Dear Dumb Runner,
Why are running shoes so goddamned ugly? Has anyone ever studied this?—Ben G., Ann Arbor, Michigan
You're right that many (not all!) of today's running shoes are objectively, categorically, and undeniably awful to look at. They are, indeed, goddamned ugly.
Actually, that language is a bit harsh, isn't it? Instead let's use the phrase "goddamned tacky."
Why are they so goddamned tacky? Good question. Data on running shoes abound, but no one—to my knowledge—has ever examined their aesthetics in any rigorous, academic way.
So we can only speculate as to why otherwise rational people who wouldn't be caught dead wearing, say, a T-shirt in a purple/red/yellow pattern with black trim and shiny metallic accents seem to have no problem paying good money for a similarly designed running shoe.
We can only guess what's going through their heads when they pick up a pair of lime-green trail shoes with fuchsia cross hatching and orange-and-white-checkered shoelaces and ridiculous strips and nodules all over them and think, Yeah... that seems about right.
We can only wonder, too, why running shoe manufacturers produce stuff this horrendous-looking in the first place.
Honestly, how in the world did we go from this...
I have a few theories.
Theory #1: Shoes Have Become More Complex, and Shoe Makers Want You to Know That
Thirty or forty years ago running shoes were dead simple. They had soles and uppers and laces, and came in a few colors. Very few people bought them, because very few people ran.
Then came the first running boom. More people running meant more demand, which meant more shoes from more manufacturers—in short, the market grew crowded and competitive. Suddenly shoe makers had to find ways to make each model appear distinct from the rest, including others in their own lines. This is called product differentiation, and it happens with everything from yogurt to laundry detergent.
As a result, shoes have become more technically "advanced," with new features and embellishments. (A cynic might call them gimmicks. But we aren't cynics, are we?) Since most of these changes—a new material used in the midsole, for example—aren't obvious or even visible, maybe manufacturers use crazy design elements to represent a shoe's complexity.
Or, as one industry insider said to me recently, such shoes are made to look "as though there is some technology involved."
When it comes to sales and marketing, in other words, shoe manufacturers have decided that "high-tech" beats "beauty."
Theory #2: In an Insanely Crowded Marketplace, Shoes Need to Grab Your Attention
As of this writing, RunningWarehouse.com offers about 815 pairs of running shoes from 25 brands. Eight hundred and fifteen. Think about that for a minute.
In their efforts to get noticed, shoe designers appear to be engaged in a frantic, no-holds-barred battle, deploying stripes, strips, mesh, bumps, bits, grids, insets, cutouts, layers, panels, studs, grooves, welts, ridges, text, logos, icons, and colors not found in nature to see who can produce the tackiest-looking (i.e. most noticeable) product.
I'd argue that this is actually a great opportunity for anyone willing to design simple, clean-looking shoes, since they presumably would stand out more amid all the ugly. But hey, what do I know? I'm just a writer.
Theory #3: The Whole Thing Is a Joke
You see enough of these ghastly, garish shoes and you seriously start to wonder: Is it all nothing more than an after-hours bar bet that took on a life of its own?
Did it start years ago with two low-level designers getting bored and trying to outdo each other's ugly shoe designs until one of them accidentally made it into production, leading to surprisingly brisk sales and therefore more awful designs, and so on, until before anyone knew what was happening we were up to our eyeballs in ugly shoes, Tribble-style, and the guys who started it all were freaking out, thinking to themselves, It was never supposed to go this far, this was never part of the plan?
Who knows? Again, these are only theories. But I think each has at least some truth to it.
By the way, Ben, please don't get discouraged. There are still simple, classic-looking shoes out there—Adidas in particular offers plenty—so keep looking till you find a pair that feels good and looks good.
Or, you know, just get yourself those Waffle Trainers.
Thanks for your question.