When six-time gold medalist Allyson Felix rounded the turn of the wet Olympic Stadium track during 2016’s 400-meter final in Rio, she had something special supporting her long, powerful stride: the flexibility and responsiveness made possible by her Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit racing shoes.
Nike is a brand synonymous with sports excellence, and lately that has extended into designing customized shoes and apparel using advanced computer models and engineering, says John Hoke, vice president of Global Design for Nike. Applying techniques like biomimicry modeling to rapid 3D-printed prototyping, Nike—both in and outside its Sports Research Lab in Beaverton, Oregon—is pushing athletes to higher levels of performance.
For Hoke, who started as an architect designing Niketown stores in 1992, the company’s evolution over the past two decades is a thrilling chronology of creative acceleration made possible through iterant technology. “Technology is helping us in ways that we’re just now fully understanding,” he says. “Because we can think faster, we can iterate faster, we can trial and fail faster. And, from what I’m seeing, there’s a quantum jump, if you will, in the quality and the depth of the designs that we’re able to do.”
Here, Hoke talks about Felix’s shoes, the future of biomimicry and generative design, and Nike’s obsessive drive to stretch the boundaries of human potential.
What was the design process for creating Allyson Felix’s spikes?
When we sat down with Allyson, we talked about how the race transitions from curve to straight to curve to straight. When you go into or out of a curve, the mechanics of the body physically change. We said, “What if we’d begun to attack the problems that she faces in the curve?” Because frankly, that’s where the race is usually won or lost.
We began by defining the difference between Allyson’s right-foot strike and her left-foot strike. Then, we wondered if, with generative-design tools, we could get more precise with the spike plates—the cleated portion of her shoes—left to right, to solve more effectively for the forces she faces against the curve.
The plate was designed exclusively for her foot and this particular race. I’m fascinated by this because gold medals are won and lost in fractions: a fraction of an inch, a fraction of a second. We now have the power to stop and study that moment of truth and be able to design, very specifically, for what an athlete is looking for. That’s pretty powerful.
On this two-year project with a star athlete, what kind of data did you gather?
You’re looking at all sorts of data. You’re using your eyes and observing her on the track. You’re listening to what she’s talking about when you sit down together. But then there are other rich data sets that come through video and stride analysis from our Nike Sports Research Lab: how much pressure Allyson’s applying from left foot to right, where specifically on the foot is she kicking and pushing off, how she’s landing on her feet. And so all of that data—which, previously, we would know after the fact—we know in the moment. Then we’re able to fine-tune the design and iterate it over and over again. And it’s through that iteration, combined with our intuition, that the magic happens.
How has that iterative process of optimizing a shoe changed in the past 10 or 15 years?
Everything that we’re doing creatively is accelerating. We are excited by that new reality because it lets us test more things. In the past, going from an idea to a prototype, through testing and into market was roughly 18 months to two years. We’ve shrunk that way down because ideas and data and prototyping happen almost simultaneously. We’re getting a physical product ready to go in less than a couple of weeks.
Let’s unpack the idea of generative design—where the computer makes suggestions to speed up the creation process. How does that change the role of the designer at Nike?
I think technology will continue to amplify and extend the imagination of Nike designers. I don’t see, as some do, technology automating creativity or replacing imagination. I think it augments and accelerates with data. At the end of the day, data can’t dream. That’s where we come in—that’s our job. We as designers need to be observing, listening, testing, and bringing data into the picture, but data will not design. Look at wonderful painters like van Gogh: The paint and the canvas and the brush were there; it was the act of picking it up, the self-discovery and reflection, and the talent and will to paint a canvas. The relationship between the tool and the artist has always been very interesting, and I think artists will always push that.
Do designers think about manufacturability and what it’s going to cost to produce a shoe like Allyson’s for the mass market?
More than ever, designers will be designing the entire product chain. Designers won’t just be the people who make the picture or approve the final sample. I think really good designers will be thinking about that holistic strategy of, “How do I source materials? How are they appropriately used? How are they assembled? How are they used by the consumer, dissembled, and brought back?” I like to call it “the design of design.”
What was it like when you were watching TV and saw Allyson using her Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit shoes at the Olympics?
It was emotional, actually—to watch an athlete you’ve worked with, to see something you’ve co-created. You’re watching her step onto the world stage. Your heart’s beating, you’re maybe breaking a sweat, and you’re hoping that she can achieve something. And then the gun goes off and you watch her go after what she’s been training for, for a long time. It’s a powerful thing as a designer because, you know in some small way, you helped that athlete achieve her dreams and fulfill her goals. And there’s nothing better than that.
Redshift’s “Inside My Design Mind” series explores the personal insights from leading designers across industries.