What Nike Taught Me About Collaborative Design


By Kevin G. Bethune 5 minutes Read

Nike gave me my first design indoctrination. Before I got into the shoe world, I felt like designers were the ones who had the cool clothes, arrived late at 10 a.m., went to the best parties in town, flew to exotic places to find the inspiration and had fun drawing all day in their designer. cabins in trendy studios.

If there was a slider between fun and hard work, their lives seemed to lean toward an even mix, while the rest of us tipped the scales toward the more pragmatic end of the spectrum.

But when I entered global footwear in 2007 after more than a year as CFO there, I realized how wrong I was for having these common misconceptions. The process of creating shoes was much more than watching a designer respond to a brief from the direction of their category and draw pretty pictures.

A friend of mine at Nike was Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, who at the time was director of shoe design for the Jordan brand. After learning my story and seeing my raw explorations, he decided to give me a chance to apply my raw creative skills to an actual product. It was my only chance to execute shoe design under his mentorship.

He assigned me a folder that didn’t have room because there weren’t enough designers to support it. Based on the coinciding anniversaries of two iconic shoes, the Air Jordan 8 and the Air Force 1, the Jordan brand wanted me to achieve a story of “fusing” the two shoes together. They couldn’t have chosen two more radically different shoe designs to work with, but this was my opportunity.

Upside: Air Force 1, Air Jordan VIII and Nike Air Jordan Fusion 8. [Images: Nike]

Over the next few months, I met D’Wayne early in the morning to soak up as much tutoring as possible, then we would go and do our respective day jobs, then I would work on his homework until the wee hours of the evening. . After a year of collaboration, we launched two different shoes on the market in several colors. This opportunity opened more doors to help other Nike groups with my budding design skills.

As I befriended more and more designers through our product process initiatives, I realized how many plates they were turning to keep the business afloat. The designers were just as critical in the machine as the shoe engineers, factory developers and category business leaders.

When given a brief, they had to wrestle with product marketing and consumer information to clarify the performance benefits and emotional cues that would allow a customer to understand the product’s desirability. It was not an easy thing to negotiate. They had room to forge new territory but had to be careful not to stray the needle too far from market conventions and discourage the customer (e.g. most customers expect to see laces in their sneakers). Such a move could result in lost business, and with the volume and reputation of the Nike brand, disrupting market conventions was a serious consideration.

Once the briefs and opportunities were clearly understood, there was pressure to produce a lot of responses in the form of sketchy sketches. Many of them. Their creative director can expect to see 30-50 new variations from a given brief by the end of the workday. After strategically timed design reviews, the designer would have navigated enough ideas and circular feedback to begin turning a corner toward a more concise solution that would hopefully address the opportunities in the brief.

What I just described was a process for a single sneaker design. Remember that most sneaker brands release different models over four seasons in a calendar year, with particular emphasis on key times like back to school or holidays. Therefore, a shoe designer can juggle four different model offerings (at least) over four seasons, with each sneaker being at a different stage in its design progression.

An hour of the day can be devoted to the elaboration of divergent sketches for next spring; another hour can be spent in Photoshop tweaking a design for fall; and the final hours might involve making redline revisions for the upcoming spring and summer. The designer may also feel compelled to pursue incremental innovation opportunities on top of their online work, which requires even longer lead times.

Some designers have had to nurture key relationships with athletes, cater to the needs of top athletes, and pivot their day at any time if, say, Serena Williams, Mia Hamm or Michael Jordan visits them.

What I’ve really come to appreciate is Nike’s investment in its product triad model: a product line manager (i.e. product marketing manager or product manager ), a development engineer (who engages with factory partners keeping an eye on downstream manufacturing challenges), and a shoe manager. designer had equal status in their collaboration as a triad unit. No shoe design advances without the intimate involvement of these triads or multidisciplinary groups.

Each role was critical and one discipline could not dominate the other. I think this was subtly reinforced when employees consulted the executive ranks of Nike. They saw each other at every rung of the corporate ladder.

[Image: courtesy MIT Press]

A designer might turn to a creative director to unlock things, defend their career, or stand up for them in the face of conflict. A designer could admire the C-level suite and imagine landing there one day because Nike had a design director, and even the CEO at the time of my employment, Mark Parker, had a background in shoe design.

The values ​​of the organization spoke of the power of constructive criticism, collaboration and even competition between disciplines to arrive at better answers. Design was an essential ingredient for problem solving at Nike, at all levels and in all areas of the organization.


Comments are closed.