How Nike Designs for an N.B.A. Athlete
This season Nike has teamed up with the N.B.A. to reimagine the league’s uniforms. We take you inside its research lab, where data helps designers understand how athletes like LeBron James move during a game.
In the latest installment of this series that goes inside the private working worlds of designers, John Hoke, the chief design officer of Nike, discusses his dyslexia made him look at the world differently, why he doodles and how he manages 1,000 designers. The interview has been edited and condensed.
What was your earliest experience with Nike?
As a kid in the ’70s, I was a runner and I became a pretty decent athlete. I was running in the Nike waffle trainer shoe, which was my go-to. When I was done with that shoe, I would literally cut it in half and look at the two sections and obsess about how it was made.
One summer, I was floating in the pool on a raft and thinking, If you take a raft and you shrink it, and you put it on your foot, would that help cushion the rear-to-forefoot-transition blow of running? I began to sort of doodle and draw this. I sent — at the time, the president Phil Knight — a letter. Lo and behold, he sent me a letter back. Effectively: “Hey, when you get old enough, could you come work for me? Here’s a free pair of shoes and a T-shirt.”
You have a lot of loose bits of paper and sketches in this office. What do you like to draw?
Sneakers, quick body sketches, architectural retail spaces. I’m dyslexic, so my first real language was drawing. Even at the youngest age I can recall, I wasn’t necessarily interested in the essay or the text, I was graphically designing the header. I doodled everything. That was the way I communicated.
I find that I listen better when my hand is busy. And I find that when I’m listening intently and I’m gesturally moving my pen, some interesting things come out. They’re not perfect, they’re not final, but they’re a glimpse of an idea. It helps me process, helps me stay focused. I came to this idea that my dyslexia wasn’t actually a burden — it was a gift because it made me look at the world differently.
How is your job different from that of a designer at a fashion company?
I am in charge of, and help lead, inspire, direct and orchestrate over 1,000 creative designers at Nike. It’s not a line by me for everybody. It’s a shared vision that I have with lots of people. I like to think we’re more of a Bauhaus. We have a clear point of view, it’s distributed to parts of our design world, and we all pursue a common aesthetic.
What is your role in the design process?
With me, it starts up front with my heads of footwear and apparel design, Andy Caine and Kurt Parker. We announce the season, we announce a clear creative direction. And that creative direction is imparted to all 1,000 people with toolboxes and events.
Then I catch up with rough sketches. From there we move into three-dimensional models and design review. We really scrutinize. Is this product right for the marketplace, the price point, the kit, the region and distribution that it’s going to? Then we have a couple rounds of iterations and we see the final samples, which include all the details, all the color, and we get final signoff.
Do egos ever get in the way?
Whenever you deal in the designer creative arts, you are dealing in the realm of ego. Of course egos play a role because we’re passionate and we’re dedicated to seeing our work come to life. I think for the most part our egos get set aside for the greater good.
Are you ever at your desk?
I sit at my desk occasionally, but mostly I’m up and out. We have a handful of studios, and so I spend a lot of time walking, biking, cruising around trying to engage and interact with our creative group.
What is this car model you have here on your shelf?
The car is a Porsche 356 Speedster Cabriolet, one of my all-time favorite cars because the form never changed over multiple decades, but the performance just kept getting better and better and better. And I think it’s a gorgeous model, and I love the shape and I love the stance of the car and I love the details. To me, it just looks like it’s fast, it’s beautiful, it’s luxurious.
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What do you see in Nike’s future in terms of design?
I’m intrigued by designers that go deeper and go almost to the level of the atom, where we’re co-creating with data. I’m thinking about materiality and assembly, where products are moving more harmoniously, more symbiotically on your body so that it’s almost like a secondary skin.
I’m really intrigued by how technology can give us a great head-start. But a head-start is a rough draft. We know data can’t dream. That’s where designers come in. The job of the designer tomorrow is to take that head-start, take that information and then imbue on top of that their intellect, their imagination, their heart and their hand.
What’s an example of your designers running with their imagination?
Our creative community decided to print out three-dimensional prints of grass, and then they duct-taped them to their feet and ran on the street. So we just said, “What if you actually married real grass or fake grass to the bottom of your shoe?” It’s not a real shoe, but it’s a sort of wonder experiment about where we can take cushioning, and how we can give that unique underfoot feel and sensation of running on grass, even in the concrete canyon.
How has new technology affected products that already exist, like the Hyperdunk sneaker?
Some things that we’ve designed were just ahead of their times, that we just couldn’t get to, either materially or construction-wise. And now, with new technologies, new construction, we can actually get to it.
Five seasons ago, the Hyperdunk didn’t have the best in-shoe feel, it didn’t have the best traction. The upper really didn’t lock you down perfectly onto the platform. Between then and now, we’ve improved. We have new ways of creating that wiper effect that creates an even stickier traction on the court. We’ve got new upper materials and new ways to sit into the actual platform that really lock the athlete. So the athlete has better contact with the floor and, I think, can therefore move quicker and pivot side to side and front to back in even better ways.
What is that woven, wooden shoe you have sitting on your shelf?
It’s a Yugoslavian dance shoe. It’s made out of birch bark. Hopefully when it’s done, it goes back to the earth. Zero waste. So I just use that as a way of thinking about using form and shape and being responsive to the planet around us. How can we take things that we might not think about as shoe materials and bring them in to create new forms and new ideas?
Source: New York Times – Art and Design