Starting a revolution: Tinker Hatfield and the Air Max 1

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

The Air Max 1 kick started a revolution in athletic footwear design and product marketing in 1987, paving the way for the Air Max line and the Nike we know now. We sat down with the man behind it all, Tinker Hatfield, then product designer, now Vice President for Design and Special Projects and the farther of Air Max (amongst other things) while on a visit to Paris.

Getting the opportunity to meet Tinker Hatfield to most sneaker lovers is the equivalent of asking a child if they’d like to meet Santa Clause, myself included in this group, so to say I was excited was an understatement. The man is quite literally a living legend. Few designers can claim to have had as much impact on the world as Tinker and yet there is a complete lack of arrogance to him from start to finish.

It’s something I’ve noticed with everyone I’ve had the privilege to meet who are hugely established in their field – they’re humble, modest and aware of their success without arrogance. Not only is Tinker all of this, but he’s also very amusing. Within minutes you can see the well known provocateur side of his personality that has helped him to push the boundaries of design and product through not accepting the norm or the rules and it makes for a very enjoyable interview.

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Starting at the beginning, how long was the design process from your initial idea to when the Air Max 1 hit the market?

The first one was a fairly long process. I worked with Mark Parker who was the developer on the shoe. I did the original sketches and came up with the idea of the window if you will in the side of the shoe based on a trip to Paris many years ago to see the Centre Pompidou. That was radically different architecture – hated by many, loved by some. Provocative, different, it had changed the way people looked at architecture and I thought that since we were developing new Air technology at the time, it was a great opportunity to turn the shoe inside out a little bit, like the Pompidou, so you could actually see the technology.

So that process took a while because not only did I have to draw it up, which means going through sketch after sketch after sketch after sketch and sometimes I was arguing with Mark Parker because he was the developer and he wouldn’t always agree with all my sketches, but since I was the designer I usually got to win those arguments. None the less, it took about 3 months of sketching and some rough prototyping to develop some kind of a vision for the Air Max 1.

Originally, you’re an architect. What exactly was it about the Pompidou that was inspiring?

I knew about the Pompidou. It had been built a few years before I came to Paris. It was relatively still new, but not brand new. I knew about it – I’d seen it in photographs and so I came to Paris specifically to to see the building. I came here to see the place in person. Sometimes I’ll be inspired by things I see in magazines and other media, but most often inspiration does come when I’m just walking around the streets.

Do you keep a scrapbook of ideas on you at all times?

I have several notebooks that are full of sketches and drawings and Nike archives all of those sketches. They pop up here and there for store openings and presentations and people use them to refer to for new design work, so they’re not really my property [laughs]. Does anyone want to buy some sketches? [laughs]. Anyway, so yes, I do have a lot of sketches.

I draw a lot and I draw mostly in colour, which has been great because I switched over recently to drawing almost exclusively on iPad. Not that I want to be an advertiser for Apple, but the iPad has allowed me to forgo all the sketchbooks and all the paraphernalia for drawing and just draw on the iPad all the time.

Did you work with any particular athletes when you designed the Air Max 1?

Not really actually on this shoe. I work with athletes all the time; runners and basketball players and other athletes, both male and female, but for this shoe I just took a broad cross-section of runners and in my head I had a prototype runner, but that runner was pretty versatile. So I didn’t have a specific person in mind, no Olympic gold medalist or anything like that, it was really about people who were going to go out and run and be protected by the big Air cushioning.

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What did the Air Max 1 mean as an innovation at the time?

Well I will tell you that when I finished the shoe there were many people inside Nike who didn’t want the shoe to live. Imagine that! Business people didn’t think they could sell a shoe with a hole in it. There were marketing people who didn’t think that they could market it because it was red and white. Most shoes in those days were blues and greys and blacks and whites, but no real bright colours. It was rare to see, especially for a shoe that was not a racing shoe. The red was chosen to essentially be a bright border around that new kind of midsole. I was trying to highlight the midsole by not colouring the midsole – it was like a frame. But there were all kinds of people who were against that shoe, including our own marketing group, so Mark Parker and myself were given a little bit of leeway to proceed with the project by Phil Knight at the top and he just said “Leave these guys alone”. Pretty much, the big dude said “Don’t fire these guys” [laughs].

This shoe was meant to not only be a good performing new running shoe, but it is my role at Nike and still is today, to be provocative, to push for change and to piss people off. And if you don’t piss people off that means you really haven’t done too much. You haven’t pushed the envelope in design or in communication.

So this shoe definitely did it’s job – there were a lot of upset people at Nike and a lot of doubting media. I remember there were a couple of shoe reviewers in England who thought that it was an absurd idea for a running shoe. They were mostly concerned about it’s aesthetics, but none the less there were a lot of negative comments about shoes, just like the Huarache – people were going “No! Where’s the Swoosh?!” [laughs].

Was it immediately that you thought about putting a window in the shoe or did it take time to come to you after seeing the Pompidou?

Often it takes a couple of reasons why you do anything, not just one. One reason was that I saw the Centre Pompidou, the other reason was we were making larger and larger Air bags and no one even knew what an Air bag was. We were making them larger and larger and I thought “If we made it just a little bit larger we could make it almost the same width as the entire midsole of the shoe, which would enable us to go ahead and cut the window and there wouldn’t be a big recess, a big unsupported part of the shoe”.

So those two things together made it make sense to go ahead and do it and so not only did I have to sketch up the idea, and I used some drawings of the Pompidou with some photographs and tried to explain the inspiration at the time, but also I had some science to back me up. We were building bigger and better Air bags and the cross-sections through the midsole were showing that if the bag was wide enough we could actually eliminate part of that midsole. So there was some science to back up the provocative side of the story.

Is the innovation aspect of design really important to you?

For me it is. There are many people in this world that are great stylists, they design based off of all sorts of inspiration that is driven by aesthetics and I do that too, but for me what differentiates the way I work is that I always try and solve problems for real athletes. I thought that this was in keeping with that.

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Did you ever think that the shoe would be as popular as it has become?

Absolutely not. I had no idea. I remember travelling with Mark Parker and we had the very first finished prototype carefully hidden in our bags and we’d take a peek at it because we didn’t want anyone else to see it and it was kind of funny because we were looking at each other and we were both going “Do you think we’re going to get fired over this one? Do you think anybody’s going to like it?”. We wondered wether it was going to really do what we hoped it would do, which would be to change the way people look at athletic footwear design.

To place this shoe in context, the Air Max, the Air Trainer, the Air Revolution and the Air Jordan III were all completed roughly in the same timeframe. Up until that point, almost all athletic shoes were simple utilitarian designs. There was no story telling. Sometimes athletes would endorse the products, American athletes like Julius Erving or Larry Bird in basketball were endorsing products – they were just simply writing their names on shoes, but there was no story line, there was no development of what I would call ‘romantic storytelling’ behind the design of athletic shoes until this shoe. This was the first one – the visible Air story and the Pompidou and then Nike layered another story on top of that which was “You say you want a revolution” and used The Beatles music and that storyline was simply to say that this is revolutionary.

A lot of great things happen because people choose to go against the grain and be provocateurs or revolutionaries. So, all of those things conspired to make this an important product and it was fun to be a part of.

You mentioned story telling. Was it unusual to bring story telling into sneaker design at the time?

At that point it was very unusual. It was unusual because no one had done it. I had been working at Nike for almost 5 years prior to designing the Air Max 1 and I was the Corporate Architect, hence knowing about the Pompidou. So I came from architecture and quite often when you design a building, like a church, a lot of churches tend to have a storyline behind them which is “God is bigger than you” and you come in and you’re supposed to feel smaller; the building is tall and the windows are tall and it’s cross goes way up and it’s a way to tell the story that there’s a power beyond and greater than you, so that’s a story and when you walk by a church that story is reinforced by the very design of the church.

You can say that that could be true of other things that have been designed up until this point, maybe locomotives and certain automobiles and there’s probably stories behind many of the best designs, it just simply hadn’t come to footwear and so I saw the opportunity because I came from the world of architecture where storytelling and trying to design spaces for people is a very intimate experience and yet in athletic footwear it wasn’t. It was just about making shoes and giving them to athletes and they just run. There was no thought about aesthetics really.

Sometimes success in this world is all about being a genius, but it might also be about being in the right place at the right time.

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When you are travelling the world and you see people wearing the shoe, is it amazing that you designed a shoe that’s been around for years and years and people still get excited about it?

Especially in Europe. I wasn’t even aware of it really – after I designed that shoe I’m on to shoe after shoe after shoe. We tend to work one and a half to two years in advance of any product, so by the time that shoe actually hit the marketplace I had already designed the next Air Max and I was already working on the next Air Jordan and the next this and that. So I never really spent much time actually thinking about how these products were being worn or being received in the marketplace. I should say I knew they were selling well because the sales people would tell me. They would also tell me if they weren’t selling well by the way, but this one did well.

None the less, I wasn’t that pre-occupied by that, but about 4 or 5 years later I’d been working on so many important shoes for Nike and also I was the Creative Director of apparel at the same time, I really got to this point where I was sick. I was working way too hard and not getting enough sleep and Mark Parker actually said “You’re a mess!” [laughs] and I was a mess, I was worn to a frazzle and Mark said “Why don’t you take some time off. Take a month and just chill out”. So I took my wife and we travelled around the world.

We went to Paris, we went to the Caribbean islands, we went to South America, we went to New York City, we went to little out of the way places and sometimes big cities. This was the first time I noticed it… we could not go any place, I could be on a small desert island in the middle of the Caribbean or I could be on the Champs Elysee in Paris and I never went any place that I didn’t see something I had designed. Not a single place in the entire world and that probably is true today still. [laughs] That was really great. I felt pretty cool about it. I felt a little like I’d done something important. That was the first time. My wife was also there to tell me that it wasn’t that great [laughs].

Why do you think it’s so popular?

I think that good design can be timeless if there was a purpose for it in the first place and if it was done not only with purpose and some science and good thinking behind it, but also was designed with some restraint. Even though that shoe was crazy for it’s time, if we look at it now I think it looks good because it’s not over designed and I think that if you look at the history of Air Max’s, there was a point in time, not now, but maybe 5 or 6 years ago it looked like 17 people designed each Air Max. There was so much plastic and so many moulded parts and so many colours and just so much. I think it’s hard for those kinds of products or ideas – they don’t span the test of time too well. Maybe because they’re trying too hard or maybe because they’ve been over designed. I think the Air Max’s up until a certain point were designed with good lines.

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As we look to the future, the way that people design and get their ideas down is changing and you mentioned that the sketchbooks are in the vault and you’re purely iPad now…

… which is a huge problem. How do you protect intellectual property if you’ve drawn it on an iPad? And how does it go into a vault? I mean, it’s weird. We haven’t figured it out yet. So you should probably hack in to Nike and see some of my latest designs [laughs].

An iPad can be just like a sketch tool on paper. A drawing can be very gestural, can be very quick and you can also add colour. It can be very rapidly done. When I draw shoes I might do something very very quick and very impressionistic. I can sit in front of an athlete and we can have a conversation and while we’re talking I’ll draw the design and show it to the athlete during the course of the meeting. Or there might be some marketing people around or some merchandising folks and they see it, maybe the developer sees it, or I’m just with the athlete and the athlete says “You know what, I think that’s pretty cool. That looks like what we just talked about” and then I will email it immediately to all of the technical people we need to make a shoe.

When I told you it took 3 months, for me it’s now 3 hours. That includes the meeting with the athlete. Now that might not mean it’s a finished design yet, but at least it’s the initial direction of the design. The performance is usually worked in to this first sketch. That’s really different – from 3 months to 3 hours. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it a long time, but it’s also tools like this and building on the foundation of all the good work that’s been done.

So are you one of those people who has embraced digital technology?

I wasn’t until iPads and iPhones and a program called SketchBook Pro. A lot of people have been designing on computers for a long time, but they have to have a desktop computer and a mouse and lots of complicated software and they use vectors and there are many different programs for that like Illustrator and Photoshop and also a company called AutoDesk who have all these incredible software programs and that’s the way most things are designed. I didn’t like the mouse, I didn’t like the vector system, I didn’t like big computers sitting around. It was only until SketchBook Pro came out and I could still draw like I had a pencil in my hand or use my finger and that’s when I started to embrace this.

Having said that, I fill up an iPad and right now the way we’re storing my drawings for Nike, because Nike essentially owns any design work that I do, we store them on the iPad and essentially the iPad becomes the old notebook – it gets turned off and it goes on a shelf. It’s a very expensive way of doing it [laughs]. I’m glad I’m not paying for it! But now the iPad is the sketchbook and when I fill up an iPad instead of transferring everything to a hard drive, which we actually back it up with, we keep everything on the iPad. It’s kind of like I’m trying to figure out how to preserve the work on the machine that it was actually done on if you will because once it goes to a hard drive or some place else, to me it’s like I’ve lost control of it. It’s kind of hard to trace back to how it was done and that sort of thing. [laughs] This sounds like a big commercial for the iPad.