Tinker Hatfield Interview – as printed in Sneakers Magazine Issue 20
Photography: Holger von Krosigk
2013 was the year of the Air Max. And not simply because of the release of many OG models, it was the sheer presence of this beast on the streets. In order to celebrate the timeless masterpiece, Nike launched a special event in Paris, the spiritual hometown of the Air Max 1. After all, Tinker Hatfield had found his design inspirations at the Centre Georges Pompidou. He had translated the open structure of the inside-out-building to footwear, 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’s often called the “Thomas Edison of sneaker culture”. And rightly so. Hatfield illuminated our world with designs that have revolutionized an entire industry. His shoes have been played and run in, worn, collected, adored and immortalized by numerous artists. What kind of thinking is behind such a success? We asked the man himself. The first part of this interview, which took place before the Nike event in Paris, was published on our website. Here comes the second part, which we kept in English as a courtesy to our international readership.
Tinker, your shoes are everywhere. What kind of feeling is it, to travel around the world and see people wearing your shoes practically all around?
Well, in the beginning I wasn’t even aware of it. I’d designed shoe after shoe and we tend to work one and a half to two years ahead of time. So by the time this shoe hit the market, I had already designed the next Air Max. So I really never spent much time thinking about how these products were being worn or being received in the marketplace. I knew that they were selling well because the sales people told me. But nonetheless, I wasn’t that preoccupied with that. About four or five years later I had been working on so many shoes for Nike and I was the creative director for clothing at the time. It got to a point where I got sick. I had worked too hard and didn’t get enough sleep. One day Mark Parker just said “you’re a mess, why don’t you take time off?” So I took my wife and we traveled around the world. We came to Paris, we went to the Caribbean islands, to South America, to New York City – to tiny out-of-the-way places and big cities. And what struck me was that I couldn’t go anyplace without seeing something that I had designed – not a single place in the entire world. It’s probably true to this day.
Isn’t that a great feeling?
It was kind of great, yes, I felt pretty cool about it and had the thought that I’d done something important. But then again my wife reminded me that it wasn’t that great.
What was it about the design of shoe that made it special?
I think that good design can be timeless if there was a purpose for it in the first place. Not only a purpose, but thinking and science behind it. And it has to be designed with some restraint. Even though the shoe was crazy for its time, if you look at it now, it looks good because it’s still not overdesigned. If you look at the history of Air Maxes, there was a point in time a few years ago when they looked like 17 people had designed each one. There were so many molded plastic parts, so many colors … I think it’s hard for those kinds of products or ideas. They don’t stand the test of time very well. Maybe they try too hard or get overdesigned. I think the air max was designed with good lines.
You mentioned the design of the Air Max 1, which was obviously a huge step for you and for Nike. If you look back on that shoe’s evolution, what’s your favorite colorway and how do you feel about the development of the shape?
Well, first of all, Nike has 600 designers overall. Yes, you heard me, six zero zero. It’s the largest design group in the world and so obviously I don’t do everything. My favorite colorway is the very first one – red, grey and white. The red was chosen essentially because I wanted a bright border around the new midsole. I tried to highlight the midsole by not coloring it, it’s like a frame. The grey was thrown in to be a neutral background color. So there were no color experts involved, I didn’t come to Paris to consult the fashionistas about the color of the future or anything like that – which we do now, by the way. Colors are now very carefully selected by a large group of people. But it was really just my choice to pick a primary color that would help to highlight the midsole. About the shape, what I tried to do is to develop a family approach to every Air Max up to the 95. And the lines always needed to be tilted forward. So even if it’s on a shelf it looks like it’s supposed to be run in, like it’s supposed to be fast. Within that language I added other things like plastic bits that improved the lacing options or changing the outsole and always figuring out how to use the window differently, although for a number of years it didn’t change. The Technology was still being developed to make the window much larger. And I can tell you that making the full visible air shoes that we have today was very difficult.
Here in Germany, there are some collectors who iron their shoes to have 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 a Sneaker collector too and my answer is “no”. I do not collect sneakers. My mentality has never been to develop and curate a collection of sneakers. I’m supposed to be a provocateur, to be in the future, like Star Trek, going where no man has gone before – although I have obviously never gotten that good. But sneaker collecting is part of being a curator of your own museum and developing an expertise. I don’t have any of that, I’m designing all over the place, working with athletes and trying to improve their performance. So I hope didn’t disappoint anybody. I have 300 or 400 pairs in my house but they’re thrown all over the attic.
In interviews we always hear the “architect turned sneaker designer” story, but how exactly did you go from one to the other. Did someone spot your work and ask if you want to do footwear?
That last rhetorical question is actually true. I was the corporate architect at Nike and in charge of buildings and showrooms for almost five years. Essentially Nike was going through a rough patch in the 1980s. We had one shoe that was doing well over our entire line and that was the original Air Jordan. We had made way too many of them and soled a couple of million pairs, which is not so smart. The shoe was incredibly important, but Nike was trying to make a lot of that because the others weren’t doing so well. So here was the corporate architect doing tradeshow exhibits and store designs and he also happens to be an athlete and understands sports at a very high level. I was a sprinter and pole vaulter, by the way. So I guess, when I was asked to give shoe design a go, it was out of desperation. Nike was desperate for new ideas. I was actually asked to compete with all other shoe designers, about ten or twelve of them, in the latter part of 1985. I easily won the contest.
Were you reluctant to switch over to product design?
No, I had realized that it would be fun to design shoes and apparel because that was where the real action was. If the action had been in architecture, it would have been an architecture company. 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 about a building or a car or something else. Plus lucky enough for me I was an athlete too, so I could sit down and talk to athletes all day long and they would trust me. They said something and I could interpret it well. So it was just a rocket launch for me to start basically taking over the leadership of design and being head of design just two or three years after that. It wouldn’t work like that today.
What kind of test did they give you? Did they give you Was ist a kind of a brief?
It was a 24 hour design problem. Peter Moore was the creative director then and gave a brief to everybody to design a shoe that was an athletic shoe with an athletic story behind it but would work in everyday life. So I stayed up all night, took the entire 24 hours to draw and prepare a huge presentation for it. It was a shoe with a low profile midsole that you could run in. I think some of the designers weren’t really talented, whereas others were, but they didn’t take it so seriously. I came in with obviously much more effort and in the end they said: “you’re no longer the corporate architect.”
After all your successes, do people still question your designs?
Yes, every day. And I think if they don’t question it, I haven’t done enough. There used to be a guy when I was working on a lot of Air Jordans and he was a more conservative sales type of person. He would be 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 track. I was right every time and he was wrong every time. There are simply different types 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 be consistent and have to have rules. I am not a normative thinker. I will get from A to C but I will go to Mars first and come back around. I try to achieve goals but I don’t go through a normative thinking process. So there is always a clash between normative thinkers and people who are pushing outside the process. So I have a lot of fun with those folks because still, even today, even after all the stuff I have designed and the billions of dollars that Nike has made with good design work, not just mine, they still can’t see it.
There has never been more technology than today. There’s “Flyknit”, there’s “Engineered Mesh” but we are 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 hard to answer. There are some people today at Nike and other shoe companies who wonder how they can create the retros of the future. It’s very difficult and I don’t know if I have an answer. What’s different from, let’s say, 15 years ago is that more content keeps coming up all the time and hardly anything has any staying power. It’s hard to create excitement with new ideas because it seems like you’ve seen it all. I don’t think there’s a good answer right now. After all, I was just a guy designing sneakers and I tried my best for many many years and I still do today. In the end, I can design the best sneaker that I have ever designed and have the best performance ever and it will never be as good as some of these old sneakers.
So was there something like a “golden age” of design in sneakers?
I believe that if you look at the history of art or architecture or religion there are these patterns if you will. There was the Renaissance and new things are acceptable. People are interested and open and then later it changes and everybody is less open to new ideas. It depends on a lot of factors but I think that the biggest statement is that, in my opinion, we’re in a period of time where new ideas in aesthetics and design are not as important as they once were. Having said that, there are all kinds of new technology that people are excited about it. It could be that in our age people are excited about what the new iPhone or Samsung will do and that is taking the place of design, because it almost doesn’t matter what it looks like. I had this conversation with Jony Ive from Apple and he’s thinking with a very strict design language for Apple. He feels that they shouldn’t spend billions of dollars to change the design language when most people are interested in what the device does. Maybe at some point in future, people will say that the they not only want it to be more, but to look unique as well. The other thing I want to add is that we allowed everybody to design his own sneakers through ID or small production lines. That changes the nature of design and how people place value on new ideas. Everybody can write an article and start his own medium nowadays. I think it’s cool that everybody can go ahead and design something. And when 3D printers become more and more commonplace, it won’t be just color – you’ll be able to design your own shoe from the ground.
Speaking of designing shoes, you recently switched over to the iPad and sketch digitally …
… which is a huge problem! Because how do you protect intellectual property if you draw on an iPad? How does it go into a “vault” some day? It’s weird and we haven’t figured it out. Someday, I will probably have to hack into Nike to see some of my latest designs (laughs)! Tinker grabs his iPad and speaks about his creative process with the iPad. Yesterday my wife and I were driven to Mont St. Michel in the Normandy for the first time and I drew a picture of it on my iPad mini before I’d seen it. So I’d 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 on an iPad, which can be just like a sketch tool on paper. I’m drawing very gestural and quick, I started when we were 15 minutes away from it. When I showed it to the driver, he couldn’t figure out how I did that. So this it (walks around), my almost impressionist, pre-impression. When I draw shoes, I might also do something very quickly. What’s interesting about the iPad is that I can sit in front of an athlete and we can have a conversation and while we are talking, I draw the design and show it the athlete during the course of the meeting, or maybe marketing people or merchandiing folks and they see it or the developer sees it. Afterwards I would email it immediately to all the technical people that we need to make the shoe. So when I told you that it took me three months to develop the Air Max 1 – now it can be done in three hours and that includes the meeting with the athlete. Partly that is because I have been doing it for a long time but also due to tools like this. But it wasn’t until a program called “Sketchbook Pro” came out, because a lot of people have been designing on computers but they had to have desktop computers and mouses 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 they are cars or buildings. Personally, I never liked the mouse or the vector system or even the thought of big computers sitting around. It was only until Sketchbook Pro came out. I was able to draw like I had my pencil in my hand or could use my finger. So that’s when I started to embrace this.
How are you employing the iPad in your everyday process? Can you give us an example?
There’s this Air Jordan I did three years ago and I did this drawing in front of Michael Jordan while he was sitting there. We were talking about how we could make a shoe look like a wingtip shoe from the 1920s that you might have seen in a dance club at the time. I was sitting in front of him and we were talking about the whole inspiration. We moved into this conversation and I brought up the whole idea of the dance clubs and the particular style of the time. While we were talking, I did this drawing (shows it). It was actually not even done on an iPad but on an iPhone. So that is how I got started using it so much. It’s a powerful tool because oftentimes you speak to someone who is not a professional designer or maybe to an athlete who doesn’t really understand the process. Communication is difficult but if you can do this while you are talking, problems melt away.
If you’re thinking about color, do you think about what it looks like when moving?
Yes, actually when we’re designing a shoe or a football boot, we do talk about the fact that it needs to look good in a store on the shelf but we ask ourselves what it looks like from 100 meters away. And what it looks like when it’s moving – can you still tell what it is? We’ve been doing very well in football boots and if I’m not mistaken we’ve just passed adidas in sales which is phenomenal, they owned the business for such a long time. One of the reasons is that while they design excellent soccer boots, they don’t tell stories very well. And I don’t think they are inventors when it comes to color. Or when it comes to thinking about a storyline. A lot of bright colors that we used are developed to look memorable from a distance, not so much close up. When you watched the Olympics last summer, Nike decided that all the shoes for track and field were going to be volt. It was done because in motion it looks faster and is picked up by the camera very easy. So, yes, we do think about the long distance and movement very often.
Has your visual perception of the shoe changed?
I don’t know how to answer that because really I think about things in context. And the context for me is always sports and not fashion. The most fashionable stuff is not done for fashion, for us it is done because it works. Our most popular shoes, our most fashionable shoes, are ones that were designed for high performance. So I think about those things context. Like I said before, Air Max shoes were from the mid 80s until the end of the 90s, were never good running shoes, they were just for style and for wearing around. So my opinion of that wasn’t very high until the most recent ones. If you go to a store now and look at the new Air Maxes, they are simpler, more runnable, they flex better and are not so heavy – looks good to me. And they look good because they work better. Fashion and comfort are okay, but you have to have some guiding principle for why you are there. And for us it’s still performance and sports, that’s why you see it on the feet of the best football players and the best track and field athletes. They are our promotion tools and obviously then some more people come and buy our stuff.
Do you have a parting message for us?
I don’t have parting message, I’m not that smart!
Or an advice?
It’s the same as a message. You turn me into a professor!
Well, opportunities like this are rare …
It’s fun to come here and talk, thank you all for coming, I appreciate that you took the time. In the same breath I like to add that it’s only just sneakers and hopefully we have other things to think and write about as well. Sneakers are kind of an accessory to the rest of the world. The reality is, I’m having a great time and I still get to pick and choose my projects. I’m happy about that and I feel there’s also a big responsibility to talk to people about sneakers and storyline, about technology and performance. But in the end I do hope that you write about the environment, peace and common sense and maybe when you write about a sneaker you weave in more important issues. It’s less advice but some kind of wisdom.