For Nike, the elements of creativity, function and genius come together in the person of Tinker Hatfield, the brand’s creative guru who worked on the iconic Air Jordan line of sneakers.
The designer talked about his career at the footwear and lifestyle brand on Saturday at Wired25, the technology and digital culture publication’s 25th anniversary celebration in San Francisco. Notably, he took the stage wearing the latest pre-release Air Jordans.
Hatfield’s ethos, which blends innovative problem-solving with a hint of whimsy, is apparent in the new footwear’s fundamental concept: It’s a running shoe for people who don’t like to run.
“[Think of] an American football player,” he told former Wired editor in chief Scott Dadich. “Even if you weigh 240 pounds and you’re a linebacker, you still have to go out and run during some of your training. You’re not going to run that fast because you don’t like it. You’re big and powerful, so running is a laborious thing.”
A former athlete who once dreamed of becoming an architect, Hatfield understands the mechanics of athletic performance. He noted that fast runners tend to land on the forefoot, but slow runners typically land on the heel. So the sneakers feature rear fins and nylon latticework in the rear quarter for support and extra stability.
He still considers it a speed shoe that can ably handle “quick-cutting,” but it “works better as you run a little bit slower, in terms of training,” he said.
With the design and development finished, the sneakers are ready to take another step toward the market. At this point, Nike has shown the shoe off to its sales teams and retailers.
Hatfield’s left-of-center, yet pragmatic thinking has led to some strokes of genius. For instance, the self-styled “thought provoker” was the mastermind who decided to make Nike’s signature air pocket in the sole a stand-out feature.
“I’m not really a designer — I’m a storyteller thinking of how to make better shoes,” he explained. “It was exposed and became part of the story, and it was more understandable and recognizable. It seemed natural to me to do stuff like that.”
Long before Colin Kaepernick graced Nike ads, there was another athlete that became practically synonymous with the brand: Michael Jordan. And Hatfield’s work on the Air Jordan 3 helped save the company’s key relationship with the basketball legend.
After sustaining an injury while wearing a Nike shoe, Jordan was ready to break off the relationship, he explained. Then he checked out Hatfield’s prototype and decided to stay. Years later, the designer learned that Jordan’s father urged his famous son to stick with the brand.
The look back at the past and the glimpse of what’s on tap now naturally segued into a discussion about the future. And the vision smacks of Marty McFly’s famous self-lacing “Back to the Future” sneakers.
Hatfield co-created the fictional shoes for the movie, and Nike made them real as the battery-powered HyperAdapt. Now, he’s going back to that notion. The designer sees the future in adaptive footwear that can recognize the wearer and conform on demand to his or her needs.
Such technology would be transformative for people with health issues who lack finger dexterity, he said. But, since sports is fundamental to Nike’s DNA, he can’t help but see how they could solve critical problems for athletes.
Basketball, football and other players tend to tie their shoes snugly, but after years of that, “their feet are ruined,” Hatfield said. “They wear their shoes too tight. The blood can’t really flow to the right places. Their toes get misshapen. It’s a problem. And people who have foot problems can’t perform as well and their careers are shortened.
“What if, when you’re not moving, it loosens and allows blood to flow?” he mused. Sensors, a small motor and some cabling could reshape the shoes according to the sport and the particular foot, and then loosen during time-outs or halftime.
“For really hardcore sports, adaptability in smart shoes will be a really big effort on our part and our planning,” he added. “We intend to make this a big deal.”