Earlier today, we put up the bullet points on the new AIR JORDAN 2011, but we did do a super sit down with Tom Luedecke, the Senior Footwear Designer at Jordan Brand. Luedecke is responsible for bringing Tinker and MJ's ideas to reality, and with 8 years of Nike Innovation Kitchen experience under his belt, Tom is not to be messed with. He knows a ton about technical basketball shoes, and this interview about the bits and pieces of what make the Air Jordan 2011 work is worth a read if you want to nerd out on the latest Air Jordan.
Interview by Bradley Carbone
You’ve spent some time in Nike Basketball. Can you tell
us about your background in design and at the Innovation Kitchen?
I got hired by Mark Smith and Tinker Hatfield and started working in the Innovation Kitchen (Nike’s performance R&D division) about 8 years ago. I’ve worked on a few big Nike projects that came out of there, including the Zoom Trainer 1, the Kobe 4, 5, 6, the Hyperdunk…I worked with Eric Avar and his team for the past four years, and I’ve worked with Mark and Tinker on Jordan projects, both graphic and technical. No shoe is designed by one person, these are all team efforts—It takes a lot of technical expertise, time to build prototypes, and time to test the samples before we get a final product. There are usually two, sometimes three designers working on a project like this. So I’ve been on a lot of those collaborative teams for the past 8 years.
So you’re qualified, and were the right man to go to for a
super-tech Jordan project like this one. Can you tell us about the design
process behind the Air Jordan 2011?
Sure. I worked with Tinker Hatfield on the shoe. The initial sketch and gesture came from Tinker along with a push for our design team to figure out modularity usage within a performance basketball shoe. Modularity essentially means “replaceable” in this context, the idea that you can customize the product in a specific way. In the Air Jordan 2011, you can take the entire midsole cushioning unit out and replace it with another. It’s not just removable for the sake of taking it out and airing it out, we’re actually providing two distinctly different midsoles—two footbeds that athletes can tell the difference between underfoot. One is soft and cushioned, and the other is a bit firmer and more responsive.
How is this a benefit for a potential wearer of the shoe?
Usually shoes are built specific to an athlete’s needs or a specific segment. Sometimes we design a shoe for a quick guy, sometimes for an explosive guy, and sometimes it’s for someone who uses his jumping ability to his advantage. Different players like different platforms. So the quick, fast players, point guards who are cutting a lot, they might want something firmer. Someone on the perimeter, who uses a lot of side-to-side cutting, he’s going to want a lot of medial and lateral movement. He’s going to want something a bit firmer and with more responsive cushioning underfoot. The bigger guys under the basket might want something softer with more cushioning. We want to be able to provide him with some solid cushioning so that he stays protected, jumping up and down under the basket all the time.
So this is the “one shoe for all” Jordan.
Well, it can be. You can also look at the new shoe from a training perspective as well. If you’re going to be practicing for 3 hours, maybe you don’t want to beat up your feet. Maybe you want to use one midsole for practice, and then for game day, when you’re really counting on responsive cushioning, you can switch it out.
This has been tried before, with limited success, by different
brands. How does modularity fit into the Jordan line?
I think this is something we’ve been trying to do for years, quite honestly, but now we’re finally at a point where we have the technology to do it the right way. We have foams and 3-D modeling capabilities to really get after it, and allow us to take modularity to the next level. Our process now, and our digital molding technologies, are enablers for us to finally do this. Could you say these are like other Jordan products or other industry modular/replaceable shoes? Maybe, but this is the first product where you can take the entire midsole out and switch it up, essentially giving you a completely new shoe.
How do you go about creating a shoe from the ground up?
When we started the project, the shoes came back extremely wide, and extremely heavy, and during the early prototyping, Jordan Brand would have had a hard time calling this a performance product. Sure the shoes were modular, but they weren’t anything that you could call a performance shoe. But that was the challenge: we tried to take two ends of the spectrum and slam them together, trying to come up with a better solution than anyone had before us.
The original prototypes were huge and looked like a panel on the foot. It took iteration after iteration to get them to really turn into shoes and to get it to form to the foot without changing the fit properties. We needed the shoe to still fit like a regular Jordan shoe, but we needed to allow users to be able to take the midsole out. On a regular shoe, you’d take the upper, slide it over the midsole, and secure it. But here there is a lot more engineering and surfacing going on.
We needed to make sure the midsole fit tight in the shoe—you can’t have pieces sliding around in there, so the measurements have to be very exact, a very tight press fit. In the first three or four iterations, we couldn’t get to a stable product because the parts aren’t glued together—they’re loose. So the challenge was to get the parts to fit tightly and to provide stability when they’re not attached to each other.
So if we’re looking at the shoe now, you must have figured
Haha. Yeah. After a bunch of rounds we got it there. To figure that out took a lot of testing and brainstorming. To the consumer it’s intuitive, like, “Oh great, I can switch this out and go play basketball.” But it took a lot to get us there. A lot of people had very high doubts that this was possible, but we just kept pushing on and making new versions of it.
This shoe is modular, but it’s also a high-performing basketball shoe, so key athletes take to the product. The challenges from a technical perspective were to get the product as strong and as sleek as we could while allowing us to keep this idea of modularity alive. The shoes are a reductive exercise: we want to give the maximum protection and comfort while keeping the shoe light and strong. The leather is extremely thin, and has a high-tech backing material.
You worked in the Innovation Kitchen and have designed shoes
for Nike Basketball. How do the two link up? Does technology transfer over?
I was working in the innovation group at Nike before coming on at Jordan, so there were a lot of things I learned there that obviously come over into a shoe like this. We definitely want to leverage what we learn throughout the company, it would be silly not to. The panels in the back are actually no-sew panels, they’re not fuse panels like on the Hyperfuse. It’s a different process.
OK, cool. Can you take us through the diferent parts of the shoe?
In order to prevent any type of squeaking from two very smooth surfaces rubbing up against each other, the texture provides tiny air pockets that help create a friction to prevent squeaking. You see the same pattern on the outsole, but that is more of an aesthetic feature.
With any kind of motion in the foot, you don’t want to prevent the ankle from lining up with the knee and the heel the way the body is trying to move. If you overbuild a shoe in these areas, it becomes very easy to put unnecessary pressures on the ankle and potentially induce injury. You want the ankle to be able to naturally align with the knee and the heel so you need to have a certain amount of give in the ankle of the sneaker to allow for that. You want a straight line-hip, knee, ankle, heel—in order to cut down on injury. We actually allow the collar to collapse a little bit, so if you wiggle your ankle around in there you can actually bend that collar over. You’re still going to get lockdown, but it will get out of your way to keep you safe.
This was one part that was critical in making the shoes modular. The laces are gillied down below the midsole so the user can actually lace really really tight, and get lockdown around the midsole that’s in there. The laces run all the way down to the strobel underneath the midsole, so when you pull on the gilles you have direct hold all the way underfoot. That is critical in order to have stability in a product that has a midsole that is not attached. It’s basically pressed in there, so the laces help make it all fit.
OUTSOLE TREAD PATTERN
With the outsole tread, Jordan has always done graphic iterations. I tried to take something that was iconically Jordan, the elephant print, and engineer it to a point where it speaks to the motion of the foot. The elephant print in the tread swirls in the forefoot right under the pivot point. This technique also creates a denser pattern around the high-wear zone. With that swirl you get more rubber in the highest wear spots, so you’re going to get a longer life in that high-wear zone, same as with a herringbone pattern. The traction properties are the same as any standard herringbone, but it's just engineered in a new way. The sole also has key flex grooves for medial and lateral cutting, and a heel crash for forward propulsion. The Nike Sports research lab really helped with this, for figuring out the optimal placements for these grooves.
MJ and Tinker talked about a warrior-type mentality, sort of getting ready for battle, the idea that lacing up your shoes is the last thing before you go out to battle. We tried to get to this more organic sort of warrior-theme pattern, and to get the graphic element we looked at warrior paintings and body paint. If you look at the way the pattern changes from the back to the front of the foot as you flex your foot you can see that as you flex your foot the linear pattern lines up with the crease grooves and basically allows the leather to wrinkle right in the spot where we embossed. It’s a premeditated embossing pattern that allows the leather to flex so that the shoe wears well.
I think when you look down on the shoe, what we tried to do was to make something sleek while still keeping the modularity story alive. It’s a delicate proportion balance to make a shoe that looks sleek but not gimmicky. A shorter vamp helps in the overall design. It comes down to proportion. It’s tighter in the forefoot, and in the final design we felt it was best looking with one large leather panel in the toebox.
The perforation on these shoes goes all the way through the leather. A lot of companies claim that they have a ventilated product, but usually they have to reinforce the lining package on the inside so you’re not getting complete ventilation. What we tried to do was we used a very high-grade re-enforcer on the leather, and because it’s such a high grade we can fully push through it and get the support that we still need. The mesh panel allows air to travel all the way though. You can literally put your hand on the inside of the shoe and blow through those holes and feel it. We wanted it to be very breathable, per the athlete requests.
MJ was 100% on board with modularity. He thought it was a strong concept and knew it was a risk going after the idea for the icon shoe for the year. He talked a lot about the fact that the team and the individual player gear up for battle, and that idea inspired Tinker’s process to dig deep and explore that upper panel. We also looked at known Jordan elements like the elephant print in the sole and using a beautiful leather and quality lining package. The idea with this shoe is to keep the inspirations alive. The technology is not compromised at all and that the product is digestible. And it’s still very classic Jordan in its lines. It has a little bit of, dare I say, Italian dress shoe to it, and I think that was something that Tinker was really into. There are some colorways dropping later that will really take advantage of that high-grade patina leather. We will also see some interesting play with color in the leather panels.