Design Insight | The Architect | Part 2
You mentioned the Hurache and a few other projects. One of things I’ve enjoyed about you and that I think has become challenging now because there is a shoe for everything is that you actually created product. You created Cross-Training, you had your hands all over Free, you created the Hurache and then those have been passed into other designer’s hands and have become categories within themselves. How do you feel that those categories that you created or helped create have evolved?
That is a really difficult question to answer. I don’t want to make it seem like they haven’t done well or have done well one way or the other. It seems to me thought that part of what I feel like has been my job over the years is to work as a micro and macro level and some people can do that and some people can’t and for me it seemed to be fairly easy to sit down and look at bigger trends and strategize at a different level, so to speak at the 30,000 foot level. So when I have done that and then you share that idea with someone else you are actually asking basically for people to join your cause in a sense. You are also then giving away your ideas so that others can riff off of that.
One of my favorite stories is actually tennis. If you go back to the John McEnroe days, tennis had a few interesting products around John McEnroe but they weren’t even really tennis shoes. He was jumping around wearing different shoes all the time; he was even wearing a Cross-Trainer for a while in the original Air Trainer. But tennis didn’t really take off for us until Andre Agassi came along and it was all about taking a look at Nike and deciding that Nike was not a traditional tennis company and that we were never really going to beat anybody by trying to do traditional stuff. So the bigger idea was to create a tennis line around the anti-country club/anti-establishment approach and Andre happened to come along at the right time to represent that for us. That was completely something that I thought up and worked on and I did develop and design some product around but to me it was really an opportunity to sort of hand the cross to a bunch of other people and a new way to think about a sport and I was really happy to be able to initiate that and then actually step away and watch it take off and grow and see other people finally sort of the see the light so to speak and go ahead and design other items that were not traditional for tennis and it worked and worked for quite awhile. I think tennis itself as a sport lost a little bit of momentum and it became more and more difficult for us to put a lot of resources towards tennis but I feel a little special now that I’m older I feel like what will probably be the biggest contribution to Nike when I finally retire won’t be having designed anything in particular but will have been establishing a philosophy around design and then helping others find their own route to success.
Those things I look at whether it is Cross-Training; which is a category that didn’t exist before we looked at its versatility and there is other things like that such as ACG I sort of helped start that and definitely the whole Air Jordan Brand was my idea and I’m really proud of that one because again there were lots of Nike people who didn’t want to take the swoosh off of any Jordan product because they were very protective of it. I said no I think that we can grow the business and grow our overall share of the business if we have a two-pronged attack. One prong is the Nike with the swoosh with its own design philosophy and the other prong is going to be the Jordan approach. Which is more sophisticated, classy but with a twist approach.
You touched on quite a few questions that I want to lead into right there. I thought that was a great answer by the way. I guess one of them is you mentioned how you work with other people and your sharing this idea, one thing that I have always enjoyed not only as a student of design but even so far as a young professional designer is over lunch or just talking with somebody you get this feel of a collaboration, I love unplanned collaborations because I believe that the best ideas come from random conversations and not planned meetings, are there any instances that you felt like that was important?
I am huge advocate of mixing it up with people, listening and collaborating. There are times when you have to say to yourself, “I need to go away and complete this project.” But most often what really happens is that an idea can come from any place and it takes a few folks to throw their ideas together to make it whole. I think that most of us that have been around for a while know that you can’t design a toothpick without some collaboration. I think that the more complex projects get which by the way I am deeply involved in marketing and use to be quite involved in advertising, all of that has to sort of come together pretty well for products to be successful and it’s so collaborative it is kind of an unplanned process most of the time. You do have people who will put the matrix up on the wall and they talk about these people need to be involved in one and another group this way. But what I find is that I am always out on the streets talking to people, I am talking to athletes all the time; I am really comfortable with athletes and then just conversations lead to collaborative thought. So that’s really unplanned and often times that really sparks the best stuff. I am big on that, I like that a lot and I like for people to feel empowered and invested in an idea so that they feel and rightfully so are involved in the original idea so that everybody works a little bit harder. I never thought of myself as an oh let’s say an Alexander McQueen type or something like that who probably has some vision and as creative as it might be and probably thought most of it up himself but then has a team of people that just go out and execute it. I never really thought of myself that way. I try to give credit to a lot of different people when I can.
From the outside looking in, I think there is a good example in that in your relationship with Mark Smith. After reading about his graphic work on the Jordan IX and on many other products such as the Jordan XX3; I think it is the perfect example of successful collaboration, right?
I’m so glad you brought up his name because I was actually just in a meeting with him and he is currently and has been for the last three years is the Creative Director for the Jordan Brand. Before that I really collaborated with him during this past three years on a lot of projects, but before that if you go back to the Jordan IX and several since that point. He was extremely influential in the final outcome of the products. We had a great time traveling together and visiting MJ together and it became a little bit more fun and interesting to have his creative influence because he does come from more of a graphic design background.
You can tell that. You can see that completely in his laser work and his logo play. You can see that 100%, especially in the Jordan XX and XX3.
Absolutely! That is what made the collaboration work as well as it did. You had MJ in one corner, me in another corner and Mark Smith representing the third leg of the stool if you will. Everything was complementary. I felt like there for a while it was really fun, provocative and productive period of design, I love that. I am hoping to actually increase the number of projects that I do with Mark Smith in the future, I kind of miss some of that.
You seem to be what I would consider the designer’s designer. You have literally been a graphic designer, an architect, a footwear designer, an illustrator and so on. As a designer today, what gives you the greatest thrill?
I feel like I’m a natural born teacher. I come from a family of teachers and coaches and my greatest thrill quite frankly and I feel like this is a very honest approach, I feel like what I am really best at is passing along what I know, kind of communicating a process and also a philosophy, I do that a lot now. I speak, I do quite bit of public speaking, I am not a polished public speaker; but I tell a lot of stories that are interesting to myself and to others. It does kind of transcend disciplines and becomes useful story telling and information-transfer for all kinds of designers. I think when I finish with a good performance if you will, you know in that regard I think that thrills me more than anything. I don’t think that it is easy, I think it’s difficult for people to believe so I feel like that kind of gives me the biggest thrill because I’m always like oh boy I don’t know if these people are always going to like what I have to say or if they’re going to believe it or if they’re going to respect it. When it works out well I just always feel good about that.
It sounds like you love being challenged. It is very similar to the first question I asked you, when I asked you what gives you the most satisfaction and you said you like the projects that no one really believes in. It is kind of on that same level where people might not be as confident in what you are doing and you kind of prove them wrong.
Some people around here call me a provocateur and I accept that label with pride because you kind have to have a certain personality to be unafraid to go against the grain a bit. You, as a designer, and now in two or three different disciplines and different businesses you probably have all kinds of stories to tell about that process of not being quite sure people are going to along with your plan. Then when you find a way to convince them and sometimes it’s just the quality of the work that convinces people, it’s a really gratifying and difficult. We have about 600 designers here at Nike and not are all footwear designers about 100 of them are; but none the less we have 600 designers here and I talk to quite few on a daily basis and one of their biggest frustrations and one of the biggest questions about how to be successful is the ability to convince people that your idea is a good one. Your ability to, in a sense, help other people feel invested in your idea and they start to adopt it as their idea; there’s a real art to that. There is a trick to that and I think it’s fun. It is challenging and that sometimes people are very, very difficult. You kind of have to enjoy it a little bit or I think it would be really difficult to have a good time, especially in a bigger company that’s got politics.