John R. Hoke III: Green Foot Forward

Nike's chief design guru is prodding his designers back to nature and away from plastics

For John R. Hoke III, Nike Inc.'s (NKE ) chief design guru, flashes of inspiration can strike at the Detroit Auto Show, the furniture festival in Milan, or while gazing at a porcelain saucer by 99-year-old potter Eva Zeisel. Nike footwear reflects this whole range of influences, but now Hoke wants his designers to think of Mother Nature.

The new ethos at the Beaverton (Ore.) sneaker giant is known as sustainable design. Following a corporate-wide mission called "Considered," Hoke, 41, urges his designers to create products that deliver more based on less -- less energy, less chemical content, less waste. He also tells the team to forget about glues, adhesives, plastics, and other toxic materials used in traditional sneakers. "I'm very passionate about this idea," he says. "We are going to challenge ourselves to think a little bit differently about the way we create products."

Pushing the design envelope is nothing new for Nike' team. These are the people who created such radically new cushioning systems as Nike Air and Nike Shox. They also redrew the running landscape with minimalist, nearly barefoot running sneakers, called Nike Free.

The premise for Considered begins with the deconstruction of a traditional sneaker. Hoke wants designers to rely on geometry, not chemistry, to figure how to rebuild a shoe. Shunning adhesives, designers are coming up with snap-fit systems that may be reinforced with organic cotton stitching. These fibers hold together mid- and top soles composed of natural leather instead of synthetics. In a basketball shoe, designers are replacing a plastic heel cup with one made out of natural materials. Instead of a foam lining pack, "we're looking at fillers of bamboo fiber, which are renewable" he says. "We're taking out what is not necessary."

So how does Hoke set the conditions for lightning to strike? Design inspiration trips, for one. He sends his team to the zoo to observe and sketch animals' feet. He'll hold a lecture on the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly or bring in Eva Zeisel to discuss structure and forms. The Detroit car show is another annual pilgrimage that is more about drawing inspiration from sleek lines, styling, and color schemes than the fascination with automobiles. "I go to the show, and I'm not even looking at cars," Hoke says. "I'm looking at form, surfacing, and silhouette. I'm looking at the assembly of materials, the depth of color."

One design camp involved an excursion into origami with its rigorous focus on constraints. Designers were asked to build an ergonomic chair out of cardboard. Instead of conventional glues, participants had to concentrate on folding and bending. Then Hoke threw in another twist: The judging would be based on whether the new seats could hold people in a contest of musical chairs. Hoke also brought in an Israeli origami artist as a tutor, and "we had designers fold paper for three days," he says. "The ideas that have come from that session are phenomenal. It forced us to look deeper at flexibility and how geometry works." Instead of cutting and sewing, he says, "what about crimping, folding, and bending?"

Hoke first started sketching Nike sneakers as a teenage runner. In 1979, at age 15, he submitted a sketch to Nike founder Phil Knight -- a way to hold air in the middle of the sole. After earning bachelors and masters degrees in architecture, Hoke joined Nike in 1993 and was put in charge of creating Niketown stores. Seven years later, he was responsible for designing Shox XTR, a training shoe with the Shox cushioning system. Hoke now sits on the board of Herman Miller Inc. (MLHR ) and makes design a 24/7 lifestyle. No wonder the designer sees the world differently.

By Stanley Holmes

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.