in Profiles | 02 JAN 97
Featured in
Issue 32

Visible Air

An interview Gordon Thompson III, Vice-President for Research, Design and Development at Nike Inc. about street culture, shoelaces and odd-sized feet

in Profiles | 02 JAN 97

In England, and pretty much worldwide, sports shoes have become an important part of youth culture. How does Nike address that? Do you position your design work to create these cultural trends or are you responding to them?

Let me break it down into how footwear actually gets designed at Nike. The company focuses on working with the athletes, understanding from their point of view what a product needs to be. The more research that's done, the better the product. We start with that. Part of being a really strong designer is just keeping your eyes open and seeing what's going on around the world, whether it's sports or cultural events. The performance or problem-solving aspect is very much at the root of footwear and apparel, and of course imagery. But product inspiration comes from so many elements. It could come from studying an animal and how their paws are formed and how that could benefit a trail running shoe.

You must also be trying to gauge what's happening at the street level, and how Nike might project street culture ten or fifteen years down the line?

What's interesting about the youth is you can't bullshit them. So why try and predict? Especially today, youth culture is made up of an incredibly savvy group of people. One reason why Nike has always been successful in the youth culture market is product integrity, making things work. If people think we're going around to clubs and walking the streets and looking at what people have got on their feet, that's a bunch of crap. We don't do it. First of all, we don't have time to. Second of all, why would we? That's today, not tomorrow. We're a company that's moving forward, not just seeing what's fashionable today. We try and make products that work for athletes, because a lot of kids are playing sports and they're not going to wear a piece of shit on their feet. Neither are any of the athletes we endorse. We put great effort into making products that work for athletes and therefore work for kids.

In effect you're saying that they're designed for an athlete, but they then maybe get used for more stylistic purposes.

As a company we can design and design basketball shoes for their intended use - to play on the courts. So, perhaps some kid who doesn't play basketball buys basketball shoes. Are we offended? No. That's fine. We take the high road and say if that kid ever played basketball, those shoes had better perform for him. But I have to admit, the halo effect of the industry - the general embracing of a little more casualness - has been a great asset to Nike's success.

But if you chose to look at the aesthetic, you could learn about that market.

We look at trends and colour and material, but always putting on the Nike glasses. I'm in charge of the colour. I pick the colour palette every season.

It's black and white right now. When was that decided?

We choose a year and a half ahead of time. Three weeks ago we went through Spring 98's colours.

Is that the first thing that you decide?

No, because the ideas about product consumption and what we want to do with the categories is often decided three or four years in advance. Colours are affected by the specific season. We go to these forecasting houses and they say 'think pink' and we just kind of giggle and think 'what?' We use Percleis, Color Association, Promostyle. They do colour forecasting for everybody in the business. If we followed everything that these people told us...

You'd get 50 different recommendations. Who wears Nike - what's the demographic?

Cradle to grave. It's an inclusion brand. Anyone can wear them. My dad wears Nike and my very hip nephew wears Nike. They really fit with such a wide spectrum of people and economics and cultures and genders.

Somebody recently remarked to me that sports shoes are really the the tailfins of the 90s - that the kind of elaboration of design in athletic shoes has a parallel in the design of 50s cars.

Interesting. I guess when I look back at the 50s and what car design was all about - being new, coming up with lots of very, very exciting new ideas about what a car could be - I recognise the point we're at in footwear design, in all design. Innovation and technology are coming at such an incredibly rapid pace.

What comes next?

The next thing probably will be customisation. We're doing this thing in Nike Town which I think is fascinating, although we've known forever that people's feet aren't symmetrical. My left foot is larger than my right foot. When you're buying shoes, you only can buy one size. Do you up the size to accommodate your big foot or do you downsize? A lot of people put double socks on one and a single sock on the other.

How are you going to deal with that at Nike Town?

It's a research thing, where we're really seeing what the norm is. We have a device called NGAGE, a footwear scanner that takes your sizing three dimensionally. It takes a 3-D wire frame of your foot - then calls out your arch, the width, the length of your foot, various other dimensions. You do both feet so you can see the differences, then you can give the data to the sales clerk so they can figure out the best sizing for you.

But you still have to buy pairs of the same size shoes.

GT: We're looking at taking all that information, finding out what is the discrepancy and whether there's an average. If 7/8 of human beings have a larger left foot than a right foot, we may begin adjusting our shoes to accommodate that.

What are the growth areas for Nike?

Europe and Asia have developed greatly in the last couple of years and are forecast to grow very large. Netball in Asia-Pacific is big. Women's volleyball is gigantic in Asia and in Australia. In China I'd say it's women's basketball. We've done four years of research now into the Asian style of running - their needs are often very different. Sizing and light weight of product are huge issues for us right now. We're increasing the number of designers to be more region-specific, to ensure product quality and go after some of the sports we feel we could really bring something big to, as we do for sports that are more mainstream in the US.

It's almost a zip code of design with the demographics calculated down to where they live.

I like that. We are 'zip coding' design. That's what we try and do. That's why when you talk about things like youth culture I think that's such a by-product of a bigger world. What do you think of Nike's corporate identity?

Pretty effective. Who designed the swoosh?

If I recall the story, Phil Knight needed a logo for this company called Nike and went to the art department at the University of Oregon and just got some art student in Eugene, Oregon, to design it. I can't remember her name but she got 38 bucks for it. It had to fit on the side of a shoe, because Onitsuka Tiger was doing that at the time. The actual swoosh itself has not changed. The Nike part of it has.

Why do you think sports has become so major as a cultural identifier, especially in the last decade?

Sports is one of those things that still has an element of surprise to it. You get the sports page every morning and you can't argue with it. Someone lost, someone won. The scores were this. They played great, they played lousy. And in this world of people feeling alone, sports is inclusionary. Every morning when I'm here I run out in Central Park and just being a part of the New York running community is a great feeling. You're with other human beings. So many people are stuck all day at their computers and are very isolated. Going to a stadium to play with someone, or being on a team, or just running in the park, there's a real sense of being alive and a part of things. Sports has become a lot more sophisticated, better marketed, and much more entertainment-oriented than in the past. But despite all that, it would not be successful if people weren't up for it. Sports has become such an interesting part of people's lives now. That's a much more interesting topic than how a shoe is built. I don't think it's filling a gap as much as providing a sense of belonging.

That's why I wonder whether it's replacing something else.

What do you think it's replacing?

I think it's a secular religion and maybe what it's replacing is work ethic.The kind of belonging that people had in the first half or two-thirds of the century in their place of employment, specifically in manufacturing industry, had to find some other expression. If it's not an allegiance to your employer, it must be to a team or a sport. Does that make sense?

I definitely think that, years ago, your team was who you worked for or the church that you went to but I don't think it ever changed. As homo sapiens we are a team-oriented people. We like to be around each other. Working at Nike, people always comment that it's very much that old style of company where there's the CEO...

The puzzling thing is that, according to certain commentators like the US Labour Secretary Robert Reich, the idea of the global corporation may not be indomitable. Corporations are relatively new institutions that arose at the end of the last century for certain economic and technological reasons. Now a whole series of new factors have come into play. Who's to say whether, with the communications technology that is becoming available, those large structures will continue to have the kind of grip they do today? There's this paradox that people want to belong to something larger. And yet you, the large entity, Nike, are having to develop this incredible number of permutations of a few key symbolic attributes. Even things like shoelaces.

Those are the bane of my existence. The perfect shoelace is very hard to achieve. For a number of reasons: manufacturing, quality...

The styling of how you cross your laces has become almost as esoteric an art as tying sailors' knots. Some Nike shoes have kind of inner and outer eyelets.

Adjustable fit lacing is one step in the drive towards customisation, offering people different types of fit. Having different eyelets on your shoe - which are now part of the webbing that holds the lace in - means you can go wide to short. Adjustable fit lacing came from the need to hold your foot further into the shoe when you're running. It cleans up the slack. You don't want your foot sliding around or springing out, you want to hold it close to the ground. Innovation doesn't have to be some big whizz-bang technology. It can be just figuring out how a person with a wider foot can lace up their shoe one way, and someone with a narrower foot can do it another way, so we can offer the same shoe for both people.

I sometimes feel there should be manuals sold with the shoes. Should I be tying the laces right at my ankle? If I'm not, does that mean I have the wrong style?

It means you should do what makes you comfortable.

If I'm comfortable I might not be chic or trendy.

Oh please.

These windows in the heels. Why do you have them?

It's technology.

What do you see when you look in that window?

You see out the other side.

No, but you see this thing in it.

I think people know what it is. It's an air chamber.

When you're wearing it you can't see what it does. I want to see myself impacting this thing.

That idea arose so that people would understand that shoes need cushioning, and it's fantastic for Nike in terms of preventing injury. A lot of shoes have air bags but don't have 'windows', as you call them.

What do you call them?

'Windows' is good. 'Windows' will work. That's fine. Windows 95.

Technically, what is it known as in the trade?

Visible air. Vizzy Air.

I saw a few of your 'air bags' at the Museum of Modern Art's 'Mutant Materials' show, removed from the shoe. They were like bodily implants, silicone breast implants. To what extent are people becoming the shoe?

I hope not to much of an extent. That would be very depressing. We have a range of different bags based, again, on sport type, body weight, running style or tennis style. The new Air Zoom technology is a much slimmer bag and you feel the ground a lot more. It's not so tall.

Are there as many Nike styles for women as for men?

No. Although our women's line is the largest in the industry, it's clearly not as extensive as the men's. We are making more specific product than ever for women's sports - a wider range of basketball, tennis, soccer shoes, designed for women. We see that as a growth area with huge potential. You can guarantee that is on the drawing board. You know, taking the focus off sports and innovation would be a gigantic mistake for us. It's not as if we turn our back on youth culture but there are a lot of different ingredients needed to make this fly. Ultimately no one's going to want your product if it doesn't work. It could look great but if it's not performing for you who wants it? The world's got too many great looking things that don't do anything.