Sunday, January 27, 2008
Hatfield Be Thy Name
Who’s the real force behind Nike? Jordan? Woods? None of the above. Unless you’re a sneaker fanatic, you’ve probably never heard of Nike’s design Jedi, Tinker Hatfield.
Hatfield grew up in rural Oregon. “You either worked on the farms or participated in sports,” He says. “My dad was a coach. My mom was a coach. My sister married a coach and my brother was a coach. Sports were the center of our lives.” Although Hatfield excelled in Football and Basketball, it was his track spikes that earned Hatfield a scholarship to the University of Oregon.
Two years into the track program, Hatfield suffered a terrible leg injury. And For the first time, he faced the stark reality of not being a full-time athlete. Hatfield gave up track and immersed himself in the architecture program.
“I was already studying architecture but wasn't really passionate about it until I realized I was not going to be a professional athlete,” he says. “So I made the choice to explore design on a deeper, more committed level. I dug in.”
When Hatfield Graduated in 1981, Nike hired him as a corporate architect. He mostly designed Nike stores, office remodels and Nike’s extensive campus.
“I see architecture as a great combination of art and science and cultural experience,” Hatfield says. “I saw the spot at Nike as a way to get into an environment that offered options. It didn't hurt that my track coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, was also one of the Nike's founders.”
But Hatfield’s stint as an architect didn’t last long. Figuring Hatfield could draw, Nike’s marketing director asked Hatfield to design shoes. “I jumped at the chance,” he says. “Designing shoes was where the real action was.”
Hatfield’s first major assignment was on the Air Max 1; and his inspiration for the shoe came from an unexpected place: the Pompidou Center in Paris. He was intrigued by the building’s exposure of pipes, air ducts and walkways.
“It was amazing to see this building, spilling its guts out into the world.” Hatfield says. “It really inspired me, because it really shook the world of architecture.” From this experience, Hatfield suggested Nike expose the air system in the Air Max. This design allowed for a larger air system, which increased stability and comfort. Hatfield’s design did not go over well.
Nike insiders scoffed at the original design of the shoe, stating it was far too vulnerable to punctures. “We can’t sell a shoe with a hole in it. I doesn’t even look like a running shoe,” Nike’s head of Running told Hatfield. Hatfield faced an uphill battle.
But Hatfield stuck to his guns. He even pushed a radical vibrant inspired by the Popidou Center. Eventually, Nike signed off on the Air Max. The exposed air system design became Nike’s trademark. The company has grown from selling track shoes out of a van, to a global force to be reckoned with. Nike raked in 4.34 billion dollars in 2007—a lot of shoes.
Hatfield went on to design the coveted Air Jordan line. Hatfield designed the shoe with direct input from MJ. The designer watched Jordan’s playing style, noting the superstar’s movements and style.
“He moved like a cat,” says Hatfield. “He was lanky, but when he wanted to he had power and could just launch. So here at Nike we talked about him being like a black panther. That drove the shoe's design. It had a paw-like sole, black leather and ticking on the side that looked like a cat's fur.”
Hatfield encourages designers and others to expand their education and knowledge.
“The larger point here is to broaden your experiences,” he says. “If you're in design, take some business courses. If you're in business take a design course. Before you go to law school, travel around the world for a year. Take music lessons. Get on a bus or rent an RV.”
Hatfield now serves as a mentor and advisor to younger designers at Nike. He now understands the importance of helping others. "There's something pretty cool about getting to that point," Hatfield says. "We used to have a sign in my work group that said, 'Make yourself useful.'"
Hatfield's done pretty well at that.