Tinker Hatfield, recipient of the Product Design award

Before accepting the 2019 National Designer Award winner for Product Design from Spike Lee, Nike Inc.’s vice president of creative concepts Tinker Hatfield spoke with WWD about the power of design, Nike’s view of the NBA-China controversy, cofounder Phil Knight’s involvement with the company and rumblings of c-suite succession plans. Like many guests at the 20th annual Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum gala, Hatfield expressed his own personal flair — wearing a hat, plaid tweed blazer and peach-colored shirt.

A company man of 38 years, Hatfield was Nike’s corporate architect for the first five years before switching to product design. His name may not resonate with Milllennials, but the various incarnations of Air Jordans and Air Max sneakers that he has designed over the years resonate with many. In the innovation group that Hatfield heads, 200 people may work on any one sneaker project and once in the factory prototype phase hundreds and hundreds of workers are involved. Despite speaking as more of a we-guy than an all-about-me-guy, the amicable executive is one reason Nike is now a $36.4 billion brand. Overseeing one of Nike’s more forward-thinking design teams, Hatfield is energized as ever by the undiscovered.

WWD: How do you think Nike handles bringing design to the masses?

Tinker Hatfield: I was just speaking with someone about the whole evolution of sneaker design and certainly we do athletic apparel. But we always felt that we were never quite appreciated at the most sophisticated level of design. Yet there is a lot of technology and we are trying to do things that not only work well for our athletes, that in some cases help people perform better. We try to do a beautiful job and interesting work. But I’m not so sure we collectively felt like it was appreciated for quite some time. This is a really nice event because it does show that people have been paying attention. We are highly honored to be involved in this. I use the word “we” because it is such a collaborative effort to do these things, which are way more technical and complicated than people realize.

What about the company’s succession plan? We keep hearing rumblings of succession for Nike’s chief executive officer Mark Parker?

T.H.: First of all, I think any smart company needs to be planning for succession in a smart, logical and helpful way to preserve not only what we have but to do even better. So the succession planning is just something that we naturally do.

WWD: Will it be someone in-house?

T.H.: [Laughs] I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t because we only talk about that process in the abstract. It’s not like we have identified all of the right people who should be taking the reins and moving forward. We have had some big changes and shake-ups in our upper-level management anyway over the last couple of years. But the people on the creative side as well as Mark Parker at the very top, we’re still kind of hanging in there. We both feel that there is unfinished business so we haven’t identified anybody to replace ourselves.

WWD: Will the company take a stand on the NBA-China controversy?

T.H.: From a political correctness perspective, it’s a real tricky thing besides what happened with the NBA.

WWD: Isn’t Nike the league’s sponsor?

T.H.: We are a sponsor for the league. I’m not quite sure how to answer that because of the sensitivity that exists from all of these different camps in the world. It’s like you can’t hardly say anything without people becoming upset for what I would consider no good reason. So I’m going to have to decline on that because one of my comms people would probably strangle me if I said anything.

WWD: Can we expect an opinion or statement of some kind from the company?

T.H.: Oh yeah, Mark Parker is working on that right now with a bunch of folks and myself. I’m one of the chief strategists. We want to be thoughtful. But we are absolutely proponents of everything from equal opportunity to free speech. Nike is very much a champion of that but how that manifests…

WWD: But when Daryl [Morey] spoke out, everyone really came down on him and then he deleted the Tweet.

T.H.: They did. That is the problem of today’s fractured world. If I have a personal opinion — of course we all have personal opinions — I have to also be careful about what my words mean because I’m also a spokesman for the company.

WWD: But the company’s whole marketing campaign is kind of built on free speech right now with [social justice activist] Colin Kaepernick.

T.H.: I think you’re right. We’ve seen perfect examples of us taking some risk as it pertains to certain groups.

WWD: Why is the company silent now then regarding China?

T.H.: It’s just taking us some time for us to craft together a perfectly worded opinion from a corporate perspective. Most of us have to be in agreement.

WWD: What about the gender discrimination controversy with female employees at Nike last year?

T.H.: The controversy, as in almost every company, has been a long time coming because women have literally not had the same opportunities. We are very pro-equal opportunity for everyone. We can talk about all of the various LBGTQ stuff, as well as other people who have been, maybe you could say discriminated against right up until today.

WWD: I mean the female employees, who felt that they were discriminated against at Nike. [Claims of a culture of sexual harassment and gender bias led to lawsuits and multiple senior executive departures including former Nike brand president Trevor Edwards. He subsequently challenged the accusations.]

T.H.: Absolutely. It’s a big place. Personally, I’m not in h.r. so I don’t know about all of the unique and/or difficult situations that have occurred around. But I can tell you in my own group, the Advanced Innovation Team, we are very pro equal opportunity. In particular, we are finding now just by being a little bit more encouraging, we’re finding out there are indeed women who are extremely, extremely brilliant about the things we didn’t realize, which is engineering and manufacturing and not just design, all of the nuts and bolts that women are participating in in that level.

WWD: Is that a result of the upheaval that was caused after the female employees spoke out?

T.H.: I think we were already working on it. Sometimes for the world to be made aware something big in the media [has to] happen.

WWD: Do you mean that the #MeToo movement spurred a discovery of this talent?

T.H.: I don’t think #MeToo had anything to do with it. I think there were some women who felt they were discriminated against and after some scrutiny through our process, some of that was found to be true. So some people were let go, and some of those women left. Again, since I’m not in h.r. I don’t know all of the specifics. In my group, we don’t seem to have that problem because we may be a little bit more progressive. I think you would find that within the design world in particular a more creative, problem-solving group of people. It’s a much more progressive group to be in with so we have always been a little ahead of the curve.

WWD: Do you see Phil Knight?

T.H.: I do. I am probably one of the few people who actually talks to him on a regular basis [laughs.] He’s great. It’s incredible what he’s done with his generosity. He’s just a cool guy. I give him a hard time.…He gives me a hard time sort of like one-upmanship in a funny way. We have fun. I tell him, “Geez, you’ve been working for all these years and I hardly ever see you. Yet, you keep getting richer and more famous. How does that work?” He says, “It’s a great system, isn’t it?” Then he’ll say to me, “Well, you’ve been working here for a long time and I don’t see you either so what the heck are you up to?” I will say, “You may not see me because probably you’re not here. If you are here, and I’m not, it’s usually because I’m at a studio or traveling to do work in other places.” We just have a lot of fun going back and forth. That is part of the fun having been around for such a long time. He’s comfortable with me and I’m comfortable with him so we can joke around a bit.

WWD: What’s Phil’s involvement with the company at this point?

T.H.: He is still very interested in how we work with athletes. He is still trying to, I wouldn’t say oversee, but try to pay attention as best he can to some of the bigger issues. He will weigh in on personnel issues at the top. Mark Parker is the lead decision maker. But Phil will sometimes have an opinion and Mark will go and talk to him. It’s good.

WWD: Is he weighing in on succession, the China controversy and the sexual discrimination cases?

T.H.: He does and is in his own way very proactive in encouraging us to think more progressively as well. He’s great. But he doesn’t want to step on Mark’s toes. It’s really cool how he himself is comfortable with his own succession planning. The way I look at that is how do things succeed after you are there — the building of even better teams in the future. He doesn’t know about the designers and the creative people who have to do the day-to-day work. He’s more interested in the bigger decision makers and who those people are bringing in. So he wants to weigh in on that succession. Of course, that has a lot to do with the policies that we have. I’m proud to be a part of Nike. We’re not perfect but we’re generally a good bunch of people.

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