Innovation and design lie at the heart of the footwear and fashion industries. They are intrinsically linked. Two peas in a pod, presenting somewhat of a chicken and egg conundrum. What comes first? What is more important?
According to Nike’s chief design officer, John Hoke, they go hand in hand, and it’s impossible to choose one over the other. “Innovation is paramount in our design solutions, without a doubt,” he stresses. “But no one wants ugly utility. Nobody wants ugly function.” The two work together, just as designers work with a talented and diverse team of material, color, and technology experts.
To Hoke, innovative design lies at the core of Nike’s existence. “Everything we've always done is to listen to what athletes need from us and help lift them to their highest potential,” he explains. “Nike uses design parameters and innovative thinking to progress sports forward at the most elite leve. For Olympians, but also to progress sports forward for the everyday athlete.”
Hoke is referring to Nike’s “Everybody Is An Athlete” mantra, which places Joe Shmoe on the same (theoretical) pedestal as someone like LeBron James. Nike's Innovation Kitchen exists to give elite-level athletes an edge during performance — no matter how infinitesimal — as well as elevating the average person’s daily experience, regardless of their profession.
The age-old adage of “form follows function,” Hoke's mantra when he went to design school, still rings true for him today, albeit with a minor tweak. “I think form and function follow footprint, which is another parameter that our designers have, where utility and beauty must now work through and respond to responsibility and sustainability.”
Nike has put a large emphasis on Move To Zero, which is the company’s attempt at reducing its carbon footprint. Design and innovation play a large role in that quest, which is still in its early stages. Hitherto, MTZ has given us Space Hippie, a collection that married hype with sustainable design and brought innovative new materials and functional innovations to the market — or at least presented existing technologies in a new light.
Hoke explains that three pillars — design, innovation, and corporate responsibility — will lie at the core of all of Nike’s products, regardless of its target audience or intended purpose. Nike designs different types of products with different types of people in mind. There are the elite athletes, the everyday athletes, and what he consistently refers to as “city athletes,” or those that are more concerned with lifestyle products and casual sportswear.
When peering in from the outside, it’s easy to imagine vast differences in the way teams design and innovate for lifestyle versus performance. You would be surprised. Hoke explains that the procedural work, the mindset, and the processes remain largely the same. “The difference is the situation we find ourselves in," he explains. "If you’re designing and innovating for a 100-meter sprint athlete, that situation requires a tool for 100 meters. That situation demands innovation, but it changes the application of that innovation and changes the way the team ultimately packages it.”
All of the classic lifestyle sneakers of today got their start as a performance product. That isn’t the case anymore. Nike’s ISPA or the ongoing partnership with MMW is the perfect example, wherein a lifestyle product features technology or design aspects that haven’t been used (or at least aren’t standard) in performance products.
“You couldn’t take an ISPA shoe and run a marathon with it. But there are technologies in the cupboard that are really appropriate to everyday comfort, warmth, and water protection,” says Hoke. “I think the job is to pick the technology platform that best suits the activity need in front of us.”
If design and innovation operates on a spectrum that ranges from one situation to the next, and lifestyle and performance are simultaneously distinct and fluid, deciding what and where to innovate can seem like a daunting task. Part of Hoke’s responsibilities as the chief design officer is to steer Nike in the right direction and decide on an overarching strategy.
To do that successfully, Hoke believes a multi-faceted approach is best. It all starts with identifying a problem, creating a brief, and giving the design teams the right tools to come up with a solution.
“Part of the designer's job is to think about the brief as a launching pad to the solution and push and pull on the parameters of that brief, but then really break into the act of design,” Hoke explains.
The designer’s intuition and free, creative thinking are paramount to figuring out what the right solution to the problem is. But they need help, so Nike, as all great sportswear companies do, invests in data, which helps lay the groundwork and inform certain decisions.
“We know data can’t dream,” Hoke smiles. “But we know designers can dream. Designers possess an imagination, and designers look forward, not back. So [we try to create] this unique cocktail of what works, what do [designers] need, and then what don't they know about yet and where might we take them [with data].”
It's clear design and innovation are hugely important to how Nike — or any sportswear company — operates. But innovation doesn’t always ensure a home run, nor become standard as soon as they hit the market. Sometimes they do — and Hoke points out the Nike GO FlyEase as an example — but often it can take a while for something to catch on.
Just like a runner wants to get to the finish line quicker, Nike wants to remain at the top of its game for as long as possible. Innovation and design are why Nike exists, and what they hope will keep them at the top.