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Sole Competition

Student’s Sneaker Design Seeks Place in Final Four of Global Contest

By Charlie Wright

Shoes Joe

Courtesy of Joe Carson

Courtesy of Joe Carson

Maryland may have been knocked out of the NCAA tournament, but there’s still one Terp making a deep run through a high-stakes bracket.

JoeGraphic design major Joe Carson ’18 is one of only eight competitors remaining in the Pensole World Sneaker Championship, a tournament that pits top young shoe designers against each other. The winner receives $20,017 and other prizes and has their design produced and sold at various Foot Locker locations around the world. Viewers vote online for their favorite sneakers as designers campaign and market their product through social media and word of mouth.

Carson is one of only three Americans still standing and is matched up against Artur Wrona of Canada. Voting for the final four concludes on Friday. 

A lifelong sneaker fanatic, Carson began customizing his own shoes in high school, starting with a pair of cheap, off-white Vans from Target that he perked up with a palm tree design. His fancy footwork drew the attention of friends and classmates, and in 2012, as a student at South River High in Anne Arundel County, he created his own company, CarsonCustomKicks


Sneakers designed by Carson run from $80 to $200, depending on specifications. Customers send him their shoes and provide input on the design, while others just have loose concepts and ask him to run with it. 

“I look on Google. I just walk around and look at different things,” he says. “Inspiration can really come from anywhere, which is the really cool part.”

Carson’s design for the tournament (above, right) was inspired by the paint mask he wears when he customizes shoes. It’s a long, thin loafer-style sneaker with a lacing system on the side that represents the mask. Carson kept the colors natural, with a gray, brown and black scheme. He says placing the Pensole logo on the back of the shoe gives it “the classiness of a BMW.”


Carson’s talents earned him a scholarship last year to the Pensole Footwear Design Academy, a three-week program that allowed 18 applicants to work with Foot Locker and Under Armour to develop and produce footwear concepts. He further honed his skills this summer as an Under Armour intern, where he created a boys’ collection as well as 15 custom shoe designs worn by employees and other interns. Carson hopes to find a full-time position as a sneaker designer after graduation. 

Carson’s passion and dedication to his craft can be traced to his father’s succumbing to cancer at just 53 years old. Carson says he was forced to grow up quickly. He was encouraged to pursue graphic design, and his career blossomed from there. 

“It kinda gave me a jump-start, a kick to the head,” says Carson. “It’s really woke [my family] up and made us realize what we have to do in life, because life is so short. Follow your passion and do what you love.” 

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.