“A good designer must be attuned to people’s needs and how those needs change over time,” wrote Product Design alumnus Al Van Noy (BS 87) in 2019 for ArtCenter’s Storyboard. “This was something I understood long before I ever felt comfortable calling myself a designer.”
Van Noy, who passed away last November after battling cancer for several years, was a senior vice president at Adidas and the global head of the company’s Future Team. In his role at Adidas, he oversaw a large interdisciplinary team of scientists, designers and engineers who were tasked with taking the company into innovative new directions. Think of the company’s 3D-printed and 100% recyclable Futurecraft.Loop sneakers, and you’ll get an idea of the kind of forward-thinking projects that he and his team were famous for bringing to fruition.
Van Noy’s passing at the age of 62 sent ripples of grief through the sports industry, and his loss was felt keenly at his alma mater, with which he had forged a deep educational partnership over the past decade. In 2009, ArtCenter held its first-ever on-the-road DesignStorm at Adidas’ North American Headquarters. At that three-day project, Van Noy and his longtime Adidas colleague and fellow Product Design alum Jon Munns (BS 91) rolled out the red carpet for ArtCenter students, faculty and staff.
To remember Van Noy and the multipronged legacy he has left for both the College and for designers everywhere, we assembled a virtual roundtable of individuals who knew him well: his son Ryan Van Noy (BS 17 Product), a performance and innovation designer at Fox Racing; Provost Karen Hofmann (BFA 97 Product), who was Product Design Chair when she first met Van Noy; Product Design Professor Frido Beisert (MS 08 Industrial Design); Vice President of Professional Development and Industry Engagement Kristine Bowne; and two Product Design alumni who currently work at Adidas’ Future Team, Innovation Designer Matteo Padovani and Senior Digital Creator Jacques Perrault.
The following excerpts were edited for brevity and clarity.
KRISTINE BOWNE: ArtCenter’s first “DesignStorm on the road” was at Adidas, and Al and Jon were such generous hosts. I remember pulling up in a bus in front of the company’s North American headquarters in Portland. They had installed window displays that read “Welcome ArtCenter,” with both ArtCenter and Adidas branding. Just seeing that made the students excited. Adidas gave the students the run of the building and made sure they understood how their company’s teams work together. Being welcomed to that level was incredibly special.
KAREN HOFMANN: That three-day DesignStorm was a remarkable learning and life experience for everybody involved. From an educational point of view, it was wonderful to take something that was unique in itself, the DesignStorm model, and then to have a visionary partner who thought, “Hey, why send five or six people down from Adidas to Pasadena, when we can bring it up here and have 60 to 70 people see what these students come up with?”
FRIDO BEISERT: I remember thinking that it was magical that someone at a big corporation like Adidas had the vision to bring students to their headquarters to work with their in-house designers. I remember thinking that from a logistical point of view, Al must have had a very positive influence at Adidas to be able to convince the company to host us the way they did.
HOFMANN: That DesignStorm was rewarding on so many levels. The brief “What is the future of footwear?” was wide open and really allowed the students to have their individual voices. Then there was the wonderment of the experience. The students were able to go inside Adidas innovation headquarters! And Adidas committed to it. Al assigned people from his team to work with the students and the faculty, and they were involved with every critique and every refinement. We were treated more like consultants. And none of this would have happened if Al hadn’t 100 % believed in ArtCenter. It was a huge investment.
JACQUES PERRAULT: The organization Al created reflected a lot of his values. He was part of the Future Team for so long that he became its pillar and foundation. Its culture, its process, its approach—it all started with Al. And that could be seen in everything from how we interact day to day all the way to how we’re a mission-led and purpose-driven organization.
MATTEO PADOVANI: The Future Team has this unique stand-up culture. Al built that on trust. We’re a family. We look out for one another. We elevate each other. And we have fun doing it. You’re more able to take risks when you’re in that environment. He allowed people to feel confident in taking risks because they knew they had a team that supported them.
RYAN VAN NOY: He loved helping other people, to the point where he would oftentimes overdo it. At the end of my last term at ArtCenter, he took a week off work and came down to help me out with Grad Show. He was nearing 60 years old, but he was up there at Hillside helping me sand models until 2 in the morning. And when there was nothing left to help me with, he’d assist my friends, helping them paint their models or offering last-minute feedback.
PERRAULT: At Adidas, Al really cared about helping new people. People who were just joining the team. People in the internship program. Even people not part of the Future Team. And if you had a new idea, you could go talk to him and see what he thought. And despite being someone whose calendar was crazy, he still took the time to really ask you how you were doing.
BEISERT: Between the DesignStorms, we would have projects that were footwear-related, and we would sometimes ask Al if he’d like to be part of the critique process. He would take a flight out of Portland at 5 a.m., arrive at Burbank at 7 a.m., hop in a rental car and be at ArtCenter at 8 a.m., do the critique until 1 p.m., and then check out one or two stores for research before hopping on a plane back to Portland the same day. All just to do a crit.
BOWNE: It was really important for Al to make sure that what ArtCenter students were learning was relevant. And as a Product Design alum, he wanted his program focused on the innovations that were going to impact our lives. He wanted students to have access to that technology, and he wanted to make sure they were becoming prepared for the jobs that were emerging.
BEISERT: Once, at a midterm critique, he told me, “One student had a really interesting idea. Let me know if they need any help prototyping.” At that time, our Softgoods and Wearables track had just started, and we didn’t really have the know-how to make good-looking final models. So we picked nine student designs, sent them to Portland, and Al sent us back the prototypes in time for the finals. All without ever asking for anything in return. And then, of course, he and his team came to the final presentation. He was just so giving. He loved to see young creatives succeed on their path to the industry. That’s what he was all about.
BEISERT: In critiques, he was a bit like the Godfather. He made sure his team critiqued first. He was humble in that way. Even though he was the boss, he took the role of the leader. He made sure everybody around him felt good, did well and was served first. Then he would sum things up.
PADOVANI: Al was a silent one. He didn’t fill a lot of room with speaking, but when he spoke, he spoke poignantly. When you were in a review with him, you’d always be waiting for him to talk, because his opinion mattered.
VAN NOY: He raised me to always think about what you’re going to say before you say it. He had this school of thought that if the words aren’t going to be impactful or meaningful to the person receiving them, then there’s no point in saying anything at all.
PADOVANI: In a review, whatever he would say would always go directly to the core of the issue you were trying to solve. He was always concerned with “What’s the why?” He wanted you to think, “How is this going to impact the person you’re making it for? How is it going to evolve? How is it going to make a difference?”
VAN NOY: Any conversation I ever had him with about design always came back to: “Who’s the user? How is this idea serving them? How is it benefiting their lives? How is it connecting to them? If it’s not connecting to them, they’re not going to adopt the idea.” He grilled me constantly about always keeping the user in mind.
PERRAULT: At Adidas, he was a legend. He had seen it all. He always put things into perspective. Regardless of how big, small, chaotic or unorganized the situation may have seemed, he brought a depth of experience and a sense of calm unlike anybody else I’ve been around.
PERRAULT: Al was a tremendous cyclist. I could never keep up with him. The most common route he took was Marine Drive up to the airport and then back through the neighborhoods. He would often go alone, especially if he was training or working through something, but I would go on a ride with him at least once a month—sometimes with others, sometimes with Adidas folks visiting from Germany. It wasn’t competitive, but someone set the pace, and it was usually Al.
VAN NOY: He had his first chemo scheduled at 3 p.m. on a Thursday, and he wanted to get into a good mindset going into it. So he and I and one of my best friends, we all drove to the motocross track about an hour away and rode in 90-degree heat until 1:30 p.m. We then packed the truck in a scramble and rallied back to Portland, getting back at 2:30. He ran inside the house, threw on a change of clothes, grabbed his headphones and then went to his first chemo session. That was pretty wild. And we did that a few more times after that.
PERRAULT: Al was a person who lived life on his own terms. Even in how he passed. I don’t think a lot of leaders would have stayed in that position going through what he went through. But it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. And he had such a way with time. He always cut everything so close. I remember on a business trip barely getting on a plane and thinking that there was no way somebody would come on board after me. And just as the plane was about to pull away, just as the door was about to close, Al snuck right in. That’s how he operated. Always. The way he squeezed every moment from every second was remarkable.