Recent KCAD grad Heather Truong parlayed a Nike internship with designs for Serena Williams into full-time job while finishing her degree

Posted June 6, 2024 in Alumni, Student, Graphic Design

“Just do it all.” That could easily be the motto of Heather Truong, who completed a six-month apprenticeship with Nike and embarked on a full-time career with the company, all while taking classes remotely to complete her Graphic Design degree at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.

Truong learned about the apprenticeship while working at the Nike outlet store in Byron Center, Mich. and applied in 2021. After making the first cut, she joined 40 of the top applicants at a three-day virtual design showdown, where they were challenged to create four design briefs—Footwear Design, Apparel Design, Graphic Design, and Color Design—focused on creating a mock line of sportswear for tennis great Serena Williams.

Two women posing together for a photo. One wears a white mask over her face.2024 KCAD Graphic Design graduate Heather Truong and tennis legend Serena Williams

Truong went above and beyond that request, creating an overarching theme that united all four of her designs and bringing depth to her work that she credits to her KCAD education.

“Even when these four briefed categories were separated, I wanted to think of ways they could connect with each other,” Truong said. “It was a conditioned practice from my education to look for those overarching connections.”

Suspecting that every other student would do something tennis-related, she chose a different path. Her direction examined what Williams represents as a human being, focusing on her platform for diversity, her status as a woman athlete, and her sense of empowerment.

Tackling the graphics assignment first, Truong turned her attention to Williams’ hands. “Hands are ways humans express themselves,” she said.

Using the subject of hands as a hero of each brief, Truong illustrated a print design that linked each category (footwear, apparel, color, and graphics) made of William’s hands. Each hand, she said, is “unidentifiable, so you can’t tell what race they belong to, or if it’s a man or woman.”

Truong studied photos of Williams’ competitions and drew her hands in different forms, crediting her Design Drawing class at KCAD for honing her skills.

“I base a lot of my design work on the practices we built in that class,” she said. “I’m able to articulate my imagination quickly by hand on paper, which helps immensely for challenges like this.”

Sketch-like renderings of garment designsSketches from Truong's work in the three-day virtual design showdown 

Next, she dove into the color category, building a story around diversity.  She analyzed the underlying tints in skin, creating a palette of cool tones, warm tones, and pinks.

“I also pulled a bunch of imagery around what those colors represented. What is Serena beyond tennis? She’s a mother. She’s someone who strives for a diverse world. She has her sisterhood. She has her father, who helped her throughout her journey,” she said.

Through the print design, Truong used the color palette she created as a means to distract the eye from focusing on the race each hand represented.

With her graphic and color direction established, Truong moved on to the footwear design portion of the competition.

“Serena reminds me of a bird--she has these wings. So, you see that in a lot of the design language I used,” she said.

But it was her innovative lacing system, inspired by the slap wristbands of her childhood, that caught the judges’ attention. She designed the laces to snap, roll up, and connect to a magnet, and when the Nike reps saw that idea, they said, ‘Wow, that’s it.’

For the apparel brief, Truong focused on a one-piece suit for Williams, inspired by the catsuit the tennis star wore in the 2018 French Open.

“What Serena wore was very nontraditional and controversial, but also future-forward,” she said. “I wanted the apparel I designed to feel empowering, almost like a superhero costume.”

Truong wanted to sit down and learn everything about Williams before diving into the competition, but said she also wanted to dig more into some inspiration that could help her explore and continue to understand who her identity as an artist.

“As a woman who’s also a minority, I’ve always looked up to Serena Williams,” she said. “She’s a huge tennis star, the queen. But who are we seeing behind that flashiness, and what does she represent?”

Truong’s strong showing in the virtual showdown earned her the opportunity for a six-month footwear design apprenticeship with 10 others where she would learn how to design a collection and create a new line of footwear for the Serena Williams Design Crew Nike Collection.

The first month of the apprenticeship was a design bootcamp at Pensole Academy, now known as Pensole Lewis College in Detroit, led by prominent designer D’Wayne Edwards. There, the students had the opportunity to learn and test their ideas in an environment where it was stimulated to make mistakes and learn quickly.

Rough sketches of footwear designs
Concept sketches (above) and renderings (below)
Truong created during the design bootcamp at Pensole Lewis College during the first month of her Nike apprenticeship

digital renderings of a running shoe design

“I’m a graphic designer, but footwear was a completely different beast,” she said. “It can’t just look nice. People need to wear it and be comfortable in it. It has to be functional first.”

Truong’s team was asked to create five new footwear designs for Williams—uncharted waters for a graphic designer who now had a role as a footwear designer.

“I had to research footwear design and terminology outside of work hours and strengthen my understanding to keep up with the experienced peers,” she said.

During those four months, she often put a lot of pressure on herself. “At the time, I thought, why don’t you know how to do this? I was staying up till 2 a.m. and waking up at 5 a.m. just to keep up. Now I look back and think I should’ve chilled out. I was trying to earn this label of being a hard worker. But I learned that I had to be an efficient worker in a healthy work-and-life balance in order to learn properly.”

The apprenticeship was a time of great personal growth for Truong, pushing her to deconstruct the values she had for herself and create new ones.

“I grew up in a strict household driven by independence, and this program turned that on its head,” she said. “It taught me that I can’t do everything by myself, and I can’t be afraid to make mistakes. I HAD to be able to make mistakes. I HAD to be okay with failing in order to be successful in the end.”

The Serena Williams Design Crew released their collection in February 2023, and Truong took the lead for the design of the Air Max 90 Futura. The Air Max 90 Futura speaks to the emerging diversity of America's future generations and the untapped potential they hold.

a pair of shoes
(above and below): Air Max 90 Futura shoe designed by Heather Truong for the Nike Serena Williams Design Crew collection (images courtesy of Nike)

close up of a shoe

Unique stitching details show a human touch with a color palette made of varied skin-tones. The shoe is built of diverse shapes and assorted materials, representing how people’s differences can work together as a whole.

The shoe also features several hidden ‘Easter egg’ details designed to be discovered by the wearer, including a three-layer tab with the messages ‘For the Future Royal’ and ‘Greatness from Within,’ the Serena Williams logo merged with a crown on the heel tab, and a neon green insole designed to represent the inner energy of the upcoming generations ready to change the future.

A woman with long natural hait sits on a bench with her held tilted to the sideSerena Williams modeling the Nike Air Max 90 Futura shoe designed by Heather Truong (image courtesy of Nike)

For the Serena Williams Design Crew fall release, Truong lead the design for the Nike Dunk Low Disrupt x Serena Williams Design Crew. The shoe takes the inner energy of upcoming generations concept and makes it overt, with diverse shapes and assorted materials that are unapologetic and confident, representing the future royalty who will lead boldly and vibrantly.

Williams herself provided feedback at the midpoint and end of the process, and the apprentices were able to meet her when the project was done. But the real highlight for Truong came when she saw the tennis great wearing her design on her Instagram page, and again when the shoes hit the shelves and her friends started buying them for themselves.

A birghtly colored athletic shoe
(above): Dunk Low Disrupt shoe designed by Heather Truong for the Nike Serena Williams Design Crew collection (image courtesy of Nike); (below): Serena Williams wearing the Nike Dunk Low Disrupt shoe designed by Heather Truong (image courtesy of Nike)

A woman in a yellow umpsuit modeling on a runway

Following the apprenticeship, Truong accepted a full-time job as a footwear color designer for Nike’s skateboarding line, Nike SB, and their all-conditions line, Nike ACG.

All the while, the demands of a full-time job in Oregon could not deter Truong from completing her degree at KCAD.

“I was taking two classes per semester after getting my job,” she said. “Everyone at KCAD was supporting me, and everything worked out remotely.” She accepted her diploma on May 4 this year, officially bringing her college experience to a close.

A woman in a graduation cap and gown poses in front of a blue skyHeather Truong at the 2024 KCAD Commencement ceremony (credit: Andrew Schmidt)

Since her experience with Nike began, other KCAD students have approached Truong and asked her for advice on their future design journeys.

“You have to learn how to show up for yourself,” she said. “You have to figure out how you’re adding to the creative process and how you’re changing the game. You have to have a fear of being average.”


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