We dropped by Jordan Brand’s momentous anniversary celebrations in Paris to learn about the process of design from two of the sneaker world’s most respected creatives.
2015 marks the 30-year anniversary of Jordan Brand. During the celebrations in Paris at the Palais 23 last weekend, Nike’s Vice President for Design and Special Projects, Tinker Hatfield, and Senior Creative Director of Innovation, Mark Smith, dropped some valuable knowledge about what it takes to be a designer, how to approach design and how to remain creative over the span of several decades. Check out the 10 most insightful pieces of advice below.
1. Develop something that works.
Mark: Everything obviously starts with performance – it has to work. That’s why working with Tinker and MJ really brings the opportunity to what I call “performance art,” to turn performance product into storytelling, like the outsole we did on this one and the Air Jordan 9. Being able to tell stories, I love telling stories; graphics that actually perform a function.
Tinker: We always like to talk about technology and performance but frankly it always starts with the athlete. And it’s an honest statement to say that Michael Jordan’s the greatest basketball player ever seen and the greatest athlete I’ve ever worked with…When we began the designing process, we thought about basketball and features of basketball shoes, and we ticked the boxes on the list to make a product that is the best out there.
2. Approach an idea with the mindset to create something better.
Tinker: The accolade “best out there” obviously just holds for one year. You finished the lap so to speak and you start from the beginning. It is the right foundation to always look back and immediately look ahead. Get better. Create something better. And honestly, Michael was the equivalent for that on the court. He looked back and found things that he wanted to improve on. It is the same mindset.
Mark: That’s my fuel to get better and design better products. And you also look at the market and you know that others are working hard as well to set the bar higher.
3. Let yourself get inspired by all kinds of objects and products.
Tinker: Coming from architecture, I can name the greats like Le Corbusier and his work. However, the biggest inspiration for me was Samuel Mockbee, an American architect from the Southern states. He developed homes out of nothing, using everyday material to build houses for underprivileged people. For some, these materials were trash. He used them to build something really unique. That is design at its best. Think outside the box.
4. Be inspired by the people that are part of your project.
Mark: This goes along with what Tinker just described. As an architect, you should be inspired by the people because they live in the building you create. When it comes to our field, we are obviously inspired by the athletes. Michael, with his energy and interest was, and still is, a massive inspiration for me. Same goes for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. So our advice is, put the people into perspective and try to create something that benefits them.
5. Newcomers with a different background: Don’t be afraid.
Tinker: Architecture is probably the largest pool of wisdom for any designer. You can look back at hundreds of years and find something that helps you. Coming from a different perspective, using different tools. I would even say, if you try to be an innovator, it is counterproductive to be a sneakerhead. If you want to improve a product, however, being a sneakerhead is good. Changing shapes of a model, experimenting with colors – which by the way Nike is doing very well.
But if you want to create something truly new, it is good to not be from the industry right off the bat. You are not stuck as a newcomer. It helps you to push a product.
6. Never be satisfied.
Mark: That goes in line with trying to create something better or even creating the best. I myself don’t have a favorite Air Jordan shoe to be honest. Once I finish a model, my mind is already locked in to what can be next. For me personally, it would be counterproductive to relax on a product and think “that is awesome.” I am never satisfied and that helps me to achieve new heights.
7. Be satisfied.
Tinker: You are like that Mark, it’s true. But from time to time, it is good to be satisfied with your work and what you put in to create it. Designers are a special breed. In nearly every product, there is a part of us in it. So, if you have a quiet moment to look at a creation and appreciate it, appreciate yourself, it will help you in the process of moving forward.
8. Be bold – try out crazy things.
Mark: The Air Jordan XX9 is actually the newest result of us being crazy and trying new things. We wanted to create the ultimate performance shoe. It created the weaving process. It had never been done before and it offered to build the lightest and best fitting product out of the box. And that gave us the opportunity to explore how we could actually get a product and it came out pretty well.
To underline my point, if you want to create something special, look outside the playing field. Approach an idea or material or process that hasn’t been used before. You can only learn from this.
Tinker: Same goes for the elephant print. We were looking at new structures and prints and together with Michael we miraculously found the elephant print and created a design that’s never been seen on a basketball shoe before. Just by looking at other areas outside our industry.
9. Be confident.
Tinker: Michael’s retirement was worldwide news, it was a big thing and most people at Nike thought that that was it with Air Jordans. Michael was moving on with his life. I was feeling – because I knew him so well – that he was just taking a break. So I kept working on Air Jordans even though he stopped basketball and wasn’t available for meetings, I just kept working on the Air Jordan 11 he wasn’t going ever to wear, even though the AJ 11 is the most iconic shoe of the entire line. And I remember meeting him in Birmingham, Alabama, in this Minor League Baseball stadium, in a locker room full of young guys snapping towels and goofing around, and I remember presenting MJ with this idea, which he’d actually initiated because he’d always wanted shiny shoes. Neither one of us knew what it meant but ultimately I guess I figured it out. I brought the design to him and we worked together on it after that to refine it.
I’m actually proud to say that some people wanted me fired, were mad that I was spending time and money working on the 11s, specially as it was such a weird and different shoe, it was a difficult time. But I had faith I needed to continue working on it and when the shoe got made and he won a championship with it, it was kinda fun to say “I told you so!” This long monologue is just a reminder that urges you as a designer, to always be confident at what you are doing.
10. Be a visionary.
Tinker: No matter if it is the design you are working on or the tools you are using – be a visionary. In 1996, Apple chose Mark and myself in their narrative for the 30-year anniversary of the company. They used 29 individuals to accentuate the importance of their products in various fields. Back then, we were the first one’s who designed shoes on an Apple computer. And I wasn’t even able to find the on/off-switch. But Mark’s approach to it helped me understand that this new way is so much better than just using a pencil for designing a shoe.
Mark: My background from graphic design has always helped me to try new stuff in technology and combine it with my work as a designer. Today, we are using iPads to sketch a design within minutes. And this approach is identical when it comes to our ideas for a new shoe.
Tinker: I should probably not tell you this but we are currently designing the Air Jordan 30, which is a little bit behind schedule. But it’s not our fault [laughs]. Anyway, we are aware of the plan, but we are not in marketing or sales. We just look at the product and instead of just saying “well, throw it out there,” we want the AJ 30 to be special, something that revolutionizes the industry once again. So, regardless of outside pressure, always be a visionary and stay loyal to your idea that could change everything.
Written by Robert Jerzy for Highsnobiety.com