BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
adidas’s Senior Director of Color, Trend & Materials, Liz Callow, spoke with impactmania about the future of design, how diversity in the workplace bring super powers, and how her eyes are on the road to another Olympic Games: the Tokyo 2020.
The company adidas, founded by Adi Dassler, is ranked number 90 on the Forbes world’s most valuable brands. The athletic and sporting lifestyle product company has outfitted Olympic athletes as early as 1928.
Today, the company’s approximately 650 designers are working across the co-headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany and Portland, Oregon, U.S. including creation centers in Tokyo, Japan; Shanghai, China; and São Paulo, Brazil. Liz Callow leads 75 designers around the world.
Liz, we’ve been speaking with a number of designers and architects on the future of design. Do you have some thoughts on where design is going?
I’m excited about the way design is responding to the challenges in the world. Design is getting a lot smarter with a new capacity for ‘method and make’ in manufacturing that’s localized, sometimes faster, more environmentally sound, and at times even more customized. Because design has an inherent instinct and ability to have vision without knowing how it’s going to end, designers are well equipped to solve problems of the future. I see it as a really exciting time for design.
Do you have an example of where design could be a social driver?
Oh yeah, especially right now. Today the world responds socially and culturally to the things it can’t control: social issues, political issues, and environmental issues. Culture and design are constantly in dialogue with those issues. Sport is often an intersection of those places.
adidas has a mission of sports changing lives. It’s something we wake up for every day. It is about never giving up, self expression, and overcoming your own physical or personal battles. Our design products are enablers for that. Creativity and sport are at the heart of our design ethos social drivers .
A few recent wins for us around equality, diversity, and social change are adidas and Parley’s ocean clean-up; cross category design and business concepts celebrating Black History Month and Arthur Ashe across Basketball, Athletics, and Originals. We also had great success with our adidas Originals LGBTQ 2016 Pride Pack.
Give me an example of how social impact on a day-to-day works into the design itself, or how it plays out when you’re working with other creative people.
There’s a lot happening with urbanization and sports, we have to respond to what it means to save the spaces of sport. We build platforms and spaces of sport within urban environments that help retain access to sport and betterment while constantly finding ways to give access to communities, products and equal playing fields for women and men, girls and boys.
New York City is one of our key focus cities in America as well as many others.
Do you mean creating physical spaces in New York City for sport?
It’s a big duty of ours to help solve access to sport in America and around the world.
We’ll help create urban soccer fields in New York, some potentially on top of buildings. We’re partnering with members of the New York soccer community to give those players more opportunities to come together.
Is this coming from corporate? Is this coming from a changing consumer landscape?
It started with our strategic business plan for 2020 and looking at opportunities.
We came up with the business strategy and then with category strategies. Basketball has a category strategy, running has a category strategy, and soccer has a category strategy, for example.
It’s definitely demanded by the consumer but it’s also based on data. We knew that sports access was going to be a challenge, urbanization isn’t a trend. It is happening and real.
We also get a lot of great quantitative research on what’s happening with sports participation around the world, in particularly in the U.S. We start to see facts and numbers around what’s happening with obesity, injury, over use, hyper-competitiveness, and lack of funding. For a brand like ours, it is our duty to respond to that and truly change lives together.
I’ve heard from a number of women in extreme sports, who have said, “Women are such big consumers of sports apparel and sports equipment, but they’re barely represented in the commercials and being brand ambassadors.”
Do you have some data on the purchasing power of women and how much they’re represented in sports brand?
I do, it’s a real personal and professional passion and commitment of mine. Women are under represented in sports. We have done a lot of research within the company among our consumer insights and trend teams cracking the myth that women don’t look up to sport icons.
Women do look up to sport icons and heroes. Women want to know more of what the athlete’s narrative is. They want to know more about what her values are and what’s driving her. And they want the truth. They want identifications of truth, realism, and beauty. It is something that we have started amplifying within our communications.
We don’t focus on a single icon. A great quote from a group that we did research with was: “A woman doesn’t want to look up to one star, she wants to look up into a constellation.” That constellation is multiple and has a wide breadth. A woman is inspired by her friends, siblings, heroes, and icons. She finds great inspiration among the many.
We have a huge opportunity to elevate women in sports, there is great opportunity to tell those stories.
Let’s talk about your story. What is your responsibility as a senior director of color, trend & materials?
My first responsibility is my team, first and foremost. I take great value in the contribution of leadership. It’s a real call-to-action every day. Then, I help lead the macro trends working group, which is a cross-functional group of people from innovation, creative direction — where I sit — and our brand strategy partners.
We look at the formative forces that are driving the future — things that affect our brand strategy, sometimes two, five, to ten years out. We want to know what’s happening with Gen Y and Gen Z. We look at what’s happening in the social, political, and environmental landscape: the formative drivers of the future.
This translates into a seasonal creative direction. I also lead the color and material team and partner with our graphic design team. Together, we create the seasonal creative direction for the brand globally. We then create the brand pallet, materials pallet, and graphics direction.
We do that holistically together for the company. Then once the season kicks off, we ask, what does that look like for women’s running? What does that look like for men’s basketball? What does that mean for tennis? What does it mean for lifestyle? I have a pretty incredible team!
What has been a surprising learning for you in this role?
I never get bored!
We’re constantly inspired by the changing world and emerging identities. The word trend is interesting because it’s hard to stay ahead, especially when it comes to seasonal trends like color, silhouette, and graphic language. We have to be in tune with culture and timing, but we also have to lead the way, and have a point of view.
We’re constantly surprised by culture’s reaction to the world and how people are expressing themselves. It’s a great intrigue and challenge, just keeping up with what’s happening.
There are so many information platforms available to see what’s bubbling up, changing, and evolving. I’m constantly surprised and excited by it.
Tell me a little bit about your team?
Right now, the team in Germany is upwards of 50 people. Then in the U.S., I have almost 25 people. They are incredibly talented and inspiring, and motivate me every day.
I have a first line of directors of Global Color, Material and Trend. They are my first line horizontally who help create the seasonal brand direction. Then, they help lead and steer it for the specific sports categories with a mix of awesome senior designers, designers, and assistants. The process is collaborative, experimental, and instinctive together with color, materials, graphics and the expert product designers for footwear, apparel, and accessories. The sum of the parts makes the journey and outcome so promising.
Do you find adidas to be a global company or is it still very much with a German heritage?
We are really proud of being the original sportswear brand but it’s a global company. We have creation centers in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo.
We hire for diversity. My team is diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, and background. My team particularly has a very even male-female split.
We always ask our interviewees who their impact maker is. I’m sure the Global Creative Director Paul Gaudio must have an amazing impact on your professional DNA. But who else would have shaped you as a leader and as a designer?
Creative Director of Concept and Curation, Dirk Schönberger.
He oversees “concepts”meaning Creative Direction trends, color, materials, and graphics. He also edits and curates our final key looks and how we communicate going to market across categories. He has also been a big force in bringing collaborations together into the adidas brand.
Dirk is a huge daily impact maker in my life and in my leadership team globally — his vision is highly influential for us.
Is there something Dirk Schönberger said or something you’ve worked on together that still stays with you?
Dirk challenges us in how we incentivize ourselves and make our work substance-based and real. We constantly work with different categories and designers. He is always thinking of how we push ourselves forward in unexpected ways.
He has an amazing point of view and sense of humor. I learn from him every day. He often reminds our team to “Make it so good, they can’t say no.”
Apart from what you do at the company, what would one of your own passion projects be?
I have four nephews and two nieces in Chicago, and then I have two other nephews and a niece on my partner’s side of the family here in Oregon. I take huge pride being an aunt! If I could be with them more, that would be my base passion project. They’re all involved in sports, which is super fun. They’re like a walking commercial. [Laughs.]
You make them wear adidas of course.
[Laughs.] Fortunately, they want to!
What’s next for you, Liz?
We’re already working on our 2019 season actively. We’re really excited about the road to Tokyo, 2020 Olympic Games. I love the Olympics. It’s an amazing moment for sports. Speaking of what’s happening around the world, it’s a place where everyone gets to shed their skin and be equal once the race starts.
I have a huge respect for the athletes. It is an honor to outfit them. Each time we’re challenged with coming up with a new design language, a new color pallet, and a new narrative. A narrative of how we bring the world together through sports. My eyes are on the prize of Tokyo right now!
Any specific sport that you’re interested in?
I love track and field. I grew up playing basketball, softball, and track and field. I also grew up swimming all year round. I particularly love swimming. I’m from Chicago, where sports never sleep!
You grew up in sports!
Outside of my parents, telling me I could always be whatever I wanted and had such unconditional love, sport was a huge part of why I can get up and present in front of people. And have the confidence to lead a team. Sport was such a facilitator in my self-confidence as a young woman in the world.
What specifically about sports gave you that confidence?
I think just pushing myself, overcoming my fears; young women go through so many changes, growing up. Sport helped me trust myself. It helped me so much with leadership, team building and it taught me about failure. It taught me about overcoming failure.
I had coaches I loved. I had coaches that sometimes made me grit my teeth, but I respected them so much. It really taught me about being a part of something bigger than myself.
Tell me about a challenge you’ve had with the team.
We work across the planet globally. I have my team in Germany and in the U.S. We’re used to working on Skype, Face Time, and videoconferences. But there are definitely times where I want to be in both places at once.
I have a great group of leaders on both sides that I trust and empower. There is always a changing landscape. We’ve restructured ourselves within the last two years and so adapting to that kind of change is healthy.
What do you think makes a team that operates globally gel? What are the ingredients?
I really think it’s having diversity. Over two years ago I had the honor of bringing together a new leadership team. We found we each had a superpower the other one didn’t. I love to build up a team with a wide diversity, and amplify their superpowers.
To make a team gel, you have to have trust, which is something earned, it’s not something given. Earning that and letting them know they have safety to be open, safety to disagree, and safety to fail, and try again is key.
I am sure you’ve seen the Harvard research and McKinsey research that diversity adds positively to the bottom line. How did you know instinctively to build a diverse team?
I studied cultural anthropology, which is probably part of it. My family values taught me to embrace diversity and it is something that the company taught me as well. I’ve taken a lot of courses on leadership, management, people, and how to build teams. It’s a mix of all of those things. Experience and living it is the best learning of all.
Any parting words for girls who are reading the interview?
Yeah, never give up — keep trusting in your instincts and knowing that you’re equal. Fight for what you believe in and know that you can trust who you are naturally.
There are a lot of different role models and a lot of different frameworks out there. You are allowed to break those molds and be who you are in your own way.
Would you say something different to boys and men?
No, I probably wouldn’t. Men and boys need to trust into their instincts even more. I’d be really happy if men and everyone broke some of those molds and the clichés that are placed upon them as well.
adidas’s 2015 sales were up 16 percent to 16.9 billion euro in sales.
Liz Callow and her team recently released the adidas’s UltraBOOST X exclusively designed to fit the female foot. Available in both adidas Women’s and adidas by Stella McCartney styles.