Tinker Hatfield, Vice President, Design & Special Projects, Nike, Inc.
Walking on “Air” with Nike designs
Tinker Hatfield, Vice President, Design & Special Projects, Nike, Inc., may be best known as the lead designer of the Air Jordan. But when he was asked to define his job, he referred to himself as a storyteller, not only for top athletes like Michael Jordan but also for everyday people who credit Nike’s products with changing their lives.
Hatfield spoke Thursday at the Forum, mixing anecdotes with a collection of Nike video clips that featured Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods and illustrated the culture of innovation that Nike has fostered over the past 30 years.
Hatfield recounted one story from a woman who wrote to thank him for a special brand of Nike running shoes. Ten years ago, a taxicab had run over and crushed her feet while she was standing on a curb. The Nike shoes enabled her to walk without pain and eventually to start running again. “That’s a great story, it’s what I do,” he said, adding that he also enjoys telling the stories of how Nike enables athletes by designing products that help them jump higher, run faster, avoid injury and win medals and championships.
As head of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, Hatfield was particularly proud of one ad that featured a new shoe that can be built without wasting a single piece of thread.
“We spend a fair amount of time trying to make products that are more environmentally sensitive,” Hatfield said, describing how the production process for most athletic shoes results in tremendous waste as pieces are cut away from the final product. The new show “is knit in a machine, like a piece of apparel. That has huge ramifications for our industry, and I’m very excited to be a part of that.”
Nike nurtures a culture of innovation by funding the company’s Innovation Kitchen at the corporate level, Hatfield added. That way it doesn’t count against the operating results for individual business lines.
Hatfield also said his favorite way to find out what the market wants is to just observe the real world. “I like to go to high school events and just watch the kids and their parents. The information I get through my eyes and ears is often the most honest and the best.”
Tinker Hatfield grew up in Oregon as an accomplished basketball player, an all-American track and field star and an all-state running back. In 1970, he was named Oregon’s top high school athlete. He went on to study architecture at the University of Oregon while continuing his track and field career under coach Bill Bowerman, a co-founder of Nike. But shortly after the 1976 Olympic trials, where he placed sixth in pole vault, Tinker suffered an injury that ended his athletic career. In 1981, he joined Nike, where he was later named Vice President of Nike Design. In addition to helping design the first cross-training shoe (the Air Trainer), Tinker earned global recognition for his collaborations with Michael Jordan for the Air Jordan line. Some of his design work for the line is in the Smithsonian. Tinker has earned numerous awards, including being recognized by Fortune as one of the 100 Most Influential Designers of the Century. In addition to working with Michael Jordan each year, Tinker creates specialized Nike products for athletes such as LeBron James and Roger Federer. He also dedicates time mentoring young Nike designers, and he is primarily responsible for the re-branding of the University of Oregon.