happy to talk all things boot design.
"Call me Aik," he says with a grin and off we go.
What's it like in Portland, Aik?
It's amazing, it's very different from Singapore. It's not a big city but you get to do a lot of fun stuff you don't get to do here, like snowboarding!
Could you tell us a bit more about what a Product Line Manager does at Nike?
We are the voice of the athletes, we work with our athletes so that we know what they want in a product. We get feedback from them, we get insights from them, we also look at big trends around in the game and we work with the team that includes developers, designers and engineers to create the next generation of football boots for Nike.
So what level of input do you have into creating the next boot design?
I basically come up with a brief that sets the direction for the new product. For example, for Mercurial it was made for explosive speed. What are some of the things that players are looking for in terms of fit, touch and traction... these are three key attributes that we hear a lot about from players.
How much does your own playing experience help you with what you do at Nike?
Oh a whole lot! When you talk to players, you're able to relate to what they tell you. Like if they tell you 'I want a barefoot feel', if you've played you know what he's talking about. He wants to feel the ball, he wants to touch the ball so that he can control the ball better. I feel that as a player myself, I'm also able to ask them more questions specifically as to what they want because a lot of footballers know what they want, but you have to help them bring it out as well by asking the right questions.
Take us through the design process for a football boot, from the day its design is conceived to when it rolls off the conveyor belt as a finished product. What are the stages involved?
Well there are a few key stages. The first one is obviously listening to our athletes, that's the most critical part in product creation at Nike. The elite athletes we work with are some of the best in the world and they provide us with great insights on their game and what they want as well as feedback on the current product that they're wearing and we take that back to the team in Portland. It's a huge group in Portland, there's a design team, there's a development team, there's an engineering team... we even have offshore teams in Asia and in Italy that work together with us.
We bring back these insights from them and we work on ideas to deliver the benefits that the players are looking for. Then we'll bring a few prototypes back to the players and have them give us more insights and feedback. These goes through a few rounds until we finally come up with wear-testing shoes that we test throughout the world to collect more information. So you see, there's a lot of testing and validation because these are boots made for world-class players playing in elite level competition and we want to make sure that we are providing them with the best and most innovative product out there in the market.
So this goes on and once we reach a stage where we feel where we're comfortable with the make and the construction of the product, we have this awesome colour-graphic design team that applies the colour and graphic we see here. In other words, once we settle on the performance bit, it comes down to the aesthetics. At Nike, we are well known for our design and we are fortunate to have this great team to apply these colours to our products.
Depending on the product, it takes anywhere between more than two years and four years like the Nike Magista.
Speaking of the Magista, does this look anything like the boot you first visualised at the beginning of this process?
You know what, no not at all (laughs). We didn't really set out to design a high cut football boot, but through the research process we have done, we found that this is the best way to deliver the benefits the players were looking for. Which is to more or less minimise the distraction between the interaction of the boot and the lower leg so when you put on this boot, you feel that the boot is part of the foot rather than a separate entity.
A good analogy would be if you think of a surgeon's glove. The gloves end at the wrist, not halfway up the hand.
What's so revolutionary about this new design? What's the best thing about the Magista Obra and the Mercurial Superfly?
I think these two boots are very revolutionary in terms of performance and design. This is the first time we're bringing the flyknit technology to football. We've used it in running and basketball before, but we were able to adapt the flyknit technology to make this football boot.
We are using Nike skin technology to place over the flyknit surface so water can't get into the boots because football isn't always played in beautiful sunshine. Nike all-conditions technology has also been applied over this Nike skin surface so it's a treatment to the upper surface to deliver a great touch regardless of wet or dry conditions, so in Brazil this summer this technology could actually help the players.
Then we come to this dynamic fit collar, as I've mentioned it creates a new sensation of fit that traditional boots have been unable to provide in the past. It minimises distraction and allows the player to focus on what they do best. It's not really a sock, people think it's a sock because it's elastic but it really is like a collar that's connected to the boot that provides a natural transition up the lower leg.
This Flyknit technology is so awesome for us because we were able to engineer it to fit our needs specifically. Flyknit is a matter of precision engineering so our programmers are able to deliver on the key three attributes we were talking about - fit, touch and traction.
Don't forget to catch the Hypersense: The Art & Science of Modern Football exhibition which is still on this weekend till 18th May 2014, 10am – 7pm daily at ArtScience Museum. Admission is free.