Monday, July 12, 2010

Oregon Quarterly: Tinker Hatfield Jr.

Photo of Tinker Hatfield in his office.

How small-town jock and UO architecture grad Tinker Hatfield ’77 became the Star of the Shoe and world’s most visible designer.
By Todd Schwartz

The first thing about a shoe is the last.

Then you need to search within its soles: out, in, mid. Then consult the vamp, which is always an upper. That’s how you get your kicks.

The first thing about Tinker Hatfield?

We could begin with the fairly startling notion that you can travel virtually anywhere on this planet that has human habitation, from the largest city to the most distant village, and eventually you will almost certainly see a shoe or some clothing that has been designed by Tinker Hatfield. Only one other designer can claim a similar slice of ubiquity: a one-time Portland

State University graphic design student named Carolyn Davidson, who in 1971 created the “swoosh” logo that appears on nearly every Nike product—including most of those designed by Hatfield, the athletic shoe and apparel company’s vice president of innovation design and special projects.

Or we could open with the image of Hatfield standing before the Pompidou Center in Paris, a groundbreaking building turned inside out, all brightly colored exoskeleton of pipes and girders and heating ducts. In time he will use the inspiration of this moment to design the first Nike shoe with a window in the arch, revealing rather than hiding the new air-cushion structure within—exposing the sole of the Air Max.

We could begin with today’s hard-to-believe-he’s-fifty-seven-years-old guy in the hip glasses and T-shirt, the renowned high priest of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, the new-idea factory on the Nike campus that is off limits to nearly everyone, including most Nike employees. Hatfield has reached the point in his career where he need answer to no one, could even retire with all the Nike stock and the several houses he has designed for his family and the sports-legend friends and the thanks of a grateful sneaker-wearing nation—but he won’t, because design still excites him as much as ever. And because the company still needs a provocateur. Hatfield still thinks by drawing, still sketches new ideas every day, although now using his finger on the screen of his iPad rather than pencil and paper. A guy from the analog time getting more digital every day.

Perhaps we should jump back to Hatfield’s first meeting with the Jumpman himself, über-competitive and perfection-demanding basketball icon Michael Jordan, with whom Hatfield will build a lasting friendship—along with several generations of the game-changing Air Jordan shoe, inspired by everything from fighter jets to panthers to one particularly compelling lawnmower.

But in truth the first thing and the last about Tinker Hatfield, even beyond his design acumen and crazy success and double-secret creative lairs, is athletics. His path runs from athletics to architecture and back to athletics, so sports is where we’ll begin, going back four decades to the furrowed fields of the Willamette Valley and the burgers at the Arctic Circle in little Halsey, Oregon. He’s celebrating after a football game, maybe (Hatfield was a Sunkist All-American), or a basketball game or a track meet (All-American there, too). Maybe it’s a party on the day in 1970 when the kid from Central Linn High School was named the Oregon high school athlete of the year. Sports were everything in his family—his dad was a coach, his mom was a coach, his brother would become a coach, and his sister would eventually marry a coach—and Tinker Jr. (as he was known as a kid, although Tinker was just his dad’s nickname, while it was the younger Hatfield’s actual given name) was good enough to be recruited nationally.

“I was just a jock,” Hatfield says today. “I was a decent student, but not the most diligent. I dreamed I would become a professional athlete, and I didn’t really have a plan past that. I used to sketch a lot in high school, just doodles really, and one day I had an epiphany, which was how to draw a house in perspective. I had a simple thought: ‘Hey! Architecture!’”

That was that, until Hatfield traveled around the country on college recruiting visits, being asked at each stop what he planned to study.

“I didn’t know what to say,” he remembers, “so I decided to tell everyone that I wanted to go to architecture school. I had no idea that it was the kiss of death—because no one goes to architecture school and also plays big-time sports! So each time I’d say my thing, and the USC or Stanford or LSU faces would fall, and they’d say ‘Oh . . . hmmm . . . no one’s ever done that.’ . . . In a funny way it made me want to do it even more—of course, I had absolutely no concept of how much work it took to go to architecture school!”

Eventually, he narrowed his choice of sport down to track and field—it seemed the most doable in combination with architecture school—and his choice of college to those who offered both a track scholarship and a well-known architecture program. The UO was one of those, and Bill Bowerman was the first coach to say, “Sure, I think you can do it all.”

Hatfield did, slowly evolving from the track athlete who happened to be going into architecture to the budding architect who happened to be a track guy. In the process he held the Ducks’ record in the pole vault, and finished sixth at the 1976 Olympic Trials. He also suffered an injury that eventually would end his career as a world-class athlete and then redirected all of his focus to architecture and design.

It turned out that Hatfield had found the perfect place. First, there was the School of Architecture and Allied Arts itself, which stressed technology less and thought process and client interaction more—design training applicable to any challenge, not just buildings. Then there was Bowerman—who loved his unique new track-team guinea pig, who could test the coach’s prototype shoe designs and come back with drawings and notes and detailed design feedback. Bowerman had also cofounded a little upstart shoe company for which Hatfield would eventually go to work in 1981.

But for the first few years after graduation, Hatfield practiced architecture in Eugene, applying the design processes and client focus he had learned at the UO.

“I’d love to credit some important people in my education,” says Hatfield, looking back, “especially at Oregon. [Professor emeritus] Michael Utsey was one of the first teachers who really got through to me, and saw something in me. He taught me to draw better and to appreciate the human nature and scale of architecture. I talked to him a lot. Another great influence is [adjunct professor] Otto Poticha, who represented the renegade side of being a designer, kind of ‘out there’ and opinionated and funny, but also really smart and amazing at solving problems in unique ways. [Professor emeritus] William Kleinsasser wrote a book [Synthesis 9 / A Comprehensive Theory Base for Architecture] that taught me a lot about the larger context of architecture and pattern language, about the need to understand the entire community and culture. That’s come in very handy as we work around the world for Nike.”

Hatfield’s world was a good deal smaller back then, but it jumped in size when he joined Nike as a staff architect, designing offices, showrooms, and retail stores. Design is as design does, one might say, and before long the many options presented by a young, growing company allowed Hatfield to make a nearly seamless transition to shoe design. And when he got into the game, he took over. With the Air Max and his first Jordan, the Air Jordan III, he scored huge wins for Nike. When he noticed that his friends at the gym all lugged around several different kinds of sneakers for different activities, he created an entirely new category with the first all-in-one cross-training shoe, the Air Trainer. By 1989, Hatfield was creative director of all Nike product design, and the hits just kept coming.

“The design process begins differently,” he says, “between a building and a shoe, but along the way the process becomes more and more similar. At Nike, I’ve always started a lot of projects on my own, just because I get an idea. That wouldn’t happen often with a building, because someone has to put up the money! I don’t begin with a marketing brief—I’ve never thought they were that helpful. I just try to pay attention to my own sense of innovation and ability to understand the marketplace.

“But once you get into the meat of the design process, shoes and buildings aren’t that much different. When I sit down with an athlete, say Roger Federer or Kobe Bryant or Lance Armstrong or LeBron James or Brad Walker”—leave it to Hatfield to throw in a pole-vaulter—“they’re the clients, they have specific performance and style criteria, specific needs and desires similar in nature to someone who wants a house or a church or a school. For me it was a natural. Having been an athlete, I think like an athlete, I can communicate with an athlete on any level—I believe personal insight is critical to success. And along with that insight I had the benefit of an education in architecture and design that stressed the principle of hearing and understanding the client.”

Performance comes first, Hatfield makes clear. The style of the shoe flows from that and also embodies something he understands at the core level about the particular athlete, combined with a million absorbed influences—which is how a tough little push mower, hard around the edges, sharp on the inside, meshed in Hatfield’s mind and sketchbook with the facts of Michael Jordan’s sparkle and endless tenacity, and became a strong patent leather band, durable and shiny, encircling the famous Air Jordan XI.

So it went. Hatfield had all the tools: an innate sense of design that effortlessly (or so it seemed) combined diverse influences with natural market savvy, plus a top athlete’s insight into performance, and a complete willingness (some might say a calling) to push the limits, to smile and shine, from the first hole-in-the-sole Air Max forward, as he nudged the suits way past their comfort zones. Fortune magazine named him one of the 100 most influential designers of the twentieth century. To some it may have looked easy, but they don’t appreciate the long hours and the fact that Hatfield is his own harshest critic and most demanding client. The rare miss aside, he’s been in the zone for a very long time.

Nearly thirty years after joining Nike, Hatfield may be seen as one of the company’s elder statesmen, but he still prides himself on being the irritant (an untouchable one, to be sure) in Nike’s very profitable oyster. But pearls are ever harder to come by.

“I’m a unique case here at Nike,” Hatfield says with a chuckle. “People don’t mess with me too much, because of some past successes, but also because I set myself up early on, with my personality and my approach, as the provocateur. People just expect me to be that rabble-rouser.”

Which was all the rage in the ’80s—but could he do it again in 2010?

“Good question,” he answers. “I wrestle with that when I mentor people on the way up. The world has become a little more conservative in the past ten years. It seems to me that people in general aren’t as risk-taking as they were. When I came to Nike, things were more wide open, and it was easier to be a risk taker—of course, one thing that has a big effect on risk-taking behavior is the nature of what you have to lose if you make a mistake! Nike is now so big that a mistake can be huge, as can be the successes. The company is a microcosm of the rest of the world, and it’s a bit of a struggle—I spend a good part of each day trying to convince people on all sides, from business to sales and marketing to design, that we still need to take risks and be innovative, be those provocateurs we once were.

“I’ve been around long enough that I can say those things. I have some liberties at Nike that others don’t. I take that as a privilege, and I try not to waste the influence I have and the freedom I have to take risks. If I just kept my head down and played the corporate line completely, I’d be squandering the capital I’ve built up over a lot of years.”

Hatfield won’t start playing it safe now—he’s still, at heart, a pole-vaulter, a guy who thinks it’s a good idea to use a thin, springy stick to hurl himself, upside down and feet first, over the highest obstacle he can. That, and the fact that, what with all the freedom and the money and the hanging out with stars and the secret lair, there simply can’t be many better jobs in the solar system.

For now, he’ll keep putting finger to touchscreen, designing everything from new shoes for many of the world’s top athletes (and the world’s largest footwear bottom line) to quirky vacation homes for his family, composed of his wife Jackie and their three daughters, to just about everything for the UO athletic department, including the stadium-floor-plan “O” logo that has migrated from the football uniforms to become the official mark of the University as a whole. Hatfield is also involved in reuniforming and rebranding Oregon State University athletics (he grew up halfway between the homes of the Ducks and the Beavers, after all), so expect upcoming Civil War games to be very well-dressed affairs.

Every so often he’ll decide it might be the time to just do it, to completely pass the swoosh to the next generation of Nike designers, but then he’ll remember:

“This is just too much fun not to keep doing,” Hatfield emphasizes. “Of course, the world’s always changing and we keep modifying our organization, so who knows? The part of the company I run is supposed to be thinking of things no one has ever done before, and you need a bit of chaos and uncertainty in the mix to do that well. I kind of like uncertainty—probably because of my sports background. In athletics you never know what’s going to happen, you just get out there and go for it.”

With that, Tinker Hatfield picks up the pole and sprints away, running hell-bent for takeoff.

Todd Schwartz ’75 is a Portland writer who, when he discovered that the world’s oldest existing shoes were a pair of 10,000-year-old sage-bark sandals discovered in 1938 in Central Oregon by the UO’s Luther Cressman, was certain he had some Chuck Taylors older than that.

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