As one of the most influential shoe designers of the 20th century, Tinker Hatfield’s path to Vice President of Innovation at Nike came together in unanticipated ways. With a childhood love of sports, he always dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. He had the talent to support it, and ended up at The University of Oregon on a track and field scholarship under the coaching and mentoring of Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike. After suffering an injury his second year, Tinker decided to get serious about his studies and explored architecture and design on a deeper, more passionate level.
Architecture gave Tinker a well-rounded education and formed the basis of what would become his career path. He ended up at Nike with Bowerman in ‘81 as the corporate architect for buildings, stores and office remodels, and made a seamless transition to product and footwear design. He’s since been the lead designer on many of Nike’s most popular and innovative athletic shoe designs, including the first Nike cross trainer, the first Nike Air Max running shoe, and most of the Air Jordan line worn by Michael Jordan.
Currently, Tinker oversees Nike’s “Innovation Kitchen,” cooking up some of the sports world’s greatest products and technologies, including the re-design of the Oregon Ducks’ ultra-futuristic football uniforms and their over-the-top basketball court floor. His design work for Air Jordan is included in the Smithsonian’s National Design Museum, and his custom-designed Portland home has been featured in numerous architectural publications.
JEFF SELIS: What life lessons can sports teach you, and where’s the connection between creativity and sports?
TINKER HATFIELD: Sports teaches you very important lessons that are many and varied. It’s probably the closest thing to the lessons we learned in fighting and warfare, about loyalty and growing up. Aside from the obvious stuff of watching people do great things, I think it’s the lessons. And I often reflect, “Dang, I don’t think I woulda pulled this off had I not been an athlete.” Things like presentations, or designing, or some kind of influential situation. I hardly get nervous and I think that’s because of sports.
JS: When did you realize you were an athlete?
TH: I was probably about 12years old. I grew up in Halsey, Oregon and I played baseball. I wasn’t all that good, but I was fast, so I started attending track invitationals and learned how to hurdle. When I was about 13, I went to a meet in Eugene that Bill Bowerman was running and I won this race. Afterwards this older guy in a wheelchair rolled up and said, “You’re going to have a great future in track and field.” I never saw him before or after, but it was the first time I ever thought of myself as a real athlete. I hardly lost any races in my track career after that. State records, national records…
JS: Did you go to school for athletics?
TH: Well, that’s an interesting story because I got recruited all over the country, from Columbia to Stanford to USC. I went on meetings and I got to meet guys like Bob Seagren and Payton Jordan, the famous old sprinter coach. But they always got around to asking what I wanted to study. I’d say architecture and they all said the same thing: “No one’s ever done that here and we don’t recommend that at all.” A few of the places pulled their scholarship offers, citing that it was impossible. So when I visited University of Oregon, which was only 25 miles away, Bill Bowerman asked me the same question. I said architecture and he goes, “You know, that can be tough, but if you apply yourself we believe you can do it.” And he gave me a full ride scholarship.
JS: And here we are over three decades later. What’s your favorite shoe you’ve designed and why?
TH: Air Jordan 11. I designed it when everybody told me the Jordan era was over, Michael was retired and we shouldn’t be doing any more shoes. I basically said, “Fuck that” and I did it out of sheer determination. I had a guy named Jim Grove, a developer, and we put more technology into that shoe than any other basketball shoe in the history of basketball: patent leather, and nylon cordura upper, which everybody said you could never do on a basketball shoe because that’s just not a basketball material. So that’s my favorite shoe because Michael then un-retires a year later and plays part of the season in the Air Jordan 10, which was designed for the year that he missed. It was an OK shoe, but then I showed him the 11 and he freaked out. I said, “I knew all along you were coming back so I made the shoe and here it is.” And he was crazed-like. I said, “But don’t wear it.” He was just about to go into the playoffs. I told him again, “Don’t wear it, just test wear it around the comforts of your own gym or whatever.” But no. First game of the playoffs there’s [sportscaster] Ahmad Rashad holding the shoe up in front of the TV cameras, talking about the shoe while they’re warming up behind him. And it’s not even available for another four months!
JS: What’s the greatest sports shoe ever made? The Jordan 11 for all you described?
TH: [Laughs] No, I would never pick one of my own shoes for that! I think Bowerman’s original Waffle Trainer really changed the way people thought about sports footwear. He changed the landscape of running and made it possible for people to jog in the street. The E.V.A. [shock absorber] was a little softer and nobody was really doing it quite as right. The Waffles added a certain level of comfort and cushioning that was not known before. There were all kinds of good sports shoes around, but nothing that changed a landscape like that one.
JS: If you could have two pairs of shoes for the rest of your life, what would they be?
TH: Nobody has ever asked me that question before, so kudos to you, you asshole. Geez! I have to think about it. What would you choose?
JS: I’d probably take a pair of white Jack Purcells as one of mine.
TH: Yeah? I would probably…well, one of them is right here. The SFB “Special Forces Boot.” My brother, Tobie, was the primary driver behind this. I supported it inside of Nike to get it through all the roadblocks. We had a lot of interaction with the U.S. military. This shoe is lightweight like a running shoe, but it’s actually an army rec boot, and you can wear it for almost anything. I wear these all the time. Then I would go for something you could jog or run in—like the original Air Max.
JS: What has all the attention given to the Oregon Ducks football uniforms that you guys designed meant to the program?
TH: The coaches say that because of the uniforms, they have a chance to get into anybody’s house in the country. So, if you’ve got a prospect in Pennsylvania—and maybe he’s rated the best player in the country—if Oregon calls, they are automatically on the shortlist. That’s pretty darn amazing. And the coaches say the players, skill-positioned players, think that is really important now. But the way I like to put it—and I think it’s less grandiose and more real—is that if all things are equal, the uniforms are the tiebreaker. It’s really about the program, the coaches, and the school. It’s about the winning tradition and all that stuff, but if you end up in a tie with some other school, that’s when those uniforms really kick in. We thought it would be helpful, but we didn’t think it would be this big of deal. You were there with me for the Rose Bowl- those freaking helmets. Even a more conservative person can see what it does to the psyche of not only your own team, but to the opponent, in a negative way. We’ve had a major impact on sports yet again through a medium that no one ever really thought of before.
JS: Who has been your role model?
TH: Believe it or not, my hero in high school was O.J. Simpson. He had style. He’d run 50 yards before he’d get tackled, and then he’d get up and walk back to the huddle so slow and cool. But when I got older, I really started to look up to people who had more dimension to them- people like Willis Reed, helping win a championship on one leg. Bob Seagren was a world-class athlete, but had other interests and was an entrepreneur. I liked people with dimension and nuance and who had a humbleness about them. I get asked this question a lot, and I always answer that I had three mentors in my life— people that I truly look up to. One was my dad, who was really rough on me, kicking my ass. He was old school and a hard-ass and I resented it at the time. He instilled in me that you have to be a hard worker and you have to be tough. Two was Bill Bowerman, he was such a strategist and such a smart guy. He told parables and liked to recite from the Bible. Working hard is one thing, but working hard and being smart is a whole other dimension. And three is Phil Knight. He blushes when he hears this, but he’s like a father figure to me, even though he’s not really old enough to be my father. What I learned from him is loyalty. It’s about relationships, and he’s so good at that. He cares about people and understands the notion of being loyal to people who are loyal to him. That’s the third leg of the stool: work hard, be smart and be loyal.
JS: Well said. Last question. What’s your legacy?
TH: I don’t know if I have a legacy, but I will say that I’m proud of the fact that I’m from a small town in a small state and I’ve had more than a small impact.