Is good design really all that important? At the end of the day, isn’t what matters most the product itself? Wrong. Untrue. Design matters a lot more than you think it does. Thousands of companies each year are baffled when their cutting edge, groundbreaking project falls flat. They spend endless time working on technical issues, business models, and other things that are equally essential to the success of a new product. Their downfall is turning a blind eye to the importance of good design.
Nike almost died before it was born
The same down-fall almost happened to Nike about 30 years ago. The company understood it’s place in the market and the role it needed to fulfill. Nike was there to create running shoes that could give our athletes literal wings. But back then, there were tons of other companies doing the same exact thing. Many of these Nike competitors are still around today. You’ll recognize them in brands like Adidas, Reebok, and New Balance.
So how did Nike get their edge? What made the company successful and innovative? Brilliant design at the hands of a man named Tinker Hartfield. Tinker Hartfield is the current VP of Design and Special Projects at Nike, but his unconventional journey into the role is what makes this story great.
Botsociety was on the ground this past weekend at WIRED25, WIRED’s 25th anniversary and a celebration of innovation and technology. We sat front row for Tinker’s keynote. Here’s what we learned:
Tinker began his amazing career as an architect. He had the great ability to understand the way materials, color, and organization all came together. After studying furiously and attempting to pass a very hard exam, he’d done it. Tinker took his architectural degree and applied to be an architect with Nike. Now I know you’re probably asking… why on earth would Nike need to hire an architect? The answer is actually more in your face than you thought. Those beautiful storefronts that we’ve come to know and love didn’t just happen upon themselves. They were handcrafted by some of the greatest minds around. Minds like Tinker but as you’ll see as we continue he had a much larger purpose and role to fulfill for the company.
Tinker began working and everything was going as planned until Nike decided to have an internal design competition to find employees that could pitch ideas for new shoe designs. Tinker was playful and drew inspiration from the world around him. As a kid, he wanted to be a professional athlete even going so far as to aspire to the Olympic games. Tinker was made for this.
I was asked to participate in a 24-hour design contest at Nike. There were about 20 designers or so and I just worked all night and came in with this giant presentation board. The brief was to design an athletic shoe that could also be used in everyday life.
Tinker thought that brief was somewhat ambiguous. You can’t just go around wearing running shoes all day. Tinker decided to design a shoe that you could both run and walk in but particularly focused on the ability to comfortably ride a motor scooter. The company noticed and Tinker was immediately hired to be a shoe designer.
“I was told I was no longer the corporate architect. I’m like wait a minute, wait a minute, am I gonna get paid more? I remember the gentleman that was giving me this news, he said: “what are you making now?” I said I make like $1200 a month. He responded, “I think we can do a little better than that.”
At that moment, Tinker began his journey to become the best shoe designer of all-time. Tinker began to challenge the way the company was looking at shoe design. There was a very controversial factory in Paris that was interesting to Tinker. It had all of these weird pipes and air flows exposed and the factory was very colorful. Tinker drew inspiration for the original AirMax from this factory. Nike was placing airbags into their shoes for a better cushioning component.
Tinker thought that revealing that bag would be interesting for the consumer. It would provide the sensation that an athlete was literally walking on air.
I thought let’s make the bag a little bit wider, and make sure it’s stable. But then let’s go ahead and move part of the midsole so that you actually see it.
His initial design for the AirMax was also red. Something that Nike had never done before. Nike was creating running shoes that were black, gray and navy. After those designs came out, it was wildly discussed that Tinker had pushed it too far.
People were trying to get us fired, they were screaming “There is no way in the world that we could ever sell a shoe with an exposed airbag that looked fragile like you could puncture it.” The Air Max 1 took off and it was an amazing success story for not just Nike, but all of footwear design.
“I’m sure some of you have almost been fired for some of your best work. I run into this problem even today after some success in design.”
I was actually asked by a group of designers just a few months ago, well how do you ever get to the point where people in sales, marketing, and merchandising ever trust you as a designer? My response was immediate and emphatic and that response was that they will never trust you. And that’s still true today.
Tinker went on to revolutionize the Nike brand through breaking barriers and trying new things. One of the biggest moments of his career came when a young Michael Jordan threatened to leave the company after breaking his foot in a pair of Nike’s. Tinker worked aimlessly to redesign the Air Jordan so that this would never happen again.
He was to present the design to Michael, his parents, and Phil Knight and after waiting 4 hours for Michael to arrive, he was almost sure it was over. Nike CEO Phil Knight thought that this was a wrap for the company entirely. They had invested so much money into Michael Jordan and he was such a critical component of the brand. After four hours of waiting, Jordan came walking into the room and demanded to see what they had to show him. Tinker showed his new Air Jordan design and the rest was history.
Phil Knight told Tinker Hartfield that he saved Nike that day. Tinker went on to design Air Jordan 3 -15. Forbes reports that today, Nike has a brand value of $15.9 billion. The original Nike swoosh logo was designed by a Portland State University student named Carolyn Davidson for only $35. Later the company awarded Carolyn stock which amounts to $640,000 today. I feel comfortable in saying that the success of Nike lies completely in the arms of great design.
As we move into this new world of conversational design, what impact will you leave on the world? How will you challenge the brands you’re working for? What barriers will you push? A conversational shift is occurring, which side of history will you be on? With over 50,000 designers using Botsociety, we hope to be right here by your side to help. Together, we will work to design the future.