Nike’s chief design officer John Hoke remembers roughly 30 years back, when all the company’s designers could gather in one space at its Beaverton campus. Thirty years ago, that was 100 designers meeting in the Michael Jordan Building. Now, Hoke’s excited that with the opening of the new 1-million-square-foot Serena Williams Building at its world headquarters in Oregon, Nike can have all roughly 1,000 brand designers on the same floor yet again. It’s the tallest building on campus, its views stretching across the whole of Nike’s world headquarters and into the mountains beyond.
Speaking from within the new office and lab space ahead of employees making a full return to the site following the pandemic, Hoke says the new home for Nike design will serve product creation.
“With 1,000 creative minds, diverse in backgrounds, diversity and focus, all housed on the fourth floor and the way the building has been designed,” he says, “it is a catalyst of creativity.”
With Nike celebrating 50 years as a company, Hoke says opening both the new LeBron James Innovation Center and the Serena Williams Building allows them to highlight the science of design, out of the LeBron space, and the creativity, art, and beauty of the product they make within the Serena space.
Looking forward to the future of Nike design, Hoke believes the collaboration between designers—as they work with athletes, scientists, and artists—is critical to creating something fresh. Hoke says designers will use 3D technologies for more design control over product. By creating at the pixel and voxel level they can explore form. Using chemistry, geometry and sustainable materials may turn today’s static products into something that excites all the body’s senses.
In line with future-thinking, both in form and function, Nike today revealed the June 2022 ISPA Link and 2023 ISPA Link Axis, footwear designs focused on “circular design.” Created for complete disassembly, the interlocking pieces in the shoes require no glue or cement, making it simple to recycle or reuse the already recycled Flyknit, TPU and EVA. A fresh aesthetic for the silhouettes is meant to highlight the intent.
In this interview, conducted within a meeting room inside the new Serena Williams Building at Nike HQ in Oregon last week, Hoke discusses how the brand’s new buildings will contribute to the company’s future, the next steps in footwear design, and chatting with Drake about furniture.
How does a new building change the focus for the future of Nike design?
Right now, it is an empty vessel, a catalyst for our creative collaboration. In the last two-and-a-half years, we have been isolated to our home studios and I’ve been incredibly proud of the teammates and what they have achieved in these isolated moments, but getting everybody back into one floor, I think it will be a springboard to even more collaboration.
What that means to me as a designer is we will find group genius. We love to make things that are the result of happy accidents, and we love to get our hands on things. One of the dilemmas of the pandemic as a designer is we have been touch-blind, we can’t get our hands on things, can’t work with our fit models, our protos, and samples. It has been a real challenge. Bringing that haptic sensation back into the design process is going to be amazing, that is fit and finish and drape on apparel and for footwear it is underfoot feel and comfort. That will be huge for us.
What does creating more sensorial product look like?
Humans have five senses, and we are today not designing for all five. Think about the introduction of an olfactory experience, what does a racing garment smell like on race day? Does it have a unique signature, does it have a scent that creates confidence or creates poise or gives us a burst of energy? We dwell in the ecology of human skin, and skin is filled with nerve endings. Today we wear things that deaden the skin, tomorrow we won’t, we will use that as an information source. Haptic touch and haptic feedback will be another way athletes receive input and gain awareness, gain knowledge about themselves and about their teammates.
I think sensorial design can be another breakthrough in performance innovation, another big lane to think about. How do we go and begin to build a vocabulary of athletic haptic feedback? The way we think about using our ears to gauge ourselves in space. I know we are familiar with the herringbone squeak on the floor, that is a geometry and a surface making a sound. What if we fine-tuned that, what if that harmonic was different per foot, per player, per game? That is another source of information to get athletes to be hyper-aware and have more knowledge of what is going on. Think about that on a race day if you are hearing certain things about where your competition is or isn’t. Optics, olfactory, haptic touch, auditory innovation space is awesome.
Innovating in the neck up, thinking about the emotion side, the psyche side, the confidence side is already really compelling and important to us. The athlete’s performance is the combination of preparedness, equipment, training, race day conditions, feelings, emotions, and all that leads to confidence. So, if we can prepare an athlete to be confident in their ability to break a barrier in every sense and aspect I think it is a whole other domain for us to delve into.
How important are new footwear forms to pushing product forward?
I think new forms is everything. The sculptural quality of a piece of footwear and the combination of geometry and chemistry that are co-conspiring to create new underfoot cushioning, new sensations and feelings, it’s everything. We are migrating away from sculpting a mold and moving toward designing at the molecular level, the way nature grows the vine, a flower, having that power is remarkable for us.
I think that will change not just the performance, but the ultimate signature and the look of the company, where it will be a part of our next advanced nature series, where we are not just mimicking nature, but thinking like nature, we are creating like nature.
How does the future of design include work with artists, musicians, and incorporate more viewpoints?
The barriers of creativity and the barriers between disciplines are eroding in front of us. Creatives are creatives and with technology today it lets people do all kinds of things. That level-setting with technology is that gateway and I think creatives like to mix it up, like to see what each other is doing, find the analogous mindset theory thinking. I like that a lot. I get to talk to lots of different people around the world and I find we have more in common as creatives. We are all in search, we are all chasing, we are making it and hacking things.
It doesn’t matter if that is Drake in music, Drake and I had dinner and we spent most of the dinner talking about modern furniture movements, what was it, what is it, where is it going, nothing about music and sports and just those connections, we explore different spaces. We have Tom Sachs, one of our favorite artists, and we talk about pottery, we talk about poetry, we talk about Buckminster Fuller. We reference these other people. I think it is putting different people around that table and kind of letting it rip.
What does designing for the metaverse do for Nike product or virtual product?
It has been fun. I have had time to spend a good amount of time with RTFTK designers. What I love about their work is that it is free of constraints that I face: gravity, oxygen. We’re designing things, footwear made out of fire, you rip off the lenses of constraint. What I think what the metaverse is going to provide to us creatively is the freedom to think, really wide and far and get real feedback from the next generation as to what avatars they are interested in and what expressions they are looking for.
If I am reading about the metaverse correctly, it’s the future marketplace, it’s the future neighborhood, it’s the future mall, it’s the future everything. We want to participate in a way that’s authentic to Nike and I say that because I think eventually, we will co-mingle human movement with sort of plural realities of more information, probably optically at first, will be important. We want people to move in the real world, we want them to feel their heartbeat, their breath, their sweat. If the metaverse can enhance that humanity, that’s great. If it replaces sport and humanity, that’s not great for us. We are going to look at it from the perspective of it is another way of thinking about engaging consumers, a way to make us stay human and stay connected to our bodies.