We recently had the opportunity to discuss footwear innovation with one of Nike's brilliant minds.
This past week, Nike held one of the biggest events on the recruiting calendar at the Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The facility hosted the finals for the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback competition and The Opening, bringing together top performers from all of the Nike Football Training Camps and Nike Football SPARQ Combines, combined with other top prospects - all battling for the chance to claim ultimate bragging rights. Several of Nike’s world-class football athletes, including Richard Sherman, were also in attendance during the tournament to assist in coaching and to provide insights into athletic training at the highest level and to educate the student-athletes about what it takes to succeed on and off the football field.
The annual showcase acted as the backdrop for the unveiling of the new Nike Vapor Ultimate football cleat. Designed for dynamic athletic strength and force, this new cleat combines Nike's most innovative plate and traction technology with advanced upper technology. Nike Flyknit creates a “second skin” feel around the foot, providing a more responsive fit while dialing up the sensation of movement and interaction with the ground. Combined with Nike’s latest game-changing cleat plate, the Vapor Ultimate becomes a true extension of the foot, designed to allow the athlete to make faster split-second movements on the field. The groundbreaking studs on the Vapor Ultimate are designed for zero-slip traction in both acceleration and breaking. At the forefoot of the plate, an aggressive tri-star traction system allows for more confident movement overall. Nike also unveiled new state-of-the-art performance training footwear. The new Nike Lunar TR1 is the lightest Lunar Trainer training shoe yet - a men’s size 10 weighs just 9.4 ounces - 25 percent lighter than its predecessor. This remarkable achievement was made possible by utilizing a breathable, lightweight mesh that is integrated with dynamic Nike Flywire technology to hug the foot for an adaptive and comfortable fit. The cornerstone of the performance of the Lunar TR1 is the utilization of Nike’s Lunarlon foam. Since the launch of Lunarlon cushioning six years ago, this hugely popular technology has evolved to deliver super-soft, lightweight and responsive cushioning.
Following the launch event, we had the opportunity to speak with Nike’s Senior Director of Footwear Innovation Paul Francis about his role within the brand, the evolution of Flyknit and how the yarn differs from silhouette to silhouette, design language, and some of the most important aspects to consider when designing and/or innovating for the future.
True innovation is creating a solution that has never existed before to solve a problem better than anything that existed before it.
Give me some insight into the initial design process at Nike.
Within Nike’s Innovation Kitchen we have the Nike Sports Research Lab. That’s where the designers and the engineers, partner with the scientists, biomechanists, physiologists and perception experts and they begin to obsess the detail of every athlete in every sport. But what they’re doing… This is a little bit of our secret science… They’re looking for a sweet spot. And that sweet spot is when there’s an insight, when there’s a design and when there’s a science. That overlap creates a sweet spot that is Nike at its best - that’s Nike accelerating innovation. And when we hit that, the whole world knows.
As the Senior Director of Footwear Innovation, what exactly is your role?
My role at Nike is to set the future vision. Speaking about how we’re working in the future, technology is moving so quick. You can’t focus on the technology; you have to focus on the athlete. My role is to really set that vision, ‘we’re working on this for this reason and why, and this is what we’re going to deliver and this is the plan we’re going to execute to get there.’ And bringing in all the disciplines of design - the makers, the engineers, the scientists - to get them behind this vision and let them run free and bring it to life.
Despite Flyknit technology being relatively new, athletes have wanted a sock-like fit for some time now. Prior to Flyknit, what are some examples from Nike’s past that led to the development of the technology?
It’s something we’ve been doing for decades, athletes have been asking for a sock-like fit in their performance shoes literally for decades; it’s not new. By applying the best technologies and the best materials of the time, we’ve been answering that call. Bill Bowerman in ’76 substituted nylon for the conventional leather - to strip away what the athlete didn’t need to try and make athletes better.
Bruce Kilgore in 1985 said ‘If they want a sock, let’s give them a sock.’ Only a minimal strap and a very minimal outsole were used to try and make athletes better. Again, pushing the limits of footwear innovation to accelerate athletes. The Nike Sock Racer accelerated an athlete to win the marathon in Boston; again an example of Nike looking for that sweet spot.
In 2000… As we start to learn more, we understand more of the needs of the athlete. They want a sock-like fit but it’s not a complete sock, there’s a zonal aspect to the need. The Nike Air Presto gave marathon runners the zonal breathability around the toe box, the stability and containment around the mid foot, and the structure and support around the heel counter. Again, a great example of insight, design and science creating that sweet spot for Nike.
In 2012, everything changed with Flyknit.
We now had the best materials and the best technologies, and these materials we could micro-engineer to a level that we could give static properties a dynamic function; that sweet spot got a whole lot bigger. The designers, the engineers and the scientists had every stitch as a detail, and every detail could be obsessed for every athlete in every sport.
I think all of these things that we can now do we’ve wanted to do for years, we just didn’t have the technology to do it. Now that we have the ability to stitch-by-stitch go into that obsessive, pixilated detail, it’s going to be a hard technology to beat.
How does the yarn differ from Flyknit to Flyknit?
If you look at the yarn and the texture of the yarn we used in the Nike Flyknit Racer, it’s obviously designed for breathability and movement. There’s no way we could use the same yarn on a football boot; there’s no way we could use the same yarn for Kobe. Also, with Kobe, he really challenged us with the durability aspect that we had to do different things with our yarns, we had to develop our yarns further, both from a breathability-movement standpoint but also from a durability standpoint; what you make durable on one side you have to have formfitting on the other.
When designing and/or innovating, identifying a problem or finding something that can be improved upon must be a crucial step in the process.
Otherwise we’re running around with a bunch of solutions looking for problems. Especially because we’ve got more makers than we have scientists; we need to make sure we get that balance right. If we start with the athlete and hear not just what they’re saying but listening to the stuff that’s unsaid, and watching for the things that are not obviously said, then we can work out ‘Ok, this is the problem today, but the way things are tracking, this is going to be a problem in the future.’ A lot of innovations we’re tracking against are ones that the athletes aren’t aware of; we’re solving problems that don’t exist yet.
One of the balances in my role in innovation is working out how do we solve for the problems of today, will that problem still exist in six years time, and what are some of the new problems that may exist that we haven’t imagined yet.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Bruce Killgore, the designer of the Air Force 1, over in Nike DNA in our archives. He can pick up a shoe, and the way he explains it to me is ‘Don’t look at what the shoe does, look at what the design language is because that’s what the designer wanted the shoe to do.’
After speaking with Paul, it was clear that his mindset is focused on the future. After all, that is his sole purpose at Nike: solving problems that don’t exist yet. Our conversation led to an informal chat about the future, in general. With Nike recently announcing that it would shutter its wearable-hardware efforts, the sportswear company has decided that only software has a future in Nike’s technology vision. It's turning away from hardware and realigning its focus exclusively on fitness and athletic software, a strategic shift that will undoubtedly benefit the company in the long run.
As Nike redirects its wearable efforts toward software, it's avoiding the competition from a horde of new devices that will further crowd the market, namely the Apple "iWatch" and devices running Google's recently unveiled Android Wear operating system.
The obvious question is then, how does the sportswear company's increased software efforts affect the future of footwear innovation? It seems to me that it's only a matter of time before a Flyknit-printer (for lack of a better term) is in each of our closets. We would then simply purchase the blueprints for the latest Nike silhouette, upload them onto whatever software the company has supplied, choose the color and type of threads we'd like to use, and then sit in the comfort of our homes while the latest and greatest footwear is produced right in front of our eyes.
The next question then becomes, how long until that becomes a reality? I asked Paul, "how long until we have a Flyknit-printer?" He smiled and said, "Some people say Nike will be a software company in 20 years."