On Running Shoes Blur the Line Between Engineering and Art
On running shoes: ‘We combined fashion with function and hit a sweet spot.’
Creativity can strike at any time. For instance, just look at the engineering and art of On running shoes.
For the Swiss engineer who created On running shoes, it hit him while on a casual jog during his Florida vacation. He noticed his legs were less tired when he ran on the side of the road closest to the beach than when he ran on the far side.
“He thought, wow, I must be rolling on those sand grains and coming to a stop,” recalls Cyle Sage, who teamed up with the engineer in 2003. “So if I can come up with a cushioning system that rolls and stops, that cushions vertically and horizontally, he might have something that people love.”
Seven years later, On running began. The company engineered a shoe with a cushioning system that provides a cushioned landing but a firm takeoff. Sage said the design provided a disruptive technology that challenged the typical running shoe design of solid midsole cushioning.
A seminal moment came after conducting a force plate study in 2005. They invited runners, from recreational runners to professional athletes, to wear the shoe and run over a plate that tests the level of force in which the runner hits the ground.
“We compared our shoe to all the big guys—Asics, Saucony, Nike, Adidas, all of them. And we saw there was a reduction of force,” Sage said. “We call them clouds because the early test runners said, ‘wow, it feels like I’m running on clouds.”
Patience and Grit
On is now one of the fastest-growing shoe companies in the market. That says a lot when running retail’s growth has been flat in recent years.
But it didn’t come fast or easy.
The first iteration included the engineer gluing a garden hose-type material onto the soles of his current running shoes. In 2005, Sage, coming off a ten-year career as a professional triathlete, led the effort to secure the shoe’s patent.
On hit the market during the era of little-to-no cushion shoes like Vibram.
“And we come out and we’ve got these funny looking things on the bottom so people are thinking I’m going to trip or get injured. We had challenges like that,” Sage says. “But when people tried them, they loved them. We really wanted to make running fun again.”
But just a month after launching the company, their prototype won an ISPO Brandnew Award, which recognizes the best new innovation in sports. On founders, duathlon and Ironman champion Olivier Bernhard, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti, were initially focused on the European market. But after some nudging from Sage, they brought On to the U.S., were introduced to key players at Runner’s World Magazine and specialty running stores.
In 2012, On released its first flagship shoe, the Cloudracer, which was designed for competitive running. Shortly after, Swiss Olympic runner Nicola Spirig started using On shoes, and Frederik Van Lierde of Belgium wore Cloudracers when he won the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in 2014.
And On was off and running.
On the Runway and the Track
After On’s first shoes were released, the company’s co-founders started thinking about how to take the engineering and art to the next level of design.
“We said, ‘what if you could wear your favorite shoe all day everywhere. What would that look like for ON?” Sage recalls. “Well, you’d need a shoe for outdoors, so we came up with a trail line. You’d need shoes for running competitively, so we have a performance line. And what about going to the grocery store, walking your dog, going out to dinner? Then we came out with the performance all-day line.”
Each shoes’ DNA is still On’s cloud technology, but the company has seen that people like to wear On shoes off the track—and even on the red carpet. Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for his cinematography work on The Revenant, is shown on the cover of Variety magazine wearing ON shoes.
“We were pretty excited when we saw that,” Sage says.
The company had another big win when Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer agreed to partner with On. The company’s website says the partnership didn’t start as a typical sponsorship conversation. They noticed Federer wearing On shoes off the tennis court.
“Turns out, he has been an On fan for a while. Switzerland is relatively small and it wasn’t long before Roger was catching up with our senior leadership team over dinner,” the story goes.
Federer is now an investor in On, as well as a contributing product designer. A self-professed sneakerhead, Federer has more than 500 pairs of shoes in his collection, according to Sage.
And On has given sneakerheads like Federer a few limited edition shoes to get excited about, including the Cloud Edge Moonlight, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the landing on the moon.
“It’s been fun to take our shoe technology and combine it with fashion,” Sage says. “It’s been quite the journey, but we’ve been very fortunate. We combined fashion with function and we hit a sweet spot.”