Tinker Hatfield - Interview Part 2 | Grailify
Tinker Hatfield - Interview Part 2

Tinker Hatfield - Interview Part 2

2013 was the year of the Air Max. And not just because of the release of many OG models, but because of the sheer presence of this behemoth on the streets. To celebrate the timeless masterpiece, Nike hosted a special event in Paris, the spiritual home of the Air Max 1. After all, Tinker Hatfield had found his design inspiration at the Centre Georges Pompidou. He had applied the open structure of the Inside-Out building to shoes, created the Air Max and opened a new chapter in the history of sneakers - it was, as he describes it, "romantic storytelling". Because of his disruptive and innovative approach, he is often called the "Thomas Edison of sneaker culture". And rightly so. Hatfield has lit up our world with designs that have revolutionised an entire industry. His shoes have been played with and walked on, worn, collected, revered and immortalised by numerous artists. What kind of thinking is behind such success? Here comes the second part.

Tinker, your shoes are everywhere. How does it feel to travel around the world and see people wearing your shoes practically everywhere?
Well, I didn't realise it at first. I was designing shoe after shoe, and we tend to work a year and a half to two years in advance. So when this shoe came out, I had already designed the next Air Max. So I never spent much time thinking about how these products would be worn or received in the market. I knew they were selling well because the salesmen told me so. But still, I didn't dwell on it that much. About four or five years later, I was working on so many shoes for Nike, and I was creative director for apparel at the time. There came a point when I got sick. I had been working too much and not getting enough sleep. One day Mark Parker just said, "You're a wreck, why don't you take some time off?" So I took my wife and we travelled the world. We got to Paris, the Caribbean islands, South America, New York City - tiny out-of-the-way places and big cities. And what struck me was that I couldn't go anywhere without seeing something I had designed - not in a single place in the whole world. It's probably still like that today.

Isn't that a great feeling?
It was kind of great, yeah, I felt pretty cool about it and had the thought that I had done something important. But then my wife reminded me again that it wasn't that great.

What was special about the design of the shoe?
I believe that good design can be timeless if it has a purpose in the first place. Not only a purpose, but also an idea and a science behind it. And it has to be designed with a certain restraint. Even if the shoe was crazy for its time, it looks good from today's perspective because it's not over-designed. If you look at the history of Air Maxes, there was a point a few years ago when it seemed like 17 people designed every single shoe. There were so many moulded plastic parts, so many colours ... I think it's hard for these kinds of products or ideas. They don't stand the test of time very well. Maybe they try too hard or they are over-designed. I think the Air Max was designed with good lines.

You mentioned the design of the Air Max 1, which was obviously a big step for you and for Nike. Looking back at the evolution of that shoe, what is your favourite colour and how do you feel about the evolution of the shape?
Well, first of all, Nike has a total of 600 designers. Yes, you heard me right, six zero zero. It's the biggest group of designers in the world, and of course I can't do everything. My favourite colour is the very first one - red, grey and white. The red was chosen mainly because I wanted a bright border around the new midsole. I tried to make the midsole stand out by not colouring it in, it's like a frame. The grey was meant to be a neutral background colour. So there were no colour experts involved, I didn't come to Paris to ask the fashionistas about the colour of the future or anything like that - which, by the way, we do now. The colours today are chosen very carefully by a large group of people. But it was really just my decision to choose a base colour that would highlight the midsole. As for the shape, I tried to develop a family approach for every Air Max up to the 95. And the lines always had to lean forward. Even when it's on a shelf, it looks like it should be broken in, like it should be fast. Within that language, I added other things, like plastic parts that improved the lacing options, or changes to the outsole, and I was always thinking about how to use the window differently, even though it didn't change for a few years. The technology was still being developed to make the window much bigger. And I can say that it was very difficult to make the fully visible air shoes that we have today.

Here in Germany there are some collectors who iron their shoes to make them closer to the original shape, did you know that?
Yes, I hear stories like that too. And I'm always asked if I'm also a sneaker collector, and my answer is "no". I don't collect sneakers. My mentality has never been to build and curate a collection of sneakers. I'm supposed to be a provocateur, live in the future, like Star Trek, and go where no man has gone before - though obviously I never got that good. But collecting sneakers is part of being a curator of your own museum and acquiring an expertise. I have none of that, I design all over the place, working with athletes and trying to improve their performance. So I hope I haven't let anyone down. I have 300 or 400 pairs of shoes at home, but they are scattered in the attic.

In interviews we always hear the story of "architect turned sneaker designer", but how exactly did you go from one to the other? Did someone take notice of your work and ask you to design shoes?
The last rhetorical question is actually true. I was the corporate architect at Nike and was responsible for buildings and showrooms for almost five years. In the 1980s, Nike was going through a tough time. We had one shoe that was selling well across our entire range, and that was the original Air Jordan. We had made way too many of them and soled a few million pairs, which is not that smart. The shoe was incredibly important, but Nike was trying to make a lot of them because the others weren't doing so well. So here was the corporate architect who was designing exhibition stands and shop designs, and he also happened to be an athlete and understood sport at a very high level. I was a sprinter and pole vaulter, by the way. When I was asked to get involved with shoe design, it was probably out of desperation. Nike was desperate for new ideas. At the end of 1985, I was actually asked to compete with all the other shoe designers, about ten or twelve in number. I won the competition hands down.

Were you reluctant to move into product design?
No, I realised that I would enjoy designing shoes and clothing because that's where the real action was. If the action had been in architecture, it would have been an architecture firm. The transition was very easy and seamless because architecture is a very good design education and a very good discipline. You learn a lot about design and people, and it doesn't matter if it's a building or a car or something else. I was also lucky to be an athlete, so I could talk to athletes all day long and they trusted me. They would say something and I could interpret it well. So it was like a rocket launch for me when I took over as head of the design department only two or three years later and became chief designer. Today it wouldn't work like that.

What kind of test did they give you? Were you given some kind of task?
It was a 24-hour design problem. Peter Moore was the creative director at the time and he gave everyone the brief to design a shoe that was a sports shoe with a sports story behind it, but also worked in everyday life. So I stayed up all night, took the whole 24 hours to draw and prepare a big presentation. It was a shoe with a flat midsole that you could walk in. I think some of the designers weren't really talented, while others were, but they didn't take it that seriously. I tried much harder, of course, and in the end they said, "You're not the corporate architect anymore."

Are your designs still questioned after all your successes?
Yes, every day. And I think if they don't question them, I haven't done enough. When I was working on a lot of Air Jordans, there was one man who was rather conservative in sales. He was the first or second person I showed a new design to. And if he liked it, I threw it out. If he hated it, I knew I was on the right track. I was right every time and he was wrong every time. There are just different kinds of thinkers you need for big business. There are what I call "normative thinkers", people who get from A to B and all the way to C. You have to have a process. You have to have a process, you have to be consistent and have rules. I'm not a normative thinker. I get from A to C, but I go to Mars first and come back. I try to achieve goals, but I don't go through a normative thinking process. So there's always a conflict between normative thinkers and people who are outside the process. I have a lot of fun with those people because even today, after all the things I've designed and the billions of dollars Nike has made from good design work, not just mine, they still can't see it.

There has never been so much technology. There's "Flyknit", there's "Engineered Mesh", but we're still strong on retros. Is it still possible to do new things and break the rules?
That's the best question so far, but very difficult to answer. There are some people at Nike and other shoe companies today who are wondering how they can create the retros of the future. It's very difficult, and I don't know if I have an answer. The difference with, say, 15 years ago is that new content is coming up all the time and hardly anything has staying power. It's hard to create excitement with new ideas because you feel like you've seen it all before. I don't think there's a good answer to that at the moment. After all, I was just a guy who designed sneakers, and I did my best for many years, and I still do. In the end, I can design the best sneaker I've ever designed and have the best performance ever, and it will never be as good as some of those old sneakers.

So was there something like a "golden age" of sneaker design?
I think if you look at the history of art, architecture or religion, there are these patterns, if you like. There was the Renaissance and new things were accepted. People are interested and open, and later it changes and everyone is less open to new ideas. It depends on many factors, but I think the most important statement is that I think we are in a period where new ideas in aesthetics and design are not as important as they used to be. That being said, there are all kinds of new technologies that people are excited about. It could be that in our time people get excited about the new iPhone or Samsung, and that takes the place of design because it almost doesn't matter what it looks like. I had a conversation with Jony Ive from Apple, and he has a very strict design language for Apple. He doesn't think you should spend billions of dollars to change the design language when most people are interested in the features of the device. Maybe at some point in the future, people will say that not only do they want more, but they want it to look unique. What I would like to add is that we have allowed everyone to design their own sneakers through ID or small production lines. This is changing the way of design and the way people give value to new ideas. Nowadays anyone can write an article and start their own medium. I think it's cool that anyone can go out and design something. And as 3D printers become more commonplace, it won't just be about paint - you'll be able to design your own shoe from scratch.
Speaking of designing shoes: You recently switched to the iPad and sketch digitally ...
... which is a big problem! Because how do you protect intellectual property when you draw on an iPad? How does it end up in a "vault" one day? That's weird and we haven't figured it out yet. One day I'll probably have to hack into Nike to see some of my latest designs (laughs)! Tinker grabs his iPad and talks about his creative process with the iPad. Yesterday my wife and I went to Mont St Michel in Normandy for the first time, and I drew a picture of it on my iPad mini before I saw it. So I would call it a "pre-impression" of Mont St Michel. I want to show you what I drew because it helps to show how I work with an iPad, which can be like a sketching tool on paper. I draw very gesturally and quickly, I started when we were still 15 minutes away from the city. When I showed it to the driver, he couldn't explain how I did it. So that's it (goes around), my almost impressionistic pre-impression. When I draw shoes, I may also do something very quickly. The interesting thing about the iPad is that I can sit down in front of an athlete and we can talk, and while we're talking I draw the design and show it to the athlete in the course of the conversation, or maybe the marketing or merchandising people and they see it or the developer sees it. Then I immediately email it to all the technicians we need to make the shoe. When I told you it took me three months to develop the Air Max 1 - now it can be done in three hours, and that includes meeting the athlete. That's partly because I've been around a long time, but also because of tools like this. But it wasn't until a programme called Sketchbook Pro came along that a lot of people were designing on computers, but they needed desktop computers and mice and lots of complicated software. There's also a company called Autodesk, and they have this incredible software. And that's the way most things are designed today, whether it's cars or buildings. Personally, I never liked the mouse or the vector system or even the idea of big computers standing around. It wasn't until Sketchbook Pro came along. With that I could draw as if I had a pencil in my hand or could use my finger. That was when I started to get into it.

How do you use the iPad in your daily workflow? Can you give us an example?
Three years ago I drew this Air Jordan, in front of Michael Jordan while he was sitting there. We were talking about how we could design a shoe to look like a 1920s wingtip shoe that you might have seen in a dance club back then. I sat in front of him and we talked about all the inspiration. We got to talking and I mentioned the idea of dance clubs and the particular style of the time. While we were talking, I made this drawing (see picture). It wasn't even made on an iPad, but on an iPhone. So that's how I came to use it so much. It's a powerful tool because often you're talking to someone who's not a professional designer, or maybe an athlete who doesn't really understand the process. Communication is difficult, but if you can do it during the conversation, the problems disappear.

When you think about colours, do you think about how they look when you move?
Yes, when we design a shoe or a football boot, we talk about how it has to look good on the shelf in a shop, but we ask ourselves how it looks from 100 metres away. And how does it look when it moves - can you still tell what it is? If I'm not mistaken, we've just overtaken adidas in sales, which is phenomenal because they've controlled the business for a long time. One of the reasons is that they design excellent football boots but they don't tell good stories. And I don't think they are inventors when it comes to colours. Or when it comes to thinking about a story. A lot of the bright colours we used were designed to be memorable from a distance, not so much up close. At the Olympics last summer, Nike decided that all shoes for athletics should be red. It was done that way because it looks faster in motion and is very easily picked up by the camera. So, yes, we think about long distance and movement a lot.

Has your visual perception of the shoe changed?
I don't know how to answer that, because I always look at things in context. And the context for me is always sport, not fashion. The most fashionable things are not made for fashion reasons, but because they work. Our most popular shoes, our most fashionable shoes, are designed for high performance. So I think about these things in context. As I said, from the mid-80s to the late 90s, Air Max shoes were never good running shoes, they were just for style and for wearing around. So my opinion of them was not very high until the latest shoes. Now when you go into a shop and look at the new Air Maxes, they're sleeker, they're more runnable, they flex better and they're not as heavy - they look good to me. And they look good because they work better. Fashion and comfort are fine, but you have to have a guiding principle as to why you are there. And for us it's still about performance and sport, so you see them on the feet of the best football players and the best track and field athletes. They are our advertisers and of course then more people come and buy our stuff.

Do you have a farewell message for us?
I don't have a farewell message, I'm not that smart!

Or a piece of advice?
That's the same as a message. You're making a professor out of me!

Well, opportunities like this are rare...
It's fun to come here and talk, thank you all for coming, I appreciate you taking the time. In the same breath, I would like to add that it's all about sneakers and hopefully we can think and write about other things as well. Sneakers are something of an accessory to the rest of the world. The reality is that I have a great time and I can still choose my projects. I'm happy about that, and I also feel obliged to talk to people about sneakers and stories, about technology and performance. But ultimately, I hope that people will write about the environment, peace and common sense, and maybe if you're writing about a sneaker, weave in more important topics. It's not so much advice, but a kind of wisdom.

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