A Dream and a No.2 Pencil – Meet Pensole Design Academy Founder
Born from a sneaker-loving dream, plenty of grit and the power of a No.2 pencil, the incomparable D’Wayne Edwards started his design career at the age of 19, becoming the youngest in the industry and going on to hold Design Director roles at major shoe brands like Nike.
These experiences seeded the inspiration to create a space that young design students – regardless of socioeconomic background – could learn from the industry’s best without a financial barrier. An opportunity he as a budding designer didn’t have because it didn’t really exist in that form...yet.
Thus, PENSOLE Design Academy was created. Launched in Portland, Oregon in 2010, the academy hit the court running with more than 500 graduates working professionally at top footwear companies, from New Balance and Adidas to Under Amour and Nike. Today, it continues to serve as an incubator for the next generation of designers with outposts at Parsons The New School in New York City, ArtCenter College of Design in CA and MIT in Cambridge, MA.
A true creator, collaborator and innovator, Mr. Edwards shared more with us about his past and how he got his start, present and future.
Q: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in design? Why sneakers/footwear?
A: I would say design pursued me. I grew up in Inglewood, CA during the heavy gang and drug violence era of the eighties. I never even considered anything besides trying to figure out how I was going to live to eighteen. To escape my outside realities, my two best friends were a blank piece of paper and sharp No.2 pencil. I had dreams of being a professional athlete, so I would draw my favorite players from baseball cards, until one day when I was 12, I had to draw their cleats. It was hard and I spent days trying to perfect them, but after that I never drew anything else. I became what the kids today would call a “Sneakerhead” before it had even become an adjective. All throughout middle and high school, I was drawing my version of what I thought sneakers should look like. I developed OSD (Obsessive Sneaker Disorder) to the point where I would ride the bus for hours to malls outside of my city to buy kicks that nobody in my hood had. I would customize my sneakers with duct tape, an exacto blade and shoe dye. My biggest fear, to this day, is to walk into a room and be wearing the same sneakers as someone else. As a senior in high school, I went to my guidance counselor, Mrs. Wilson-Jefferson, and told her I wanted to be a sneaker designer and asked her what should I do to pursue this as a career? She told me, “No black kid from Inglewood would ever become a sneaker designer.” Devastated and depressed, I gave up and started to succumb to my environment’s realities. Then one day, I saw an ad in the LA Times for a Reebok shoe design competition, and after months of not drawing anything I decided to enter. Inevitably I won, but at the time I was only 17 and did not qualify for the prize, which was a job, but that experience gave me hope for my future.
Q: PENSOLE is a cornerstone of creativity and opportunity here in Portland – welcoming those from all walks of life. How did this dream become a reality?
A: Being the youngest of six kids raised by a single parent, college was not an option and I started realizing that Mrs. Wilson-Jefferson’s comment was true. I knew I was good enough, but there was no such thing as a shoe design school; and even if there was, I was too broke to attend. A few months later, I got a temp job as a file clerk at a shoe company called LA Gear. I got excited to be working at a shoe company. It was not my dream of working at Nike, but they made sneakers so that was enough. Two weeks into the job, they put these wooden suggestion boxes in every department to boost company morale on ways to make the brand better. Since I was a temp-employee with nothing to lose, I decided to put my sneaker sketches in the box with the suggestion “make these!”. I dropped a new sketch in that box every day for the next six months, until one day they offered me a job as a shoe designer at the age of 19. I went on to have a twenty-three-year career as a footwear designer at my dream company, Nike, and then joined Jordan as Nike’s youngest design director at 30. After designing shoes for some premiere athletes and traveling around the world, I decided to retire to start the school I wish I was able to attend as a teenager. By this time, we had the internet and young kids just like me who wanted to be sneaker designers but did not have the money to attend college and clearly had the talent. So, I created PENSOLE for my seventeen-year-old self.
Q: With over 30 years in the business, we’d love to hear more about your design process - where you seek inspiration, what challenge have you learned the most from?
A: One of my inspirations is Bruce Lee. I love how he looked at the world and his craft with so much consideration. He once said, “I do not have a style. My style is what my opponent makes me do.” I feel the same way about design. I don’t force anything, I let the project come to me. Lee also once said, “You must be formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup it becomes the cup… Become like water…” My two best friends are still a blank piece of paper and a sharp N0.2 pencil, because it allows me to become what I am about to design. I approach design through the lens of my adolescent self. Still possessing the same love for the craft that I had when I was doing it for free. I always respect the gift I was born with and this allows me to never take it for granted. The day I do, then I know it is time for me to never sharpen my No.2 pencil again.
Q: What is one of the most important pieces of advice you've received or words you live by?
A: First, you MUST surround yourself, either in a physical or literary form, with people that have greater knowledge than yourself. You need those creative and intellect inputs to feed your outputs; to be on a level that challenges you to the point that they make you uncomfortable. When you are uncomfortable that means you are growing. Then mix that with a constant injection of confidence that pushes you to be better. One of my favorite pieces of motivational advice I heard was from a classic MC by the name KRS-ONE. He once said “I am number one! No, I lied. I am number one, two, three, four and five!” His mentality was to distance himself lyrically from every other rapper alive. It was his “mentality” that kept him sharp and then you let others decide if it is true or not. Lastly, I am reminded of another one of my favorite MCs, Rakim. When there is a conversation about who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) of rap music, his name does not always come up, but to me he has garnered the highest level of respect in the music industry. He is known as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper”. When you are respected by your peers on a high-level, that is because you let who you have become and the work you have done speak for you.
Q: We couldn’t be more excited to partner with you and PENSOLE to create a new Designer in Residence program. What is your hope for the program?
A: First, thank you Provenance for the opportunity to work with you and to provide a platform for aspiring creatives. A No.2 pencil designed my life and without it, I am not sure if I would even be on this Earth anymore. This is the 2021 version of my wooden suggestion box. I know there are aspiring designers out there that have been sharpening their pencil daily to get the opportunity for the world to see their gift and to change their life. That is why this Designer in Residence program with Provenance is so amazing to me. As a creative, one of the greatest rewards is for your thoughts to become a reality. Through this program, the world will be able to witness their dreams become a reality and I hope Provenance understands how critical they will be to the future of people they may never meet. I say this because this program will not only change the life of the actual Designer in Residence, but it will also inspire so many other creatives. I am a dreamer and I feel that this program has the potential to grow and include other forms of creativity turning Provenance into the destination where creativity and aspiration become reality.
Q: Hometown Pride is strong in Portland—what inspires you most about this city?
A: Portland is the place that defined and redefined my creative journey beyond my wildest dreams. Without being here, I would not be half the creative I am today because of the sheer access to other creative minds and inputs. I have always seen myself as an underdog and to me, Portland is an underdog city. The creativity from this small city has influenced cities globally. Other cities may get the credit for being known as a creative destination, but I would put the talent in this city against any other city in the world.
Q: So, what’s the future hold? What’s next for PENSOLE and for you?
A: I want PENSOLE to be number one, two, three, four and five! In order for that to happen, I need be like water and see what happens next myself.