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After spending 18 months crafting every element of a new baseball cleat, turning over design reigns to the general public to allow them their own personalized style was both exciting and a bit, well, difficult.
3000v3 cleats worn by Seattle Mariners star second baseman Robinson Cano
New Balance debuted a new 3000v3 cleat in August, worn by Seattle Mariners star second baseman Robinson Cano and Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. And just one month later that cleat was open for full customization as part of the NB1 program, allowing athletes from the major leagues to youth the choice between one of 12 colors on 16 different elements of the cleat. And while New Balance has customization as part of its lifestyle sneakers—the 574, 990 and 998 sneakers are all customizable—and other companies offer similar services for lifestyle and performance, New Balance says the fact that they customize every cleat in its Lawrence, MA, facility gives them a turnaround time from order to delivery in two weeks or less, much faster than the four or six weeks common in the industry.
3000v3 cleats worn Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts
Also different is that it takes 14 different employees to touch the roughly 50 steps involved in the 68-minute production process of the cleat, a much more complex construction than a lifestyle sneaker, Jonathan Grondin, New Balance design manger, tells HOW Design.
Grondin strikes a balance in giving up control of a design to let the public express themselves versus retaining the original intent of the product. “Even with the pros,” he says, “it is tough to pull a veto on a multi-million-dollar athlete when it looks terrible and we don’t want the brand represented on the field like this. It can get tricky, but it doesn’t come up often.”
And while 99 percent of the time in those cases Grondin connects with the athlete and the two come to a better design place full of mutual respect, he won’t have the opportunity to chat with every customer walking through the website design, which meant it was important to strike that balance between consistency of brand and full-on personalization before the customer took to styling their own choices.
“Designers that work on customization take a shoe and figure out what colors you need,” he says, “what is available and what gets locked together. We spent a lot of time building that.”
For the 3000v3, the Boston-based company decided to lock together material on the heel and front of the cleat and separately a brand-new 3D foam molded collar in 360 degrees. “When you buy it, (those elements) are the same material and the icon of the shoe is having this iconic New Balance saddle with a ‘N’ on it,” Grondin says. “You can still do way more blockings than I thought you could.”
Customers unlock billions of opportunities with the 16 areas of customized colors, three different cleat plates and options between mesh and suede materials.
Variously-colored materials for the 3000v3 cleats
“We want freedom for the consumer to do what they want, but want it to look great and look like a premium product.”
Getting that first run of colors was the trickiest part, making sure that there was an ample balance of personalized style while retaining the ability to match colors together. For example, New Balance limited the ‘N’ logo prominently on the side to four different colors because each logo has both an inner color and a border color. “We don’t do screen printing,” Grondin says, “so we all agreed four is an okay number and then what four colors are going to be able to match all these shoes? That alone is a challenge.”
For the 3000v3, designers took into account the most popular colors for baseball team uniforms, making sure kids could quickly order a new cleat to match new teams. With the original mix of colors locked in, Grondin expects only slight seasonal changes moving forward, giving space for some trend-setting fluctuations.
With the hard choices behind him, Grondin knows the excitement of seeing creativity awaits him. “I’m curious to see what kids do,” he says. “With the 998s I see all the time, there are examples where I never thought of (color) blocking it like that. More often than not I’m shocked.” But in a good way.
Slightly controlling that shock so designers ensure the product they worked so long to create stays within brand, all while ensuring the full personalization of design offers tricky footing, a New Balance.