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Inspirational Designers – The man behind Nike Air Jordan’s

June 28, 2017

As a designer, we tend to have our tried and tested places to find inspiration. Those little places, whether it be a physical space or a page on the net, which will assist us in finding that spark, that idea. I tend to look at other fields of design for inspiration, architecture, fashion or automotive design. Places were the process is different and has a differing audience need.

I also have a few heroes whose work has and will always inspire me. Every designer has a few absolute heroes. Those people who actually inspire and talk to us on different level. Tinker Hatfield is one such hero for me. Tinker has had such an awe-inspiring career with Nike and is responsible for shaping of one of the most iconic brands in the world.

Tinker was a promising athlete at the University or Oregan working under Bill Bowerman. As a coach, Bowerman was interested in designing better footwear for his athletes to help increase performance and would regularly experiment having his designs trailed by his team. When Tinker landed awkwardly whilst competing he tore his ligaments and struggled to find fitness for the next 3 years, Bowerman designed him a shoe that had a slightly raised heel to compensate for Tinker’s slight limp. Inspired, Tinker then began to work with Bowerman in designing track spikes and new shoe designs to enhance the performance of the Oregan athletes.

Bowerman went on to be one-half of the founders of Nike.

Nike Air Max

After his promising sporting career was seemingly over, Tinker set out on a promising career in architecture and realised he was actually great at drawing. Bowerman soon got back in touch with Tinker asking him to pitch concepts for a new direction for Nike, as Nike were struggling with Reebok overtaking them in terms of both sales and customer appeal.

Tinker grabbed this opportunity and refused to play it safe. He presented a wonderfully disruptive concept that instantly landed him the Senior Designer of footwear at Nike. Other creatives had pitched but had played it safe. Stayed to close to what Nike were producing at the time. Tinker used influences from sports cars, graffiti and other areas of design that had never been considered.

His first brief was to design the first Nike Air Max. Tinker took inspiration from a different field, architecture and more specifically the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a building that was designed with the workings on the outside and painted in garish colours in order to annoy the establishment. At the time Nike we inserting air pockets into the sole of their shoes. Tinker took the inspiration of the Pompidou and questioned if Nike could take the same route. Show the functionality, the hardware. He, against the advice of many of the team at Nike, decided to showcase the technology and expose the bubble in the heel. The Air Max quickly became one of the most iconic shoe designs and turned around the fortunes of Nike. By looking at a different discipline of design Tinker was to produce something that simply would not have existed otherwise.

The Jordan Pitch

Tinker was then tasked with keeping Michael Jordon at Nike. Jordan was on the brink of leaving and had agreed to one final meeting. He was unhappy with the shoes Nike had produced that season. They were heavy, the leather was hard and uncompromising, and the shoes didn’t represent Jordan’s personality. Jordan was being courted by a number other major sporting brands. Tinker had listened to what Jordan wanted from his next shoes, taken into account the client’s wants and needs. He produced a series of illustrations that showed the aesthetics and specification of the new boot. He ran Jordan through the illustrations showing him the mid cut boot, explained the use of the elephant print which represented Jordan’s personality and the fact they would use the softest leather so the boot felt court-ready from the first time they were tried on. Tinker had been told that Jordan struggled to fully grasp concept sketches so had arranged for the shoe to be made for the meeting, he unveiled the shoe to Jordan right there and then. A few seconds after he had revealed the shoe, models walked in the room wearing a full range of Air Jordan apparel. Hatfield refers to the apparel reveal as  ‘the exclamation mark’ of the presentation.  Jordan was sold.

There is so much to learn from the execution of the Jordan pitch. Know your client, understand what will excite and engage them as well as their audience, and go beyond their expectations for a full buy-in.

Back To The Future 2

Hatfield is also responsible for one of the most iconic pieces of footwear in cinematic history. In 1989 the makers of Back to the Future 2 approached Nike to produce a shoe fit for 2015. Tinker was tasked with designing a shoe that was for a whole different century. He wanted to design a shoe that wasn’t a cliché, that wasn’t a gimmick or a joke.

He designed a self-lacing shoe. ‘A shoe that shaped to your feet, it’s your shoe, she knows you’.  The shoe became an iconic part of the Back to the Future series and set Nike on the path of designing the E.A.R.L. system (electro, adaptive, reactive lacing). A very early model for ‘The Internet of Things’ products that learn and engage with the user in a totally personal way. This thinking was way beyond anything seen in technology at the time.

In the film, Michael J Fox goes forward in time to the date 21st Oct 2015 and as a wonderful finale to the design process, on the 21st of October 2015, Michael J Fox received a fully functioning pair of the self-lacing trainers from Nike.

My love of Tinker’s work and the process he goes through is because he always goes big, he always looks to shake things up. When starting out in the design process I often ask ‘What would Tinker do?’

I will leave it for him to explain why I love how he works. He will do a better job than me.

‘If you stay in the comfort of your studio and try to dream up new creative. It’s not a great foundation for idea generation, just get out there and experience life. That gives you a library in your head to then translate that into unique design work. Take a few risks, make a few assumptions’.





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