While the Jumpman logo is recognized as a universal symbol of swagger, you may be less familiar with Tinker Hatfield. He didn’t design every kick in the Air Jordan line. But the fact that his contributions stand out as icons in a series considered the pinnacle of sneaker design demands respect. After earning his stripes as a Bill Bowerman understudy, the now 55-year-old Hatfield went on to line his resume with designs like the groundbreaking Air Max 1 and his highlight reel of kicks for His Airness. As a trained architect, Hatfield has a different approach to sneaker design. He has translated museums (Air Max 1), fighter jets (Jordan V) and even lawn mowers (Jordan XI) into some of the best sneakers to ever pound the pavement and the hardwood. The never-not-working Tinker took some time out between traveling the country looking for new sketch ideas to talk to us about early corporate controversy, what working with MJ was like, and his take on Bape.
The Air Max 1 was inspired by the Pompidou Center in Paris. Take me through how the inspiration translates to the final product.
Tinker Hatfield: Well, there was a time when we were—and when I say we, I mean Nike—we were developing this air-cushioning technology. And you could say air, you could have people run around in shoes, but it was something that was difficult to understand or difficult to explain. The technical people weren’t feeling it. I had just come back from a trip where I was in Paris, and I saw this radical piece of architecture where essentially the building was turned inside out. You could see the guts of the building, and you could see into it. It essentially started the architectural trends toward being more expressive. I came back from that trip and I was immersed in working on some new products for Nike, essentially the entire Air pack. As I was working on the running shoe, which was going to have a bigger airbag, and I thought, this bag is getting so big, it’s getting closer and closer to the edge of the midsole on both sides. I said, why don’t we just cut a big hole in the midsole, and let the bag kind of be exposed. In many ways, it almost eliminates the need to talk about it because now you can see it. The Pompidou Center was clearly an instigator for me, or an inspiration.
You’ve said that you wanted to bring the Air Max 1 as far as you could, without being fired. Do you think that making the best product possible always means pushing the envelope?
Tinker Hatfield: I think the more risky and the more innovative you get, the more uncomfortable people become, especially internally. The people who are worried about the bottom line on a daily basis, they’re afraid of the unknown because they’re looking for the sure bet, right?
You talked about the bottom line, and getting nervous about that; what specific gripes did the Nike suits have with the air bubble being exposed?
Tinker Hatfield: Generally something that’s actually a little more progressive, and well designed is either loved or hated. There’s no middle ground. I look for that kind of design-result. People will either love it or hate it. If they’re kind of in the middle, I think that means you didn’t do too much. That means you just sort of maintained some status quo. That’s simply not my job; that’s not what I care to do. I don’t want to be a status quo designer that skates by, with the lowest common denominator work.
Was it ironic to see the big push of the 360’s total exposed air bubble become a huge campaign almost twenty years later?
Tinker Hatfield: Well, no. I think it was just a logical process. As the original Air Max ultimately became this successful product that people now look back on, it continues to incrementally push the envelope. I think even back in the mid 1980s when some of these first things were designed, these first avant-garde athletic products, I think we were already thinking that someday, maybe we can do a shoe that has no foam and is just all airbag. It just took a long time to engineer it. It took a long time for people to become internally comfortable with it. And ultimately these people are now seeing the 360 AIR the marketplace.
Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike, was your track coach at Oregon. Was he your “in” with the company?
Tinker Hatfield: Yeah, I think so because when I showed up at the University of Oregon as a freshman on the track team, I was also in the school of architecture – which is actually unusual. Usually when you go to architecture school you don’t do anything else, it’s fulltime. You don’t really see a lot of athletes in the school of architecture, and I was trying to buck that trend. Bill Bowerman noticed that and he liked that. He was using all of his track guys as guinea pigs for some of his early designs. I came in as a freshman and became one of his favorite test pilots because I could draw. I could draw and make notes and give him maybe better feedback than he was getting from some other folks regarding the performance of the shoe.
Knight was more demanding than anyone else. Bill Bowerman was more of a teacher. He was more about preparing people to be successful. Phil Knight and Michael Jordan were more about expecting excellence, and maybe weren’t quite so overt in the nature of classic mentoring.
Who put more pressure on you to be successful, Bill Bowerman or Michael Jordan?
Tinker Hatfield: You know what? I’d like to add a third name to your question, and that would be Phil Knight. Knight was more demanding than anyone else. Bill Bowerman was more of a teacher. He was more about preparing people to be successful. Phil Knight and Michael Jordan were more about expecting excellence, and maybe weren’t quite so overt in the nature of classic mentoring. Phil Knight is the one that always had very high expectations. He had a very high level of trust. Those things kind of have to go together because he doesn’t always understand how we come up with these designs, or advertising campaigns. He doesn’t always maybe understand the process, but he has a very high level of trust. And if you deliver he just gives you even more room to do that. I give him props.
You get inspiration from all over the place, what was the most complex to incorporate into a sneaker?
Tinker Hatfield: A lawn mower.
Tinker Hatfield: It was a push mower but it was designed beautifully and it really provided some of the inspiration for the Jordan XI because the lawn mower has to be really rugged. You have to push it through the grass. You’re bumping into the house. You’re bumping into the fence. And it’s got to be real tough around the edge. Maybe the top of it doesn’t take so much abuse, so you can have a little more fun with color, and that’s exactly what this lawn mower design did. Then I finally came across this higher quality patent leather that actually was not only shiny, but was also tough, scratch resistant and it would flex without cracking. It reminded me of that lawn mower, how the bottom edge of that lawn mower was really tough and designed to work in the conditions of mowing the lawn. I located [the patent leather] around the whole bottom third of the shoe for all those same reasons. It was actually an appropriate material to use on the shoe for basketball. So I was then able to justify bringing shininess into a basketball shoe, because this particular material made it all work. I brought this design back to Michael, and the first thing he said out of his mouth was “Yeah, now we’re talking. Now you got it.”
So he was pumped about it…
Tinker Hatfield: We gave him a pair and said, “Don’t wear these in front of anybody, because they’re not going to come out for like four months.” And he goes and wears them in the playoffs. Ahmad Rashad was standing down courtside with a microphone talking to the world about Michael Jordan’s return to the playoffs after he’d been retired, but then he holds up the shoe. So I’m sitting there watching this whole thing on TV going “Oh no!” But in the end it was kind of a funny story because we thought, “Oh shoot, now people are going to be really pissed off because they can’t go out and buy the shoe until next season.” But what ended up happening was that I think it was an outstanding enough design that people pent up demand. By the time the shoe actually hit the malls and the stores of America, it created frenzy. That was one of the first times that we’ve actually seen these huge lines of people waiting all night long and then breaking into the malls.
How special was the design scheme for the Jordan III to you and Michael?
Tinker Hatfield: Well, I was working on the Jordan XX, and I said to Michael “So really, why did you stay at Nike?” And he was thinking and he said “Well, the [III] shoe was cool and I was really excited about that once I saw it.” When the III sample came back there was a meeting Michael went into late and cranky. He was about to leave Nike. He said after the meeting his dad took him aside and chewed him out for being late to the meeting and he told him never to be late again. That it was rude. And he also said ‘Son, that’s repeat money with Nike. If you go with these other guys it’s a risk that may not work out.” And I think that really in the end, that’s what cemented his decision to stay with Nike. I don’t tell Nike that particular part of the story because I want them to think that was all me [laughs].
In Chicago, at the editor’s meeting we learned Jordan was unhappy with the 10 because he didn’t get to see the final product. Is he that much of a control freak when it comes to the design?
Tinker Hatfield: I think that he takes a real active interest in the product. Unlike most other athletes, he actually enjoys sitting down and talking through the design process and adding to it if he can. I feel like he’s unique in that way. I wouldn’t call that being a control freak, I think that’s more to do with having a sense of pride in everything that he does and that’s why he was such a winner on the basketball court. He really prepared carefully and he became a great player over time. He didn’t just come out and shoot that way, because he worked hard.
When the X was being designed, he was retired from basketball. Most people at Nike were told that it was the end of an era, that there wouldn’t be anymore Jordans. I single-handedly kept designing on the 10. And Michael all of a sudden was on a bus running around playing minor league baseball. I was sort of strapped for resources, because people had written-off the whole Air Jordan thing because Michael was retired.
Tinker Hatfield: When the X was being designed, he was retired from basketball. Most people at Nike were told that it was the end of an era, that there wouldn’t be anymore Jordans. I single-handedly kept designing on the 10. And Michael all of a sudden was on a bus running around playing minor league baseball. I was sort of strapped for resources, because people had written-off the whole Air Jordan thing because Michael was retired. I felt that he was going to come back to basketball, and even if he didn’t, I should keep designing Air Jordans. But the point where I failed was because I didn’t have quite the same number of resources, travel budget and all that stuff. I really didn’t take time and effort to go track him down as much as I would have if he was still playing basketball.
Tinker Hatfield: So that shoe got designed and he didn’t see it very much. I did go track him down in Birmingham, Alabama for one meeting when the design wasn’t completely done. Michael actually didn’t get to see the shoe before I signed off on the production version. So after the fact, we caught up with him and he was talking about coming back to basketball. We thought, “Oh shoot, we better show him what he might be wearing.” And we showed him the shoe and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like one part of it. His comment was “I don’t like it and you need to change it.” And I said “We can’t change it, it’s already in production.” And he goes, “Well if this shoe doesn’t sell as much as the IX, you’re going to make up the difference.” [laughs] So I got on the phone the next day and we did what’s called a called a “running change.” Which means, we actually changed the design of the shoe in the middle of the production of that shoe. We changed it to a detail that he preferred. In the end he liked the shoe, but it was after that change. I was scared to death that he was going to hold me to that bet because I would lose a lot of money personally.
Why was the XV supposed to be your last Jordan?
Tinker Hatfield: It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be my last Jordan. But I’m a firm believer that if you’re smart at all about the way you run your business, you need to be looking for people to succeed you. By the time I finished the XV, and it was admittedly kind of an avant-garde design, I’m going, “Well, I really like to find somebody to pass the torch to, or at least to mentor.” Wilson Smith kind of became [my successor]. He worked on the XVI, and I actually helped concept the XVI. I really wanted to pass the torch to someone else, just to ensure that this thing was going to go on forever, whether I was involved or not. I was having some health problems and I thought I better make sure that there are some people around here that can carry on with this thing. So that’s why there was a little shift there for the XVI, XVII, and XVIII. I helped consult on all of those shoes, but I didn’t become the primary designer again until the 20.
What did you do in the XX3 that hasn’t been done before?
Tinker Hatfield: There are a lot of firsts in the XX3. We put a really good technical team together and spent more time working on it than any other Jordan shoe. We actually changed the way a shoe is built. It’s basically done with little to almost no adhesives. Most athletic shoes are all glued together and pressure formed to fit to the shape. They have reinforcements, and we wanted to get away from all of those chemicals that go into that process in favor of recycled materials. This is something that we want to do as a business in general: to actually change how all shoes are made. My theory is that if you can do it with an Air Jordan, you can do it with anything. It’s slimmer and trimmer and fits better. And I think the detail is more beautiful than anything we would normally attempt with a basketball shoe.
You seem like a guy’s guy, do you think the hipster types would be surprised if they saw the face behind their favorite kicks?
Tinker Hatfield: [laughs] I’m not sure how to answer that.
Like right now a lot of the fans Jordans are these hotshot hipster kids, and you’re just a regular guys’ guy.
Tinker Hatfield: Oh, I actually always felt like that was an advantage. I come from the world of sports and the world of performance and problem solving and was just always about becoming a study of culture and style as well. I think it all kind of came together nicely and I feel like that’s always the coolest stuff to me: the stuff that is a notch above everybody else in performance.
Bape was made popular by their interpretations of the Air Force One. How do you feel about other brands mocking up Nike silhouettes?
Tinker Hatfield: It’s certainly a form of flattery. I feel in some ways though in the long run, it’s possibly hurting athletic footwear. I think we’re having more trouble promoting new performance designs than we have in the past. There are all these remakes and people are digging the remakes because they can actually participate in the remaking. I have to say I have a lot of limited edition Air Force Ones and Jordans and Air Maxes in my own closet. I think it’s really fun to wear them, and you can sort of put your own stamp of style into those kinds of shoes. It’s kind of a love/hate thing for me. I kind of hate it because it makes it harder to sort of convince people that this new kind of product is better than the old one, when they love the old one so much. But it’s kind of cool that they love the old one so much, and I was a part of that. So it kind of goes back and forth with me.