The design of high-heel shoes: looks or comfort? – You cannot have both

A Washington Post author writes about the “illogical psychology at work when a woman buys a pair of shoes” and speculates that it is “some curious synaptic misfire in the cerebrum that causes so many women to give form precedence over function”.

If you are a woman, then you recognize this particular form verus function dilemma. At some time or the other you have stood in a shoe store and looked longingly at a pair of very pretty but totally impractical shoes. My last visit to a shoe store, I asked my friend, “So can I do this?”, as if the shoe was a challenge that I needed to conquer. Egged on by her I bought it and took it on my next trip. But just for safety I also packed an older, more prosaic pair. Guess which one saw more wear during the trip?

This article offers a fascinating look at the mechanics of the shoe industry, the innovations involved in creating more comfortable shoes, the litany of problems associated with wearing high-heel shoes (such as knee, ankle and joint injury). And yet, the reality of the market is that the impractical shoes clearly sell better.

So why are shoes so badly designed? Partly, creating a fashionable yet comfortable shoes is a hard engineering problem. It has to do with impact reduction, padding and cushioning technology…

Shoe designers mostly being men probably has something to do with it. One of the developers of these breakthrough shoes spent some time wearing size 11 high heel shoes to understanding the subjective feeling of wearing such heels. Only after wearing them did he understand how it mimics the dynamic of walking downhill.

Turns out the shoe design industry is fanatical about testing the shoes (who would have guessed that). There are companies that specialize in testing shoes! I wonder if they create video-clips of their tests (like usability testing companies), highlighting sections showing women oohing and aahing over shoes that they can barely stand straight in. Perhaps they use metrics such as “how long it took a woman to walk 20 feet?”. Maybe they have a inferred pain scale based on the subconscious winces.

The article reports on two new companies with breakthroughs in shoe technology, that are taking up the challenge of comfortable yet sexy shoes.

“Oh! shoes, based in Portland, Ore., is trying to solve the high-heel conundrum by slowing the speed at which force is absorbed by the body. By dissipating the impact, the body is protected from the equivalent of a sucker punch.

Insolia, in New Hampshire, focuses on geometry. Its designs decrease the angle at which the foot rests in the shoe, essentially trying to make a three-inch heel feel like a one-inch version.

I think I like the idea of Insolia’s shoe more. Seems to me that if the angle was reduced, then the impact would be automatically better. So I know what to look for next time I go shoe shopping…

4 thoughts on “The design of high-heel shoes: looks or comfort? – You cannot have both

  1. the original form over function debates goes back yo the animal kingdom.remember the peacock and the peahen.

  2. Good post – it is a crazy world and we do truly ridiculous things to our bodies.

    I solved the shoe dilemma a long time ago – I buy Doc Martens and wear pants! Form is good, function is good ;)

  3. You made the top of Google for “insolia shoe” which means a lot of people are paying attention to you.

    Here’s a link to a story that aired 8Nov04 on WOAI TV in San Antonio. We put Amalfi shoes with Insolia on six women who work there, and after a week of wear testing got their feedback. You can see it at

    What is most important about the “Insolia” approach is that we offer it to manufacturers so they can make the shoes you already love better. This way we each do what we do best. Amalfi or DKNY make a shoe that you love, Insolia makes it a shoe you’ll love to wear. What could be better than that?

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