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Running with New Ideas at Reebok

09/26/2016

Grad student and longtime “sneaker head” Atulya Chaganty at Reebok's headquarters in Canton, MA.

Atulya Chaganty MID 17 has loved everything about athletic shoes for as long as she can remember. “Eight-year-old me wanted to yell, ‘I want to be a sneaker designer when I grow up!’” but at the time she didn’t think her family would take that idea seriously. But in doing a summer internship with leading fitness apparel brand Reebok in Canton, MA, the Industrial Design grad student and longtime “sneaker head” got to fulfill a childhood wish – and explore a future in the field.

“Being able to come full circle and intern in an industry I daydreamed about when I was a little kid was really cool,” said Chaganty, who specialized in material investigation while working with Reebok’s Running Footwear Development team. Over the course of the 10-week internship, she participated in materials selection, field performance testing and other vital aspects of the research-and-development process for the company’s Spring/Summer 2017 line. She also enjoyed the fringe benefit of being the “lucky sample size” for testing prototypes.

What sets the sneakers Chaganty worked on apart from their predecessors or competitors? “I really can’t tell you!” she insists, but says that the end result proves Reebok’s willingness to “take bold risks with design” while also keeping an eye on green manufacturing practices. “We’ve gone from a world that didn’t think much about sustainability to one that wants to be hyper-sustainable,” says the designer, who was pleased to see a serious dedication to sustainability taking root throughout the organization.

It was due to Chaganty’s commitment to environmentally responsible making that Paul Shinney, the development director for Reebok’s running lines, let the designer focus on the materials side of product development through a number of priority initiatives.” All of my work was integrated into the team’s projects in order to be successful,” she says. “It was real work, and that was very exciting.”

Risks + rewards

For Chaganty, the athletic shoe is a “quintessential industrial design object” that encapsulates questions of function, performance, comfort, aesthetics and other critical design factors. “How do you make an object that is accessible to everyone? And that means everything from price point to foot type.”

Over the course of the internship, Chaganty often addressed issues of race, gender, the body and socioeconomic factors when working with the development team – a major point of emphasis in the work she makes at RISD, which is informed by matters of social justice and recent crises like the water contamination problem in Flint, MI and the massive influx of refugees to Europe.

If someone had told Chaganty five years ago that she’d now be wrestling with such issues within the context of Reebok or RISD, she wouldn’t have believed it. After completing a double major in Literature and Communications & Culture at Clark University, she had begun preparing to apply to law school but in deliberating her options with her mother, wondered if that was really the best way to make a positive impact.

“My mother had just watched a 60 Minutes segment about [the global design firm] IDEO,” Chaganty recalls, “and told me: ‘That’s what you should do with your life.’” With a background in architecture, her mother had always encouraged her children to solve problems through making. But with no official experience in art or design, Chaganty knew she needed to take courses at a neighboring community college before pulling together what she refuses to call a portfolio today – “I don’t know what it was!” – and applying to a handful of graduate design programs.

Hesitating to make RISD her “reach” school, Chaganty gave in to an 11th-hour nudge from her mother. “At 11:59 pm I press send, like, ‘Whatever, it’s not going to happen.’” But after a brief time on the wait list, she received a phone call from Associate Professor Beth Mosher, who was head of Industrial Design at the time. “She offered me a spot, and my head just exploded,” Chaganty recalls with a smile. “It wasn’t even a question. This is where I was going.”

Since beginning the two-and-a-half-year MID program in January 2015, Chaganty has been enjoying the mentorship of ID faculty members like Charlie Cannon, Matthew Bird 89 ID and Ayako Takese. “The level of conversation here is so awesome,” she notes, adding that it was in discussing her work with alumna Claudia del Castillo 06 IL – currently a concept designer at Reebok – at last year’s Design Portfolio Review that the summer internship opportunity began to take shape.

All in all, “it was the best experience,” says the designer, who also came away with a passionate interest in injury prevention technologies after meeting combat-injured members of the US Armed Forces during her internship. For Chaganty, using design thinking to assist Reebok in making fashion-forward, high-performance sneakers while keeping an eye on sustainability and diversity proved to be proof positive that she’s on the right path.

Robert Albanese

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tags: graduate, Graduate Studies, internships, Industrial Design, students, sustainability, diversity

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RISD has a long history of offering Saturday and after-school classes for children and teens, as this photo from c. 1910 confirms.