Innovator in chief

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Tinker Hatfield likes nothing better than stirring things up. In his three decades at global sports brand Nike, he’s turned it into an art form.

Tinker Hatfield is many things.

Officially, he’s Nike’s Vice President for Design and Special Projects, which puts him in charge of design strategy for the world’s most recognized sports brand. To his fans, he’s the man who designs Air Jordans with the world’s most famous basketball star.

I rewrite my job description on a regular basis.

One interviewer describes him as a “mad scientist”; he’s described himself as a “provocateur.” He’s a designer, an architect, a mentor, a budding surfer and a wannabe musician.

But, these days, Hatfield considers himself more of a storyteller.

“The stories come out in my design work,” he explains, “and in the communication around that work. All along the way, the stories keep accumulating.”

There’s the one about the woman whose feet were run over by a New York taxi cab and who wrote to Hatfield thanking him for the shoes that helped her walk without pain.

There’s the one about the world-famous baseball player who signed with Nike because, as a kid, he’d never been able to afford a pair of Air Jordan IIIs.

Then there’s the story of Hatfield himself: the boy named after his father, who acquired the nickname “Tinker” from the wooden Tinker Toys box he slept in as a premature baby.

The athlete at the University of Oregon who suffered a sports injury and refocused his attention on his architecture degree.

The architect who started working for his college coach Bill Bowerman, co-founder (with Phil Knight) of a company called Nike.

The corporate architect who soon realized all the action was really in the product, and started designing shoes.

“I rewrite my job description on a regular basis,” admits Hatfield, who has now clocked up 32 years at Nike, applying his architectural talent to designing shoes and his entrepreneurial flair to marketing them.

As a storyteller, he finds inspiration in a wide range of places. “I’m always inspired by stuff like motorcycles, race cars and rock concerts,” he laughs. “Loud, noisy things. But more often than not, it’s just talking to people on the street. Good design is appropriate for its time and place, though you have to be a little bit of a futurist too.”

Business can wreak havoc on longer-term, more expensive projects.

Over the years, he has translated Michael Jordan’s explosive talent on the basketball court into the Air Jordan range, the exposed industrial guts of Paris’s Pompidou Center into the Air Max I, and ancient woven basketry into the Nike Flyknit collection.

He was even responsible for dreaming up the light-up, self-lacing sneakers worn by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future Part II, and recently recreated the futuristic shoes to sell at auction benefiting the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Well-known for being outspoken, Hatfield is happy to play the boardroom dissident. “I have a personality that just doesn’t care whether or not people are upset about change,” he says bluntly of the self-protective culture that sets in as a company grows.

“I end up being one of the few people who will sit in a big, important meeting and speak up against the conventional wisdom, and that certainly brands me as a provocateur. I am more interested in good results than my own politics or status. I’ve always been this way.”

But as much as he provokes, he understands how to work within a business environment, especially one as large as Nike. The Oregon-based company has more than 44,000 employees worldwide, with reported revenue of US$24.1b in FY12, making it the planet’s largest sports brand.

“To be successful, you need to get outside the ‘box,’ but not too far,” he explains. “And if you don’t know the box, and you’re not aware of where those boundaries are, you can easily stray too far. If you’re too far out there, you get punted, pushed aside or ignored. I think being a provocateur is helpful, but you also need to know when not to go too far.”

Hatfield is passionate about creating the right environment for creativity. A few years ago, when the company was reorganized, Nike created two distinct creative spaces: the Innovation Kitchen for shoes and the Hive for apparel, funding innovation to ensure new ideas were allowed to flourish.

“Business can wreak havoc on longer-term, more expensive projects,” says Hatfield. “So we carved off a certain amount of our talent and protected it from the quarter-to-quarter business. It works phenomenally well.”

Within the Kitchen, Hatfield’s subdivision is Special Other Operations, or the ZOO, where he gives his team a great deal of license to create a stimulating environment. “You can design your own desk, you can have your own furniture, you can have monkeys sitting on your shoulder, it doesn’t matter,” he jokes.

The ZOO is Nike’s home for “accelerated innovation,” which goes beyond the “evolutionary innovation” of picking new fabrics or colors. Phil Knight describes it as Super Balls rather than baseballs. “We find interesting ways to make bigger leaps,” explains Hatfield.

For the innovator-in-chief, a key benefit of working for a company as large as Nike is scale. In other words, his work can have a huge impact.

Down the line, Hatfield sees the company still making sneakers and apparel, but he believes its biggest role will be to advocate for opportunity, especially for young, disadvantaged people around the world.

“Even though the bureaucracy is there,” he says of Nike, “the growth and the size and the power, when you get them all lined up just right, can be really powerful. You can make big changes, all the while learning how to be better stewards of the planet.”

The company has already taken great leaps forward in green technology, and Hatfield stresses there is not a single product at Nike that isn’t put through a sustainability filter.

The result is a shoe like the Air Jordan XXIII, which was designed to minimize waste and the use of solvent-based cements, and uses environmentally preferred rubber and other materials to reduce toxins.

The shoes of the future, he believes, will take the technology of Nike Flyknit shoes (which are knit to fit the foot and are therefore less wasteful of materials) and go one better. They’ll be custom-made by in-store computers, cutting back on transportation.

“This has huge ramifications relating to the future of our business,” he says. “It’s part of a business plan to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce costs and grow our customer base.”

Where Hatfield sets his sights is wide open. He recently returned to his roots to design the playing surface for the Matthew Knight Arena at the University of Oregon. And when he’s not working, he’s challenging himself.

He is, he says, an enthusiastic but lousy surfer: “I want to get better so I don’t drown!” He plays keyboard in a couple of bands, even though he is yet to have a lesson, and rides motorcycles and mountain bikes, blaming “a certain lack of good sense.”

When it comes to mentoring the next generation, a subject he is passionate about, he advocates a similar breadth of experience. “My work seems to just come out of the life that I’ve lived,” he smiles.

“Every time I sit down to draw something, it’s the culmination of everything I’ve experienced up to that point.”

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