Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nature: the Ultimate Designer

Just finished reading a fantastic book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen By Christopher McDougall. Google Books

Born to Run is an extraordinary read at many levels -- part science, part masterful storytelling, part history, part business, and more. Topics covered include:

  • An in-depth -- and entertaining -- history of running from prehistoric persistence hunting to today's road racing
  • The tension between the love and natural ability of running and the almighty dollar ("Goddess of Wisdom" versus the "Goddess of Wealth")
  • A plethora of intriguing characters along the way: from the intentionally isolated Tarahumara (or RarĂ¡muri) of Mexico to pioneers of ultra-marathoning and cutting-edge science

These topics and many more are wrapped in extremely engaging narratives -- to use the tired phrase -- that are hard to put down. McDougall is a truly captivating storyteller.

From a design perspective, and what I found most fascinating, is the natural engineering of the human foot and how we are, quite literally, "born to run".

The remarkable design of the human foot distributes the impact of each step. "Barefoot running", or as the RarĂ¡muri practice it with thin sandals, leads to a quick step with shorter stride -- the way people have run for millennia.

However, related to the monetary tension mentioned above, as running became a popular leisure pursuit, the way we ran changed drastically. The "modern" (1970s+) running shoe design altered our natural stride and technique. Its raised heel was intended to give us a sort of "head start" by leaning us slightly forward. They also come with all sorts of shock absorption features that one might think would reduce injury and soften the impact of each step. McDougall provides convincing data that instead of preventing injury, this forced design has actually greatly increased running afflictions.

It has really been until just recently that designers have taken this problem into account. Besides simply pure barefoot running, here are two interesting designs that accept and compliment the design of the human foot:

Five Fingers by Vibram | Link
Extremely innovative, yet simple in design, these shoes go on like gloves. There's a place for each toe and the sole compliments, rather than alters, the human foot.

Nike Free by Nike | Link [curses to Nike for a cumbersome Web site]
From the originator of the modern age of running shoes, comes this incremental line of footwear. With models ranging from the 3.0 (sort of barefoot) to the 7.0 (almost complete traditional shoe). Reparations perhaps?

Both represent an interesting approach to design and a more careful understanding of true human factors.

Jon Stewart interviews Christopher McDougall on The Daily Show, August 19, 2009:

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