Online Extra: Chaos and Creativity at Nike

Vice-President John Hoke talks about letting his designers take their wildest inspirations and run with them

John Hoke's official Nike (NKE ) title is vice-president for global footwear design. But his real job is to inspire ideas, promote creativity, and try to harness the often messy and chaotic design process that has helped set Nike apart from its peers.

An example: the creation of the Nike Free, a running shoe engineered to match the contours and performance of the bare foot. The product was designed for runners who are interested in strengthening the natural movement of their feet. It offers the protection of footwear with the benefits of barefoot running.

Few big companies give their creative types the kind of freedom that Nike gives its hundreds of designers. But as Hoke, 41, notes, designing sneakers or apparel at Nike is not "about punching the clock but all about following your passion."

Nike has found a way to turn passion into profits, and a big part of that comes from a system that encourages and captures creativity. Hoke recently talked with BusinessWeek correspondent Stanley Holmes about how he and his designers stoke the process. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

As one of the chief design gurus, what is your role inside Nike?

When I was a designer, my job was to make lightning strike every so often. My job as a v-p and creative director is to create conditions for lightning. I'm mixing up inspiration, aspiration, expectations, directions, and instructions -- mixing them together to tell hundreds of designers what I think we should do as a brand, what we should stand for as a brand, and the vision of how it's expressed through design. That's really exciting and challenging.

Do you have a design philosophy at Nike?

Complex simplicity is the design ethic I drive, which is thinking how to design the shoe to do three visual dialogues -- attract [customers] with iconic design, clean and simple; engage them with three-dimensional craft that is fully designed and holistic; and capture them with this idea of emotional coding and discovery elements. That's the singular vision of Nike.

Do you draw on a lot of in-house research?

There are some universal research topics: How do we cushion the foot? How do we support the foot? How do we keep the foot cool or warm? How do we enhance/protect the foot? How do we provide positive sensations for the foot? Those are ongoing topics.

Tell us about the genesis of Nike Free -- essentially a barefoot running shoe that has become a big hit.

The premise was looking at the structure of the foot. We began to videotape people running in shoes and people running barefoot. We did pressure testing. Out of that research, we saw some new opportunities to think differently about how we structure shoes.

We checked with high-end athletes about what they are doing to make themselves better. They are training barefoot. They are training on the sand. They are training on the grass. What are they doing that for? Better strengthening of their feet. Better resiliency in the muscles and ligaments. This was happening with university runners. The coaches knew it was helping, but they did not know how much.

There was only a certain [time of year] they could do the barefoot training. It was too hard in winter and too soft in summer. Beaches weren't available in all places.

Your research showed that Nike Free does something to improve the feet, so what did Nike do next to turn an idea into a commercial product?

With Free, like most projects, it starts with an idea and a small team. Tinker Hatfield [a star designer who heads Nike's deep research team known as the Innovation Kitchen] and I are in constant contact. As these shoes become commercialized, we talk about the subtle nature of the shoe, and then we agree to expand what it does and how it can be a broader notion of the company.

We bring in the in-line designers, the in-line color designers, the marketing people, materials folks, the trend folks. We cook the idea right there. It's fun. It's not a cut-and-dried process. It's a collaborative process. It's team-driven. We share our knowledge.

The next step to commercialization is the Concept Debut. How does that work at Nike?

It's a review committee involving myself, Eric Sprunk [vice-president for global footwear] and Mark Parker [Nike brand president]. Twice a year the [designers stop everything], and we begin to create a debut and we look at all the designs. It's my time with Eric and Mark to critique where we are.

We get into the details: the size of the swoosh, the proportion of the upper, the energy of the insole and outsole tooling, the body of the work. These are big events. Hundreds of people involved. It's the time when design really shines. It's obviously stressful, but it's [also] incredibly invigorating and energetic. I see [a shoe] from the first sketching, from the thumb nailing to the final product. These are reviews for products that will hit the market 18 months out. We critique every single shoe -- about 400 models.

What happens after a product passes its review?

We get a green light, which means we intend to commercialize and produce it. We have all the regions on board. They see the idea and think about how they'll go to market. Marketing gets involved. Free was launched in the U.S. in 2004. And we just started advertising it in earnest this past summer.

Nike Free is considered a "franchise idea" -- a wholesale change in how Nike thinks about making shoes. But you have another franchise idea just reaching the market that is based on using environmentally friendly materials. How do the new socially responsible Considered line and companywide ethos challenge you as designers?

The premise of Considered is interesting: rethink how we make shoes. And consider every [aspect] -- assembly, sourcing, fabricating, how we are doing it and how we could do it on a sustainability basis.

Our responsibility as leaders is to push this effort. It is a big deal. We take it very seriously. This Considered thing was deconstructing a shoe and then asking how can we construct it in a different way that has more sensitivity to certain things we wanted to pay attention to. Considered is a design ethos. We're [moving to] a more sustainable design ethic.

Why are you so passionate about Considered? The social consciousness of the product is where design is going. Design has become the new social priority in the world. It's embedded in the cultural dialogue now. People expect good design. Designers are in a position to help lead, to help make substantive change in the world. I believe this environmental/ sustainable approach to creation is a big deal. I want to be on the forefront. I want Nike to be there.

Holmes is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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