Nike’s shoe designer Tinker Hatfield talks fame after Abstract: The Art of Design, how not all designers should be disruptors and more

As part of Idealog’s coverage of Vivid Sydney, editor Elly Strang headed along to Semi-Permanent Sydney to soak in some creative inspiration from heavyweights in the creative fields. One of those was none other than Nike’s vice president of creative concepts, Tinker Hatfield. Here’s some key takeaways on design from the man himself.

Tinker Hatfield: the man, the myth, the legend. The legendary 66-year-old shoe designer has achieved notoriety over the years for his shoe designs that pushed the boundaries, such as the Air Jordan and the Nike Air Trainer. His work includes the majority of Michael Jordan’s signature basketball shoes.

His work was perhaps best encapsulated on Netflix Abstract: Art of Design series, where Hatfield details where his inspiration comes from (surfing, drawing and riding a Vespa or in VW kombi van are among his hobbies) and what drives him (wanting to be a disruptive designer).

As part of Semi-Permanent Sydney’s three-day event, Hatfield called in via livestream from the Nike World Headquarters campus in Oregon and was interviewed by friends and co-collaborators on the Abstract: Art of Design series, producers Scott Dadich and Patrick Godfrey.

Hatfield said since the series launched on Netflix in 2017, he has been stopped on the street in big cities and small towns, all through recognition from the episode.

“I never bargained for that kind of notoriety, but it’s actually been fun because it hasn’t been too invasive – it’s just at the right level,” he laughed.

While he said he couldn’t give anything away about the future designs, he said in terms of technology, the company is marrying performance products that help you do something with digital technology.

“It’s kind of like robotics, it’s amazing to see a robot run down the street and pick up a ball or throw it or catch it. We’re not using computers just to give us information or react to information, we’re actually relying on the computer to have the actability, some way to react to you like another person. In our case, it’s not a person or a robot – it’s a shoe.”

As well as this, he’s excited for products in the pipeline that will help people usually excluded by sneaker design, such as those with disabilities who can’t tie or put on shoes.

Here are some of the key points he made about his design processes below.

Your early design work may inform your future work one day

In 1988, Hatfield was asked to design what a shoe would look like in 2015 for the film Back To The Future 2, he didn’t think it would eventuate into a Nike shoe design decades later. He just thought shoes would actually come alive, recognise the user and mould to their foot. In other words, he predicted self-lacing shoes rather than the overtly futuristic suggestions tossed around, such as shoes that had hovering qualities.  

“I was forced many, many years ago to think about the modern era we’re in today,” he says.

“We didn’t do much with it because the technology really didn’t exist, but more recently – 10 or 11 years ago, we started to realise motors were getting smaller, sensors were becoming more sophisticated and it seemed to me that we could pull off designing products that would adapt to the shape of your foot or in other words, come alive.”

He says when Nike decided to create it, the company didn’t just want to recreate the shoes from the film – it wanted to take the idea and apart it to sports and performance, so the HyperAdapt shoes using E.A.R.L (Electro Adaptive Reactive Lacing) were born.

The shoes light up and make a sound as they turn on before shaping to the user’s foot. The first iterations of the shoes launched a year and a half ago, and Hatfield says the next E.A.R.L. shoe will be worn by NBA players.

“Performances will improve and careers can be extended because of this tech. That’s really exciting,” he says.

Risk taking is easier when you have an ‘idea sponsor’

One interesting nugget of information that didn’t make the final cut for the Abstract: Art of Design episode was that prior to Hatfield’s intervention, red wasn’t seen as a suitable colour for a sneaker.

He says in the mid-1980s, sneaker colours all tended to range from grey, white and black, but never red.

“Not only was it coming up with something unique and innovative like the Air Max, but I wanted to add one more explanation point, one more way to pump up the notion that this shoe was different and different for a reason: a very bright red frame.”

People want unique and different designs but they’re also afraid of it, Hatfield says, as they don’t always understand how things are going to turn out.

“I started paying attention to that phenomenon – when you go to design school, you get pulled out of that and learn a bit more about being a disrupter, as disruption usually leads to change and change can lead to something that’s better,” he says.

“It helps if you have somebody who has a little bit of a clout and can become a sponsor of sorts and help validate your idea, so other people can jump into going in the same direction.

“There are a lot of Air Jordans that would never have seen the light of day because they were so different compared to other basketball shoes, but one of the reasons they did see the light of day was Michael Jordan himself. He was not only a great collaborator, but a wonderful validator and that’s an important thing to understand as a designer.”

Designers come in different forms (and being disruptive isn’t for everybody)

Hatfield has described himself as a disruptive designer that tries to push the boundaries, but he also made the point that not every designer can be a disruptor in their category, nor should they be.

“I think if you’re a designer and you have a passion [such as sports], you may also have more personal insight and that might lead you down a path of being not only creative, but a futuristic problem solver,” he said.

“Then other people are more like refinement designers, where someone else came up with the big idea, a person that can get in and perfect and improve someone else’s idea. There’s a lot of different ways to be successful and to be personally satisfied with the career you’ve chosen.

“For me, I grew up around sports, played sports and I have a passion for that. In the end, it’s an educational process. I was able to apply what I learned in architecture school to sports. I encourage people to learn to design all kinds of stuff – not even things you’re interested in. Over the long haul, if you have a passion, have the skills and are ambitious, you can leverage all those things and blend them together.”

He says in order to be a disruptive designer, people need to have a thick skin because people can be quite critical of your work.

“For those who do think of themselves as a little bit of half a bubble off centre, trying to move the needle more than a little, it can be an extremely rewarding, if not rocky, ride. I’ve been fortunate to have a few successes with disruptive products and I’m going to try do it until they kick me out of here.”

Elly Strang travelled to Vivid Sydney courtesy of Tourism New South Wales. 

This story originally appeared on Idealog. 

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