Brett Holts, Senior Design Director Nike
When you design, is performance the most important part of the process?
That’s really where it starts. We look at the athlete and the problems they have with an existing product, and then we dig in to see how we can improve their experience. We let that lead the direction of the design, the development and the engineering of the shoe.
How do you initiate a process like that?
We always start with the athlete or the consumer – whoever that is – and really try to take our own personal opinion and bias out, and make sure that we have a focus; starting with that key person in mind.
You remove yourself from the equation.
Precisely. At the moment, with our Flyknit, we’re working on weatherised and waterproof yarns, and reflectivity in yarns for the darker months of the year. When we go to the brief, we really start thinking of how to design. We try and do it with a full year’s worth of solutions, whether it’s a different material or design approach. That’s something that is very relevant and very real, especially for runners. Runners don’t take a season off. They’re still going to get out there when it’s raining, or snowy or cold and dark. I used to be a competitive runner so I found it easier to get into this mind space.
What did you wear as a runner?
I spent time with shoes like the Pegasus and some of our Track and Field products; Lunar Racers as well. That’s where my background originates from, as well as some of my influences in how I approach projects. I think it’s important to remember those products of the past and how they influenced and informed how you got here, but also to continue to push forward.
How did those running shoes influence the way you look at how a shoe should work?
I think there are fundamentals to how any shoe built for running should be. Fit is paramount, no matter how good it looks. But essentially, the shoes that I remember the most, firstly, were able to catch my eye. Secondly, they gave me an emotional connection – whether it’s a specific colour or a specific way a shoe was blocked. Some of the very earliest shoes I remember were in the colour Volt that Nike invented. That neon highlighter yellow… those were some of the first racing shoes that I ever bought. The colour was so different compared to anything else, especially in a competitive environment, where you want to stand out and make a statement.
How did the collaboration with Marc Newson and the Vapormax model come about?
Nike has worked with Marc in the past. He has a good relationship with our CEO Mark Parker. Anytime we have something new, something juxtaposing, it really interests Marc because of his approach, because of the way he looks at things as more of an industrial designer. I think it’s something he can relate to, from the amount of engineering that goes into them.
What does collaboration mean within Nike, considering the amount of collaborations you, as a whole, have been involved in?
I think collaborations can be very meaningful, and they need to feel purposeful. When done the right way, pairing up the right collaborator with the right product, you can create something very compelling and very conversational. The designer can take the brand somewhere new. When we’ve been looking at something so specific for so long, someone with a fresh perspective can come in and reinvent something we’ve had our eyes on for too long.
Have there been any specific collaborations that are a highlight for you?
The most recent was this shoe with the Commes des Garçons collaboration, which was a very last-minute opportunity where they had seen the shoe at our innovation event and reached out to see what they could do. It helped us understand that we had something that resonated with a consumer who’s different than usual. But it shows that the sneaker can also be a statement.
In fact, we did something not typical for our recent history: Marc Parker held this model up at our innovation event last March, almost a year ago. I think everyone was a little nervous, as we were over a year from bringing it to market. It’s something that we hadn’t been doing with some of our most recent innovation projects. I think it really helped us understand that letting consumers and retailers respond helps inform how we treat this product, and how we should bring it to market.
Did that give you the chance to rework the product afterwards?
We went back and totally re-invented our ‘go to market’ plan, based on consumer and retailer feedback from what they said and saw.
Sounds like it could be a better way of releasing product: to have more of a conversation with your consumers…
I think it can be and it gives people time to adjust and understand a product, to get comfortable and familiar with it. Internally, it helps to inform us. We went back and looked at colour in a whole new way. We went back and looked at our distribution. It opened up collaboration opportunities, like with Newson and Comme des Garçons. Those things that would not have happened if it hadn’t been done this way.
What kind of products deserve this sort of treatment?
I think if something feels new and different, after looking at it for so many years internally, you start to have a skewed perception.
How long do you find yourself working on an innovation project like this?
A lot of innovation products can take anywhere from 3+ years. We have prototypes from the 70’s – teams back then had a very similar look to what you see here, but there were manufacturing and engineering complications, which is why in the past we’ve had to put a mid-sole and out-sole on it, to create protection and durability. Now with a whole new method of manufacturing we’re able to finally fully realise that vision from almost 40 years ago.
Do you have technical designers and visual designers?
We have specific teams that work only in innovation from a design side, who really work on the bigger concepts. Then as you get closer to market, we have inline design teams that will really take a concept and refine it, finish it, figure out how to manufacture it. We have material designers who focus on upper materials, any foams and airbags; and we have colour designers who apply the colour concept.
What have you found innovative in your lifestyle, outside of footwear?
Right now in such a hectic world, with so many things engaging us on a day-to-day basis and with the amount of options we’re faced with, what feels the most valuable are the things that make people’s lives simpler and make it easier to get through the day. It’s the importance of intuition. When we approach a product, we want to make sure that it’s very intuitive and that it’s clear what the product does when you see it sitting on a shelf. It should be very simple to understand when you pick it up. You know that it’s lightweight, you know that it’s minimal and there’s a nod to the innovation. You should be able touch it and have an idea of what this is going to feel like, what that experience is going to be.
Has social media changed the way you look at product?
I think the way we make things and the pace at which we make things has accelerated. In today’s world, whenever anyone goes into a store, they expect to see something new. The speed of consumption is very rapid. We have to keep up with the metabolism of the marketplace, we need to bring something new. Even if it’s with the same manufacturing, we need to keep compelling the consumer to keep their interest. To keep it fresh.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
As long as we don’t let that allow us to take shortcuts, and really compromise. I think you can always put more into the market place and say it’s new, but people still respect and want innovation on some level, not just more stuff.