Lessons and Inspiration from the Legendary Nike Designer

Last time I was in New York City I made a slightly extravagant purchase. Nothing like a boat or a Rolex. Not front row tickets to Hamilton or a dinner at Masa. I bought a pair of Air Jordan IIIs.

Ok, extravagant might be a bit hyperbolic (especially compared to Hamilton tickets), but I don’t make it a habit to spend over $300 on a pair of sneakers. Here’s why I did: 1.) I grew up watching Michael Jordan and loving that brand, so the culture surrounding his shoes is embedded in me; 2.) in my opinion these in particular are the most aesthetically pleasing Jordans while still being practical for everyday wear; 3.) Air Jordan IIIs have a rich history — it was the first Michael Jordan shoe designed by Tinker Hatfield, who revolutionized shoe design and working with athletes (more on that later); 4.) I needed some dope shoes for my wedding reception.

Tinker Hatfield and The History of Air Jordan III

I won’t go into Tinker’s entire backstory here, although it is fascinating. If you’d like a great look into his work and his creative process I strongly encourage you to check out the docuseries Abstract: The Art of Design on Netflix (he’s Episode 2).

Michael Jordan was Nike’s superstar from the beginning of his career… obviously. However, in Abstract Tinker explains that Jordan was unhappy with his first two shoes and was close to leaving Nike. So Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike at the time, charged Tink with designing the next one.

“A basic design is always functional. But a great design will say something.”
— Tinker Hatfield

In a big meeting where Jordan was in a bad mood and convinced he was leaving Nike, Tinker revealed his now-famous elephant print design. The shoe was the first mid-cut basketball shoe ever created, and utilized different materials to make it feel supportive in the proper areas but broken in the first time it was tried on. Tinker won him over.

Later that season Jordan won the Slam Dunk Contest wearing that shoe… with the iconic dunk from the free throw line.

A couple more highlights: This was the first time the Jumpman logo appeared on a pair of Jordans. Also, remember the famous “Spike and Mike” campaign with Jordan and Spike Lee (aka Mars Blackmon)?

Tinker Hatfield on Work and Creativity

“Just get out there and experience life. That just gives you a library in your head to then translate that into unique new design work.”

Your life experiences inform… well, everything you do. Meeting interesting people, trying new things, going different places; these all add tools to your toolbox of creativity. I’ve heeded this advice as an actor and improviser to inform characters and scenes, but I’ve found it vital for all aspects of my creative life. Often we don’t even know how, when, or why something will manifest. That’s the magic of creativity.

“If people don’t either love or hate your work, you just haven’t done all that much.”

This can be boiled down to one simple piece of advice, and one of which I remind myself often: Make bold choices. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to push boundaries. Easier said than done, sure. But if you create things that appeal to the average person, average is exactly what you’ll create.

“Whatever you’re doing, if you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong.”

That quote is from this interview with Tinker, and I love it. It reminded me of one of my favorite improv quotes from Susan Messing: “If you’re not having fun then you’re the asshole.” I know I’m the billionth person to say this, but shouldn’t you enjoy what you do? Even when it gets a little tough, try to find joy in everything.

Experience life, make bold choices, and have fun. Now you’re ready to conquer the world — hopefully in a fly pair of kicks.

And yes, these sneakers are getting broken out at my wedding reception.