When Steve McDonald needs inspiration, he may scan a bridge designer's sketches, gaze at the works of a Bauhaus artist or thumb through a photo book of Amish quilts.
What he sees could spark an idea that ends up on anything from a computer keyboard to a professional basketball player's shoes.McDonald finds connections where none seem to exist and uses them at Faceplant, a business he owns with his wife, Lori Carn McDonald. The company's team of six designers, engineers, artists and athletes has carved out a niche in the big-money world of athletic apparel from an office in the quiet Heber Valley.
Both McDonalds are Utah natives, and they were happy to return home two years ago after 16 years away.
A 1976 graduate of West High School, Steve McDonald attended the University of Utah for three years while working as a draftsman for local architects Ronald L. Molen and later Brixen and Christopher.
His time at the U. ended when he "ran into a year of calculus," he said. So he and Lori, whom he met during freestyle skiing competitions in the mid-1970s, headed to Pasadena, Calif., where they studied at the Art Center College of Design.
Steve McDonald's design for a plastic telemark ski boot won a contest in 1985, and that led him to a job in a California office of the German design company, frog-design. It was there he designed the Apple computer keyboard.
"I was just out of school and getting to work on projects where there was no prior history or precedence," he said. "There were no personal computers before this time. The only keyboards were huge IBM typewriters. Today I look at the standard Apple curved keyboard, which now looks like every other computer keyboard, and realize that our design was the first and set the trend for all that followed."
McDonald also worked on designs for Kodak cameras, General Electric motors and Louis Vuitton luggage before leaving frogdesign in 1987 to become creative director for the accessory division at apparel maker Esprit de Corp in San Francisco.
In 1989, McDonald was hired away by Nike in Beaverton, Ore., to lead the design efforts for its new All Conditions Gear and for the Force basketball shoes of stars like Charles Barkley and David Robinson.
"After four years there, I was completely burned out of corporate life," McDonald said.
He quit Nike and worked for about a year out of his garage. Then the McDonalds' daughter, Sophie, was born, and they decided to move back to Utah to be close to her grandparents and the area they love.
Faceplant eventually landed a contract with Italian athletic apparel company Fila, which now accounts for about 90 percent of the McDonalds' business. Steve McDonald said the change from Nike was refreshing.
"Nike has more of the way of running its business like (Microsoft Corp. owner) Bill Gates," he said. "Sports to Nike means war without bullets. Take first place or don't take anything at all."
McDonald said Fila focuses more on emotions and feelings.
"It's not so much about kill your opponents. It's go out and enjoy yourself and learn something and have some fun," he said.
The outdoors and athletics are McDonald's passion, and that translates into his work. For example, his own experience with back-country skiing helped him when he worked on telemark ski boots designed with Black Diamond and Scarpa of Italy, the T2 and T3.
Even the name of his business evokes excitement. To skiers and snowboarders, a faceplant is a face-first tumble into the snow.
"If you don't faceplant once in a while, then you're probably not pushing yourself hard enough," McDonald said.
That attitude showed when Fila asked McDonald to design a shoe for pro basketball star Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons.
"I had watched Grant Hill play," McDonald said. "He's more of a suave, real stylish player, real quick."
McDonald said he decided to design a shoe that would be comfortable and free of gadgets and that would reflect Hill's style of play.
"So you could look at it and say, `This is Grant Hill,"' McDonald said.
He said he wants all of his shoe designs to meet the tests of both fashion and function, which he considers inseparable.
"We actually look at the character of the sport first, both the culture of the sport and what the (athlete) needs . . . ," he said. "If you don't understand why you're doing it, you won't have the spirit you're looking for."
Capturing that spirit is what drives McDonald to seek out eclectic sources for his ideas.
"I'd rather take inspiration from other fields," he said. "That's how you make the quantum leaps, by looking at the unexpected and things in nature."
McDonald said Faceplant did 50 different products last year, but he hopes to cut that back to about 10 per year in the future in order to keep quality high and avoid burnout.
And although he would not say how much Fila pays for one of his designs, he did say he does not want his company to get much bigger.
"I don't want to work inside the big corporation," McDonald said. "Here we concentrate on what we do best."