It's not everyday that you get the opportunity to sit in front of one of the world's most well-known and respected footwear designers. Nike's Vice President for Design & Special Projects, Tinker Hatfield, gave a talk at the Vancouver Design Thinkers conference on Wednesday afternoon, one inspirational talk that I'll never forget. I say I'm not a sneaker head but then I look in my closet and realize I own more than 50 pairs of sneakers, mostly made up of Nike and Converse.
For Hatfield, it was just like fate and almost like his life had been mapped out for him. His relationship with Nike dates way back to his college years when he attended the University of Oregon to study architecture. During his time there, he ran track for coach and Nike Co-Founder Bill Bowerman. He graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1977 and later joined the Nike team in 1981. It wasn't until 1985 that Hatfield realized he could apply his architecture skills to footwear design and so he joined the design team, making a major impact on the way sneakers are designed today.
It was after a visit to the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1987 that inspired Tinker to design the original Nike Air Max 1, his first project. I lived in Paris for a year and constantly overheard the Parisians talk about how disgustingly ugly this building is, so I was curious as to how it had inspired Tinker. He saw the beauty in this and designed one of the world's most popular shoe silhouettes.
A man who believes in taking risks and pushing boundaries, he told us that the building, which exposes all of the inner components on the outside, was his reasoning for exposing the air bags in the Nike Air Max. A perfect example of mixing architecture with footwear design. At this point, it was being widely discussed that Tinker had taken it too far and that there was no way in the world that Nike could sell a shoe with an exposed air bag.
It wasn't just the air bags that caused controversy, it was also his choice of color, a bold red in the mid 1980's. At that time athletic shoes were not considered stylish or fashionable, so using color in sneakers back then was unheard of. He insisted on the bright color in order to frame the shoe and draw your eye to certain components. Despite being told no again and again, Tinker pushed for it and didn't give up. The Nike Air Max is now one of the world's best selling shoes, Nike has sold billions of dollars worth since Tinker designed and brought them to market.
Another project Tinker is globally recognized for is the Air Jordan. Hatfield joined forces with internationally acclaimed basketball player Michael Jordan. Together they fueled the success of the Nike's Air Jordan sneakers, which were originally introduced in 1985 and still remain extremely popular today. Hatfield told us that at times Nike would push back and have issues with the design and the colors, he'd hand them his phone and tell them if they had a problem they could call Michael Jordan themselves. He said "If you feel confident in your own ability, go out and try, and try your best." He works with athletes on a regular basis, doodling creative designs on his iPad or iPhone while he's in the meeting and usually by the end, he'll turn his device around and show the athlete the finished product, usually leaving in shock that he's brought their vision to life so quickly.
It's fear that holds us back from doing what we truly want to do. Hatfield didn't have that fear, he wasn't scared of being fired, he didn't care. He pushed the boundaries, innovating beyond anyone's expectations. Tinker always went with his intuitions even while working on controversial projects. His mind isn't on the present, his mind is years from now, looking into the future. He encouraged us all to ignore anyone who may snub their nose at our ideas, our designs, our inventions, and told us to "#JustDoIt, do what you want, believe in it, whatever it is and just go for it."
Tinker spoke about how he structures his team and how when new product design is more complicated and more technical it takes more than one brain to do it, and "it's important that you get better at putting teams in one place and providing them with better direction."
For the E.A.R.L. shoe, Tinker started out his team with one young lady, a plastics engineer with a technical background. Tiffany Beers worked non stop and then started bringing other people on board. Soon after that they had a team of about 20 people. For those who aren't aware, E.A.R.L. is an acronym for Electro Adaptive Reactive Lacing. A collaboration effort between Tinker Hatfield and Senior Innovator Tiffany Beers to create a self-lacing shoe.
The idea was sparked back in 1988 when Tinker was asked to design some 21st Century sneakers for the movie Back to the Future. He storyboarded the scene in which Marty McFly first encounters the sneakers, he steps into them and reaches down to tie the laces and at that moment the sneakers come to life and automatically shape to his feet.
It was 11 years ago, when sensors became more robust and small enough that Hatfield started to think about putting E.A.R.L. into action. It wasn't long until the HyperAdapt shoes came to life, a sneaker containing a small computer, power source, and high tech motors that make it work. I literally need to get these on my feet and try them out ASAP, maybe in the future when they become less expensive and more accessible.
Wondering where the EARL name came from? Tinker Hatfield was inspired by the Pixar movie WALL-E. He liked the message of the movie, a love story between two robots. He drew the likeness of the shoe coming from that movie. If you look at EARL, you'll see Eve, the more modern and then you'll see Wall-E, the older more archaic robot lying in the bottom of the shoe. Quite fascinating how this came about.
Another thing Tinker said that really moved me was "You may not know where you're headed, but you're always headed somewhere. Just get out there and experience life. That gives you a library in your head and an opportunity to translate that into a unique new design. You have to look at the landscape of the world. Take a few risks, make a few assumptions, and just blend it altogether. That job does not go without its pitfalls but if people don't either love or hate your work, then you just haven't done that much."
It just so happened that I ended up at the Design Thinkers Conference at Hatfield's talk all by chance, I hadn't planned to be there. I think it was fate. Tinker inspired me to live my dreams regardless of who tries to push me back and tell me I'm not good enough. I am good enough, I am creative enough, and I've been inspired to take that to a whole new level. It may not be right away, but it's in my mind and I'm adding to it everyday. Thank you Tinker for changing my outlook, hope to see you again some time. This is part of an upcoming Nike series on Gas & Gander, stay tuned.