10 Questions for Tinker Hatfield

Perhaps no designer has left a bigger mark on modern athletic footwear than Tinker Hatfield.

The architecture-trained, former track-and-field star joined Nike in 1981, and in the years since has been involved with some of its most iconic shoes.

But the VP of special projects and design may be most closely associated with the Jordan franchise. With shoes III through XX, Hatfield’s dedication to detail — and his close relationship with His Airness himself — resulted in kicks that not only revolutionized the basketball sneaker but entered the canon.

Today, with his former designs — such as the IV and the X — still cherished by sneakerheads and basketball fans alike, Hatfield is continuing to innovate. Along with Jordan brand Creative Director Mark Smith, Hatfield is behind the $170 Air Jordan 2010, which hit stores this week.

Here, the Nike design guru tells Footwear News about creating Jordan’s newest shoe, the trials of bringing an idea to life and the new realities of customization.

1. What inspired the see-through TPU
window on the new Jordan 2010?
TH: One of the points of inspiration that popped up was Michael’s strategy [on the court]. It’s unusual and clever — to be transparent at the beginning of the game, relative to what people know about you and how you play. But then at some time in the game, he would do something completely contrary, something out of character. So he said it would be great if we could see through this shoe.

2. What was the design brief for the shoe?
TH: We were trying to design a lighter-weight, stable shoe, maybe a little lower to the ground, with flexibility in the right places. In the end, we were also trying to marry that with the idea that you could see through part of the shoe. We didn’t want the entire shoe to be transparent. He said just a glimpse, so it evolved.

3. How did it evolve?
TH: I have to give Mark Smith the credit here. I was trying to create a plain, clean toe on this shoe with the back half of the shoe being more transparent, but we had trouble sampling that and matching up all the performance criteria that we needed. And by the way, we don’t have a ton of time to do some of these things. So Mark shrunk down the amount of transparency in the back of the shoe to a circle. And we all agreed that was probably an easier-to-execute version of this idea.

4. Were you disappointed to lose the quarter panel? Did it affect the story you were trying to tell?
TH: It may be stronger because now [the panel] is a circle, which represents the eye. When you’re looking at someone, you look to their eyes. That’s how you try and read someone.

5. How has your architecture background informed your work at Nike?
TH: A very good book in architecture is called “A Pattern Language,” and it [says] the best architecture usually gives you a clue to what the building’s purpose is, like a really beautiful, well-designed church tells you, “This is about something bigger than you.” That’s really typical of other types of good design. 

6. Is it the same in footwear?
TH: A shoe can tell you a lot of things: It can tell you that it’s stable and strong, or it can tell you it’s flimsy and light just by how it looks before you even pick it up.

7. You’ve said that Nike’s sustainability-focused Considered philosophy has
influenced the way you create shoes. What else will be important in footwear going forward?
TH: An area that is going to be extremely important in the future is to be able to customize a product to work better for you — the way you drive, play basketball, run or walk. We’re spending a fair amount of time looking at how shoes can be more easily modular and customizable instead of trying to take a shoe and then making it customizable after the fact, which doesn’t work out so great sometimes.

8. So this is something that would go
beyond NikeID and the idea of customizing a shoe’s look?
TH: Yeah, but customization can also impact the aesthetic, too. If you’re trying to change a shoe to fit your foot better and maybe work a little bit better for the way you perform, it will also allow you to change the way a shoe looks. These things work in concert.

9. The finished Jordan 2010 has a bottom-loaded airbag and incorporates a more flexible outsole — both features from the running world. Do you see a lot of crossover between running and basketball?
TH: We’re just transferring all those years of experience with running shoes into basketball. When you’re playing basketball, you’re running and jumping and moving laterally. So running is a component, and running fast is a component. We can learn a lot from running shoes and transfer those ideas into basketball in a basketball-appropriate way.

10. When it comes to a theme, does any one principle guide you when switching between sports and categories?
TH: I’ve always thought that athletic shoes are in some ways caricatures of shoes that we wear in our daily lives. If you’re playing basketball, football or lacrosse, you’re doing something that’s pretty bold and expressive, and athletic shoes have evolved over the years to be striking and bold. The hippest shoes I’ve ever seen have always been ones that are driven by performance, anyway. That’s the way cars are — the coolest motorcycles and vehicles out there are the best-performing ones, and they look the way they look because of what they do.

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11. The Jordan shoes have become infamous for their detailed, specific inspiration stories — a cat’s paw, fencing, racecars. What inspired you this time?
TH: [For previous shoes], we’d talk about Michael’s personality, the way he plays or maybe we would draw inspiration from some piece of art, a car or motorcycle, or architecture. In this case, we eschewed looking at it like architecture or looking at poster design, object design, car design, motorcycle design or fighter-jet design. We didn’t go that way. We sort of stuck a little bit closer to home with what we needed to do to build a really good basketball shoe.

12. What kind of player are you designing the Jordan series for?
TH: We like Jordans, in particular, to be really versatile shoes: We want as many people to be able to perform in them as possible. Though they’re fairly light, they’re not the lightest shoes in the world, because we want people with the power that Michael Jordan has — the bigger, stronger, quicker people in the NBA — to be able to play in these shoes. But they need to be light enough for a smaller player. Versatile means even though it’s not very thick, it still feels cushioned. And being a little bit thinner and lower to the ground gives you more stability, so a bigger player can wear this shoe and still feel cushioned and not be unstable. And of course small players can play in them very easily because they’re light enough and nimble enough for that. It’s different than a Kobe shoe; it’s different than a Lebron shoe. We wouldn’t tell the same stories with those athletes. They’ll have their own story — they all have their own personality in the way they play.

13. What larger story does the design of the shoe need to tell?
TH: If you’re watching television and you see a player run down the court, it’s beneficial for that shoe be really identifiable by its very nature. We’ve done it numerous times with Jordan shoes and other products: We want them to be really recognizable [and] unique and support some story we may have told. Now we’ve got this story of abut Michael’s strategy as a player — and I think he uses that same strategy as a businessman too — but it’s now been turned into a feature of the design and it’s iconic from a distance. If you’re watching television or you’re up 25 rows in a stadium, that shoe is very distinctive because of that circle. Anybody who’s paying attention will now recognize that shoe in a heartbeat. That’s not so easy to do sometimes.

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