During a year when "American innovation" was at risk of becoming an antiquated term, the Beaverton, Oregon-based company introduced a paradigm shift in shoemaking with Flywire technology, released the Steve Nash Trash Talk shoe made from factory scraps and launched Nike Sportswear, a line that celebrates and advances its 44-year design legacy. While this year has seen many marketers rolling out green lines as a nod to sustainability, Nike opted to weave environmentally friendly design into every product category through a dedicated team, Considered, which develops green design practices for the entire company. The team establishes benchmarks for preferred materials, elimination of toxins and waste reduction, which designers across the company can draw from for individual products. The goal is not to make shoes that "look green" but, instead, to build sustainability into products like the newest generation Air Jordan, XX3, and Nike's best-selling running shoe, Pegasus 25, so athletes still benefit from what Nike's built its reputation on—sports performance.
In that way, Nike products in 2008 embody a balance between breakthroughs in craft, new materials and the iconic shoes and apparel that earned the mega-brand cred in the first place.
"2008 has been an incredible year for Nike design and innovation due in large part to the great canvases we have had the opportunity to create on," says Sandy Bodecker, vice president of Nike Global Design. "The Euro (soccer tournament), the Olympics and the launch of Nike Sportswear provided amazing platforms to create new performance standards. 2008 was a year that Nike elevated design and the role it plays in fueling the brand."
To streamline Nike's design face across concept creation, product design and retail, CEO Mark Parker, who joined Nike in 1979 as a footwear designer, appointed Bodecker, a Nike veteran of more than 25 years, as the first-ever global design head in September 2007.
On the product design front, Nike's storied in-house design think tank, the Innovation Kitchen, fueled the development of this year's footwear innovations like Flywire and Lunarlite super resilient foam. The Kitchen has lived within Nike for eight years and, by doctrine, is completely separate from day-to-day business concerns and minute technical changes.
"It's a group that's unencumbered by business and can just float in blue sky," says Jay Meschter, the lead designer on Flywire who's been part of the Kitchen since it was founded. "As a designer, you couldn't ask for a better scenario. The usual trap is that people pontificate about what things could be and don't actually do anything about it. For us the trick was to get the pot boiling, get the right mix of people and actually start to crank some things out that could change things."
And Meschter says it took a while to get that recipe right in the Kitchen. He says the key is that the Kitchen allowed for the time and space to come up with Flywire, a method that looks nothing like traditional shoe-making.
While shoes are normally cut from material which is layered for strength, Flywire allows for drastically more lightweight shoes akin to string sandals and suspension bridges—only a few strategically placed, super-strong threads bear the weight, while the rest of the two-microns thick fabric acts like a protective sock.
Meschter also says that 2008's breakthroughs were a product of how the Kitchen has changed over the years. The Kitchen recently absorbed the innovation arms of Nike's product categories—like running, soccer, etc.—to bring more specialists with intimate knowledge of category needs into the fold as well as to promote cross-pollination. Where design was previously siloed, the new model fosters visibility across disciplines, so expertise from one area is shared across apparel, footwear, brand, environment and accessories.
"The Innovation Kitchen has evolved into a multidisciplinary innovation and sports performance organization that drives the innovation agenda for all of footwear and some apparel," says Tinker Hatfield, Nike's VP, Creative Design, Kitchen head, and guy responsible for Nike's marquee Air Jordans.
"The Kitchen could suddenly harness all of these attributes that the company already had in spades, but could direct them towards innovation," Meschter adds. "You're seeing the maturation of the machine. We hit the ground running pretty quickly, but the really intractable things, the big ticket items, take a while."
Meschter says he had been working on Flywire for seven years before it hit market—and it is still on his desk. The Kitchen right now is trying to figure out how the technology can work in a meaningful way for apparel, beyond its current use in Windrunner windbreakers.
"Self-critically, Nike sometimes has had a lot of technologies that come and go seasonally," Meschter says. "But this is different for us. This is the beginning of something. It's more than something we did for the Olympics that will go away when that string thing isn't popular anymore."
Beyond Flywire, Nike's answer to the highly visible issue of sustainability follows its cross-disciplinary approach. Instead of creating a green line separate from its entire suite of products, Nike formally named Considered its internal sustainable design arm in October to develop more environmentally friendly practices and disseminate them across the company. The Considered team is comprised of 13 experts in environmental science, engineering, chemistry, toxicology and product development, which will drive efforts to reach the company's sustainability goals: all footwear will meet baseline sustainability standards by 2011, with apparel to follow in 2015 and equipment in 2020.
Recognizing that the practices developed by Considered and technology like Flywire are part of its future legacy, Nike launched Sportswear during the Olympics. The line features classic Nike products updated with these new materials and processes, so that new technology is literally woven into the products that brought the mark international popularity. Sportswear means Nike can keep the heritage products that embody the aesthetic that's been adopted by youth and street culture in the marketplace, while resisting antiquity with contemporary design.
"Sportswear works vertically, so we comment on the past, the present and the future of company simultaneously," says Richard Clarke, global creative director of Sportswear. "We have the ability to cherry pick a little bit from 40 years of innovation and product and insights. I don't think that would have been possible before; you have to have a great depth of product to be able to comment on it. It's not the goal of the sports category to look backwards. It's a relatively new way to look at our product and how to create it."
Clarke says that Sportswear revisits classic products like the sneaker Air Max 90, designed by Tinker Hatfield in 1989, by asking: What would Tinker have done 20 years ago if he had the insights and technology of today? For example, Sportswear's Airmax Current looks like the original Max 90 from 20 feet away. But if you get closer, you see the cross-hatched threads that are Flywire. "At 20 feet it's what you know and love and it's iconic," Clarke says."When you pick it up, you learn all these other things about it—It's lighter, more comfortable, more flexible."
So even the way Nike regards its history has changed.
"It's a company maturing," Clarke says. "Every company goes through its adolescent years, its young, rambunctious years. I think Nike now is a mature design organization that understands its legacy and its responsibilities. It's a maturity of a design dynasty, within sport anyway."