John Hoke on Technology as a Co-Conspirator in Creativity
John Hoke, Nike’s chief design officer, intimately understands how to move design from an object to a feeling. At the footwear and sports apparel company over the past three decades, he has refined his approach to center around creating designs that serve wearers in practical yet unexpected ways, and that often redefine what sportswear can look like and do. Hoke often tells his team that “the goal is goosebumps”—to develop ideas so great that they can be physically felt.
From pool raft–inspired sneakers he designed at age 12 to the 2020 Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, a racing shoe equipped with a carbon-fiber plate that literally propels runners forward, every item Hoke has a hand in creating encapsulates a story, a data-backed purpose, and a sense of progress. Working with athletes has taught him that better is temporary—a phrase that’s also the title of a recent book, published by Phaidon, that unpacks Nike’s creative methodology—and he applies the same diligence to his designs. Even as Nike marks its 50th anniversary this year, on the heels of a lucrative 2021 that saw double-digit growth and its highest profits in recent history, Hoke has his sights set on the future. He knows a designer’s work is never done. Like a medal-winning Olympian, he celebrates his wins, but then quickly turns to figuring out how to build on what he’s done, to create something even better.
Hoke’s role in Nike’s legacy of innovation runs deep. He joined the Beaverton, Oregon–based company in 1992, at age 28, after studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and working as a model-maker for the late architect Michael Graves. Hoke, who is dyslexic, considers drawing his first language, his way of articulating the reactions he has to things he sees. Connecting visual imagery with emotion is his portal to new ideas, which he and his team have realized through countless forward-thinking projects.
Hoke is particularly proud of the singlets that Nike produced, with his insight, for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Made from recycled polyester and water bottles, the jerseys were among the brand’s first attempts to create clothes in ways that reduce its environmental footprint. That mentality led to breakthroughs such as the Space Hippie, a footwear collection inspired by life on Mars with an upper of Flyknit yarn, a material made from around 90 percent recycled content that includes T-shirts and post-industrial scraps. For Hoke, an ever-evolving world demands iteration. “The only constant we have is change,” he says. “Designers are here on the planet to keep making progress. In whatever field you have, whatever industry, whatever focus you have, it should be about progressing the lovely human experience forward more equitably, more sustainably, opening the aperture to all.”
On this episode, Hoke talks with Andrew about how physical movement amplifies the senses, design as an act of optimism, and why perfection is a trap.
Hoke speaks about how his team’s imagination thrived during pandemic-induced lockdowns, and how they developed their design for the footwear Nike athletes wore on the medal stand for the 2020 Olympics.
Hoke discusses the importance of adaptation in design. He also describes the singlets Nike created for the 2000 Summer Olympics using recycled content, and the evolution of the Space Hippie shoe line.
Hoke talks about living with dyslexia, and how he has learned to embrace it.
Hoke recalls the first pair of shoes he designed, which he created at age 12 and were inspired by a pool raft. He also describes the role that sports played in his personal development as a teenager and young adult.
Hoke talks about his experience working with the late architect Michael Graves, and a formative trip he took with the studio to Fallingwater, an iconic house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Hoke looks back on what he’s learned in the past three decades at Nike. He also discusses how state-of-the-art technology is woven into the company’s recently completed LeBron James Innovation Center.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, John. It’s great to have you here in New York in person. Thanks for making time for us.
JOHN HOKE: I’m so glad to be here.
AZ: I just wanted to begin with where your head’s at these days. You recently said, “Form and function follows footprint.”
JH: Yes, I did.
AZ: And I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Obviously, the amendment to the Bauhaus mantra, “Form follows function.”
AZ: But what I’ve been thinking about and am curious to hear from you is what “footprint” means, and how far that extends.
JH: The genesis of that was that it felt like form and function alone—just beauty and utility—not enough, in today’s context. And it felt like it isn’t mine to amend. It’s the thought of, What is the next formula? What is the latest context, as designers, that we sit here in 2022 and say, “Things have to change,” right? So, beauty and utility, form and function—obviously, super important. But yet, not enough. And so footprint became this conscious effort at Nike, and [my team], Nike Design, to begin to elevate this idea of, when we’re designing, we have to think, obviously, of form and function, beauty and utility. But there’s another layer of, I’ll call it consciousness, or responsibility, to selecting things in the design process that give you better control, and give the outcome a more sustainable outcome down the road.
AZ: So does footprint extend to this idea of people? Because you, throughout your whole career, have been hyper-focused on the human experience. From your architecture days to [now]—literally, you’re designing things that separate human beings from nature, that bring us closer to nature.
JH: Right. Yeah.
AZ: This sort of hinge point. Are you thinking about sustainability in regards to relationships with people? How footprint extends through human relationships?
JH: Absolutely. Yeah. What it can’t be, alone, is a score. It can’t be a carbon score, or it can’t be thinking through the manufacturing process and all on the process. Obviously, we’re trying to do better and select better materials, and better chemistry, and reduce toxins, et cetera. But the notion of the footprint is also trying to connect humans to humans, and humans to the sense of movement, and the sense of what’s quintessentially a human experience, which is wellness, sport, community, connecting…. And that, too, becomes a footprint.
AZ: Yeah. And how that extends beyond lockdown. I was thinking about what you think about all day, and what you’re involved with, and you’re finding yourself in lockdown. So first of all, how did it agree with you?
JH: Well, I go back to New York of 2020 in late January, early February. Nike put on an event called Future Forum. This was an event to celebrate and excite our audiences and athletes to get ready for what would’ve been the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. We made a series of engagements and experiences across New York City, and then we returned. We thought we put our best foot forward and got lots of excitement, and were able to promote things like our Space Hippie shoe, a big sustainability push, our Alphafly NEXT%. This giant leap in innovation for product. And I do recall that our Chinese contingency couldn’t come, because Covid was just beginning to become better understood, and they decided not to come. So that was an interesting … “Okay. Where’s this all going?”
I returned back to Portland, Oregon, which is where Nike is headquartered. And we began to start having conversations around what was the early stages of a pandemic, which is, “Is this real?” “What does this mean?” And then through February to early March, we began to actually lock our campus down, and people were beginning to not come to the office. And then eventually, it was fully shut.
I would tell you that there are things about the pandemic that I’ve not agreed with, have not been agreeable to. And there are lessons learned from the pandemic that I think are significant pivots in the way we think, and the way we act and behave and design now. Right away, we saw our design staff of a thousand move from our campus to their home studios. In the early days, it was, “Just take your sketchbook and your laptop, and we’ll see you in a month, maybe six weeks.” Then every week there was another set of information, another set of guidelines. And we began to peel back the onion and look at what this was going to become. It felt like it would be not weeks, but months, and then eventually not months, but a year.
I’m really, really proud of our design staff, because they were able to very quickly pivot and adapt to this new environment. I like to say that what I found was that I now know that creativity cannot be quarantined. Where creativity happens can shift, but the act of creativity, the human act of creativity, will not be quarantined. And I saw that, and I got glimpses of that, through remote Zoom calls that honestly became quite intimate—to find myself inside of somebody’s home, or home studio, and to see a different rendering, a full complexion of them in their studio with their families and their pets, and their plants, and whatever they were doing. I got to know them in a more intimate way.
What did agree with me, and I think agreed with my staff, was that, because you were at home, and because we were in a crisis, creativity was this respite, this oasis, to express and to let out the emotions and the feelings that were being pent up. And the work was just fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. I was nervous that the work and the standard of excellence would stay par. But you know what? It’s gotten better. And I think part of that is the designers have this uninterrupted creative flow in the comfort of their homes.
JH: And that’s been shocking, to see the output.
AZ: And perception of time shifted, too. How did you experience time differently in 2020 than you ever had before?
JH: For me personally, the element of time was really compelling, because in some senses, time was at an absolute standstill. Because every hour of every day, new information came in. So you had to absorb, and rationalize, and resolve what was coming at us, the layers of trauma. At the same time, I can remember counting the days that were just the same day. It was like, the Tuesday became the Tuesday, became the Tuesday, on repeat, for seven days a week. Over some time, I got lost in this, “What day is it? What time is it?” I found myself having to better structure and better regulate my time.
Eventually, a few of us were able to come back to the campus. And I’m really thankful for that, because I did learn that I need stimulation. I need to have a routine that is not so much moving from my bed to the desk to the kitchen, and repeat. It needed to be a little bit different. So, in some ways, when I look back on it now, two years just went by in the blink of an eye.
AZ: And during that time, you scrapped your whole collection for the 2020 Olympics when it got pushed.
JH: Actually, we didn’t. We decided to hold the collection, and we put it in cold storage, in Los Angeles. And we were just waiting for the [International] Olympic Committee to basically tell us when the games were. Of course, the other collections that we announced, we put into the marketplace.
AZ: But you didn’t redesign that collection. It was done….
JH: It was done for 2020. What we did redesign, and this was very intentional, is we redesigned the footwear that went on the medal stand.
JH: And the footwear that went onto the tracks, and the pitches, and the courts. The reason that we did that was that I didn’t want to say to the world that we were idle. I wanted to say to the world that, when we showed up in 2020, we made sustainability and our sustainable push, a very important element of these designs. And, rather than just rest on our laurels, we added accessibility. We created this concept we call Nike FlyEase, which is a hands-free entry into the medal-stand shoe. So we moved off of Space Hippie, VaporMax, to our Nike FlyEase. It was the first time Nike was able to say, “All sustainable, even more equitable, even more accessible.” Our Olympians and Paralympians wore the exact same thing.
AZ: Which is amazing.
JH: It was not easy to do, because you had to wear-test this idea of putting a sneaker on your foot without the use of your hands, remotely, on Zoom, digitally. [Laughs]
AZ: And observing that while it’s happening, and trying to design around it, and figure it out.
JH: Yeah. I used to say to the team, pre-pandemic—and typically, we’d have our hands on things—I’d say, “I just feel a bit touch blind. I want to hold it. I want to bend it. I want to put my foot in it.” And we couldn’t. So we had to do this remotely with video from our partners and our athletes. That became a new way of observing and critiquing, “Is this a good design?” Relying on the people that are trying it on, relying on their feedback.
AZ: And you relying on a mediated experience rather than—
JH: Very much so. I resisted that for quite some time because, again, I felt touch blind. A great deal of what Nike does is so much about the sensual: feeling these products in your hands, on your body, on your feet, making that visceral connection to what we’ve done, the sculpting, the material selections. That really becomes quite important as a part of how we design the desire of this product. It’s something to be felt. When Nike Design does things really well, we move the conversation from a thing to a feeling, right? That’s really important. There’s lots of things, but when things give you goosebumps, I mean really, it demands your attention. And you must reappraise the context that you’re looking at things [in]. We know we’ve done our job well. I always tell our designers, “The goal is goosebumps.”
AZ: Right. Which is not so quantifiable, and there’s no clear road map there.
JH: There’s none. But the human experience, if you pay attention to it, will tell you where some of the solution paths have to [come from]. When that becomes so powerful, there’s a magic to that, where the object transcends an item and becomes an idea. Right? It becomes experiential. It becomes a feeling. And when design achieves that level of magic and success, I think it’s transcendent.
AZ: Absolutely. You’ve drawn the parallel: Designing for elite athletes is a bit like NASA going to the moon.
JH: That’s right.
AZ: And this sort of cascading effect that occurs.
JH: That’s right.
AZ: So there are two areas that are interesting to me there. One is about, obviously, the externalities, or the results of that, and the cascading, but also the constraints. I’d love to hear a bit about this idea of the constraint, which you seem to be moving further and further into as you set these higher goals for sustainability.
JH: One of the things that I try to differentiate between when I discuss design is that, when I think about what an artist is doing…. An artist has a contract with themselves, and that contract demands that they use their creative expression, and they use their creative discourse, to satisfy themselves and to resolve things from within.
Designers don’t have that luxury. Designers have a social contract with somebody else, and that social contract demands empathy and demands a complete understanding of what constraints are. Because, without constraints, you have a folly to follow. But it doesn’t really solve a problem. And so, we are a company that’s absolutely obsessed with solving problems for athletes. Minus constraints, it’s a design exercise that remains in limbo, and we don’t like that. I don’t like that. A part of the job is to dig deeper and deeper into, What are those constraints? Knowing that they’re guardrails, and asking of ourselves, “Are we pushing? Are we progressing? Are we adapting those constraints?” to eventually fall away, so that the solution is so clear-cut and so magical that people dissipate. “Well, what was the issue?” “Well, it’s just this.” The solution is so self-evident that people, again, fall in love with the product and the idea.
AZ: Connected to this is zero impact, zero compromises.
AZ: First of all, on which projects do you think this is really becoming visible? And also, does it begin with Space Hippies? I would love to hear more about the conceptual foundations of Space Hippie, and how it’s led to some of these newer thoughts.
JH: Let me say this. We’re turning fifty next year, which is quite remarkable. Very few companies make it to five years, right? We’re making it to fifty years. I have the good fortune of being with the company for thirty years, so I’ve seen quite a bit of transformation. When it comes to our environmental effort and our sustainable push, we’ve been at this for a long time. I mean twenty-five–plus years.
One of our very first projects where we self-constrained was the singlet project that we did for the Sydney [Summer Olympic] Games in 2000. It was simply recycled polyester and water bottles into a standoff singlet. One of the things that I remember is just the reaction that we got from the athletes and the public, because the piece was avant-garde. It didn’t trigger certain things that were expected. It pulled the curtain back behind a new aesthetic, and that was just the beginning.
I began to move from my brand role of doing NikeTown stores, and brand and marketing things, into being the head of product. And so being able to say, as an architect, “What are the things that we need to stand for?” And in the architectural space, LEED certification became really important as an early step forward. So we just progressed in this dialogue around better selections, better choices, new materials, new ways of manufacturing…. We were testing things like, we had an idea called Nike Considered Design, where everything was considered, and an early foray into geometry and chemistry working together, and eliminating cements and toxins, et cetera. And that progressed. Then we had a series of things that we did from a materials perspective, and that progressed. All along, we’re making these incremental steps.
Space Hippie is important because, in design, you never want to not iterate. It’s important. The progression of design, and design Darwinism, requires adaptation and requires this continuous, iterative process of getting better and better and better. Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of this exponential jump, and that became Space Hippie. The fun story with Space Hippie is that our young design staff took it upon themselves to use this idea of, Imagine if we were in a spaceship, and the spaceship has no supply line to it, and we have a problem. And how do you solve that problem? Only constrained with what’s around you.
What I saw this team of designers do is begin to extrapolate that into, “Okay, so this is the limitation.” Inspiration because of limitation exploded this creative opportunity. And what we saw was breathtaking, because it had no compromises in terms of utility—what it was doing. But how it expressed itself became quite interesting. Again, avant-garde. It was different. It didn’t ascribe to the traditional representations of sneakers and clothing, and that was a good thing.
When we launched this, in 2020, the reaction was, “That’s really different.” Eventually, what that did as an exponential leap, is it helped us at Nike, and me specifically in design, show the world there can be no compromises, and there can be a new expression—an expression that is different and that is also desirable and magic, and invite[s] consumers into this other conversation around, “This is what beauty can look like now.” Beauty and utility and responsibility became very important.
AZ: In terms of its inception, it’s so interesting because certain architects design from program, and certain architects design from form and material. And this was a narrative program.
AZ: There was a story there, a human experience. So I’m wondering how much you’ve now thought about that since that experience, about, should we be designing from a story? Should we be designing from the individual?
JH: I think this revisits an earlier conversation, which is moving from items to ideas, and things to feelings. Ideas and feelings are best backed, or underpinned, with a narrative, and that’s the way humans relate. Because what we saw with Space Hippie was, it wasn’t just the shoe itself. It wasn’t just the object, or the culture of the object, or the cult of the object. It was the backstory. And the backstory became the front story, like, “Did you know?” So all of a sudden, you’ve got ambassadors out there wearing their product, talking about the things that we wanted to talk about, which is, We self-constrain. We use less materials. We use this fictitious narrative of, ‘We’re in a spaceship.’” And by the way, we are. It’s called planet Earth, and there is no resupply mission. This is where we are.
I was really quite impressed and excited with that team, because they took the narrative all the way through. When we launched it, it was one of the most impressive launches we’ve had, because when you see the projects and you hear the story, people smile.
AZ: Yeah. And you grew up through this amazing period of innovation—
AZ: And change. Did you have this fascination with NASA early on, or even nostalgia for that kind of stuff? Has that always informed certain things, growing up through that time?
JH: You know, my dad was in the Navy. And so I have always had a fascination with this utility, and how there’s a bold call to action. I think about President [John F.] Kennedy describing what would happen as this incredibly audacious goal, at the time, and then to go get after it, and to have that become NASA. And I actually am old enough to remember watching the lunar landing on the moon, and watching the first steps. Again, it was hard to conceive of, because you’re seeing it on television, you know it’s outer space.… And the pride that I think I remember feeling, and the excitement I felt, was great. And I think the reality for me was that NASA transitioned into Star Wars, right? That narrative was, again, exponential, because it wasn’t just the moon. It was the galaxy beyond.
JH: And that became more about the story: what was, and what could be, in front of us.
AZ: Yeah. What was your upbringing like? Where did you grow up?
JH: I’m fond of saying I grew up on the Eastern Seaboard. Dad was in the Navy. And my dad was working on the submarine program. During the early sixties and mid-sixties, they were tracking where submarines left and returned. So when my dad went to sea, my mom, and my brother, and I would pack up and move from, let’s say, Maine to Connecticut, Connecticut to Virginia, and everywhere in between.
I typically begin this story by acknowledging that I have dyslexia, and that being a dyslexic boy was a challenge, really heightened because of the number of elementary schools that I went to, which was quite a few. And I didn’t really have the consistency of teaching. I really struggled, to be honest with you. I struggled with reading and writing. And I was obviously a poor test-taker. By the time my parents finally settled, outside of Philadelphia, I needed help.
AZ: Was it actually diagnosed?
JH: Yes. It was diagnosed when we were in Rhode Island, at Brown University. I do remember that being some sense of relief. I also remember these activities that my dad and I would do, and my mom and I would do. And really, the activities, in those years, were trying to connect the way your brain works and the way your physical body works. We had these tennis balls that my parents would write numbers and letters on. I’d have to catch the ball with my left hand, look at the letter, and say, “E.” And then move it to my right hand, and then bounce it back to my father. We’d do this in the garage. The idea was programming left to right, the way that people read. I didn’t do that naturally.
That became, down the road, following lights moving left to right, and then sentences left to right. And so I had a lot of wonderful coaching, from having the privilege of my parents helping me and great schools. Dyslexia became a central theme of a part of my education. And that theme was something that I had to move through: the shame, and the anxiety, and the pain of what that meant, to really understand it in a different way as I do now as an adult, which is, it’s a blessing. I’m really glad that my brain works this way. My mom used to say, “You just see the world differently.”
AZ: Well, the speed of your eyes, the way you track things, is what it’s about, right?
AZ: It’s a speed of the way you track things, which is why often people that struggle with dyslexia have extraordinary visual recall. They can see images and engage with drawings in very different ways than people without dyslexia.
AZ: Did you realize that early on? Were you engaged in visual information in different ways? Did you find a certain comfort when you were not dealing with words, basically?
JH: Yeah. You know, fun fact, party fact, for me is I have an incredible visual memory recall, and I have it from a very early age. I wouldn’t call it a photographic memory, because I don’t know if that’s the case. What I know I have is, once I’ve seen something and I’ve processed it, I don’t just see it as a composition or a scene. I see it as a memory. I see it as a feeling. And I think about the way I felt about what I saw. I can recall it from the simple graphic, or the composition. But it usually conjures a much deeper feeling in me about, What was I thinking? What was I thinking about? How was I feeling about what I saw?
I have enough visual recall where I’ll see something in a movie and I can, years later, say, “Oh, that’s the artist in that scene, in this moment, on that wall.” And people are like, “That’s not true.” And I’ll go back and I’ll Google it, and sure enough, it’s right there. And I think, as a dyslexic boy, my first true language was drawing. It’s the way I understood the world. It’s the way I processed the world. I used language to negotiate an understanding. And that gave me a powerful advantage, to think of things two-dimensionally, three-dimensionally, and in some ways, four-dimensionally.
JH: And I do—
AZ: The fourth dimension being feeling.
JH: Yes. The conjuring of not just representing what I see, but what is it about what I’m seeing? And how can I make a deeper connection to these feelings that I have? What I really enjoy about that is that I have these abstractions. It’s not enough to photograph it. It’s, “What if I put this, and this, and that together in a new way?” I’ve been in New York City for three days; I’ve probably taken a thousand photographs. In fact, my family’s like, “Enough! Stop sending me photographs.” But it’s just the way I observe, and catalog, and record what I see and what I feel, so that when I revisit it, other things come up.
AZ: And that’s, in a way, how vision develops—this aggregate of emotional responses that you start to string together. And you say, “This feeling, and this feeling, and this feeling make a new feeling.”
JH: That’s exactly right. And they’re not always right, and they’re not always good, but it’s an exercise of pulling a thread through visual imagery and feelings that I’ve had, and things that I’m engaged in, that all of a sudden open up another door, a different aperture. And that’s what I’ve always really enjoyed about creativity is, creativity is the ultimate act of optimism, which is: You have to believe that there’s a better way. You have to believe in the progression of design, that things can and should be better.
AZ: And that no feeling is final. Things continue to shift and move forward.
JH: Forever. The only constant that we have is change. And not understanding that, as a designer, is troublesome, because designers are here on the planet today to keep making progress. In whatever field, whatever industry, whatever focus you have, it should be about progressing the lovely human experience forward more equitably, more sustainably, opening the aperture to all. To me, that’s really exciting. And it’s also … it’s limitless. It’s an unending narrative that just keeps going and growing.
AZ: Your dad was an engineer.
AZ: And you tell this great story about sending a design to Nike. I’m sure you’ve—
AZ: You’ve told it at different times in your life, but I did want to include it in this, specifically because so much we talk about is time. And this experience in your life seems to have sensitized you to time in a certain way, and completed circles, and how the integration of your whole life works. So what was that experience?
JH: It’s a good way of putting it, actually. I haven’t thought about that in that way. Thank you for giving me that. In many ways, I view my career at Nike as somewhat of manifest destiny. And the time component’s interesting, because really, if I think about my engagement with Nike, it’s forty-five years.
AZ: Needs to start there, doesn’t it?
JH: Exactly. Yeah, compelling. So, the story that I tell, in terms of this manifest destiny is, again, as a young boy—nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old, someone who was dyslexic and using doodling and drawing as a way to self-soothe and experience the world—I would draw everything. It didn’t matter. And it was just drawing to discover how a car looked, and what was the composition of an airplane, or an animal, or a building, or a sneaker. I was also a decent athlete, as a kid. So drawing and athletics became these bookends in my life. During the days, I would be out playing sports with all the older kids. I was a track rabbit, so the older kids would chase you for a full lap. And when they tapped you on the head, you’d fall off, and they’d pick up the next rabbit, and they’d pull you. I loved being there with those older kids, and seeing what they were doing. They used to run in Nike sneakers, the Waffle Trainer or the Elite Racer. I didn’t have those, but I was really fond of the colors. It had a compelling look to it.
At night when I was home, I’d just be drawing, voraciously, these sneakers. And I’d try to draw, or emulate, the swoosh on the side of the shoe. I would do this for summers in a row. The story goes, one summer, I’m floating on a raft in a pool and daydreaming, frankly, which is something I still do. Living with wonder and daydreaming. And I was just thinking to myself, This is really comfortable, and it’s cushioning all the waves around me, and keeping me buoyant. And I like this idea of these tubes. And I thought, I wonder if I could shrink this, and then put this on my foot. If I ran on this mini air mattress, I wonder how that would feel. Would it cushion the blow? Help my shock absorption as I ran? And then, would it give me an energy return as I sprung off?
I got home from the pool and just started drawing, just started doodling rafts underfoot. At one point I drew this very elaborate blueprint, as I think elaborate, was probably a doodle. But it was this side view, top-down, section view of an air raft, an air mattress under your foot. And my dad was an engineer. And I said, “Hey, I did this thing.” And he was like, “Well, that’s really cool.” I remember him saying, “Now that? So what do you want to do?” I remember bringing out this orange box and I said, “I want to send it to this company. This is the company that all the great track stars run in.”
I ended up going to a local library, because there was no internet back then, and trying to figure out, where was this company? And it said Beaverton, Oregon. I came to learn that it was founded by Mr. Phil Knight. So I wrote Nike a letter when I was 12 years old and said, “I’m 12 years old. I’m an athlete. I’m a fan of your sneakers. I have this idea to cushion your foot, when your foot hits the ground and then give you an energy return.” Not the exact language, but thereabouts. Put it in the mail and didn’t think anything of it.
Roughly three weeks later, a box shows up at my house with a pair of sneakers, and a T-shirt, and a letter that I have hanging in my office today that I interpreted basically like, “Hey, we’re working on some really cool things. Love to hear from folks like you. When you’re old enough, come out and work for us.” Didn’t think anything of it.
I ended up moving through high school. I didn’t do very well in my exams. Again, I’m a poor test-taker. But I was lucky enough to get a chance to attend Penn State as an architect. Graduated, went to work for Michael Graves, then I went back to graduate school at UPenn, graduated. And I began to kind of re-earth this letter as a destiny.
You think about time, and it was, you know, fifteen years later, and it was in my childhood bedroom drawer. Not at the top, but close to it. And it rekindled this desire of, Maybe Nike. I made contact with the company, and eventually was asked to come out and show my portfolio. And I eventually was meeting with Mr. Mark Parker, R&D head. And at the end of my portfolio, I had this letter, and I said, “I’m here today to redeem the coupon that you sent me when I was a twelve-year-old boy.” And that clinched it. There was this manifestation of, Okay, so this is what you’ve been thinking about; this is what maybe some of your life’s work is. And so, I do think it’s a story of moving through adversity. It’s a story of finding your passion, right? And seeing that through.
As I mentioned, I’ve been with the company thirty years. That story is still resonant because…. My story is not unique. My story is a story of many Nike employees, and many future employees, who have fallen in love with the potential of sports and the potential of design, and creativity, and innovation, in themselves. And I hope that’s the enduring story from what I just described.
AZ: It is. And also, there’s something extraordinary about this relationship to your father through that. That, in a way, you were relating to him through engineering something, through taking a path that was, This isn’t just a doodle. This is an idea that’s been realized on paper.
JH: Right. I was just with my father over the past week, and I recount the story and other stories. I think in his own way, what he would say was that there was something there, even with a child. This childlike wonder of connecting these disparate things into something that hadn’t yet been born.
AZ: And the beginnings of the necessary need for rigor to see that through.
AZ: To do multiple perspectives, to actually design something.
JH: Yes. Yeah.
AZ: Which is not just an idea, and not just wondering, “What if?” But the follow-through that needs to occur.
JH: That’s a great way of putting it. I didn’t know plan, section, elevation. I was trying to describe something. I was trying to describe what I was thinking, and it just naturally came out that—
AZ: That happens to be a good way to do it.
AZ: So before we move too close to Nike, I do want to stay in your childhood a little bit. You were a quarterback. You captained teams in high school.
AZ: Leadership. Designing may have started in that moment with that drawing and that letter—
AZ: But did leadership begin on the field?
JH: Yeah. You know, I was a shy kid, and I had a rich inner world that I enjoyed, and that was the designing and the doodling and the discovery. Athletics became an outlet for leadership, that I was able to achieve certain things in my athletic career that gave me a position of—I’ll call it authority—as I became an older teenager and a young adult. I often describe that my athletic career [was] really early lessons in leadership, right? What it’s like to lead others with a sense of humility, and a sense of commitment, knowing that the job of either being a quarterback or being a pitcher—I was a four-sport athlete—being a track athlete or being good at basketball, it wasn’t enough to be good alone. It was really a lot better, and a lot more fulfilling, to be great as a team. And so, you needed to know how to play a role, and how to fill in some of the gaps. And then together, as a team, you grow, and you get to grow and trust each other, and then push each other, and challenge each other.
I became fairly good at basketball and had chances to play basketball, et cetera. What I loved about that game was, we all played roles, and we could trade off leadership, depending on who had a hot hand or had the ball, or what team we were playing. But it was the fluidity of that. And knowing and predicting where players could be, and predicting how that outcome would fall in your favor, which I just fell in love with.
The truth is, it gave me a lot of confidence. It gave me a lot of confidence in my physicality. And the physicality of drawing, and the physicality of making, and the physicality of playing sports began to harmonize. And even in college, I would’ve called myself a very reluctant leader. I didn’t choose the stage. I didn’t choose to be the leader. It evolved. And that evolved, even at Nike. I was hired at Nike … I like to say I was hired as a hot pen to make lightning strikes. What I came to love was transitioning from making lightning strikes to building the conditions for lightning. That is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever felt. Building teams, pushing teams—with trust, of course. But finding things together that I couldn’t find alone. I’ve had wonderful mentors and wonderful designers at the company, and the thing that I’m so grateful for is that those projects that have been transformative for the company were not singular, by me. They were sometimes led by me, sometimes drawn by me, but it was a team. It’s a team effort.
AZ: Right. And there’s another aspect to the athletics that I was thinking about. Being dyslexic, having trouble in the classroom—just, a straight challenge. Every obstruction there to just get through it. And you’re moving schools all the time.
AZ: But this incontrovertible evidence of, “I am valuable to play basketball. I am valuable; here’s a drawing.” So I’m also curious, you talk about it in terms of confidence, but also in terms of just survival on a social level. Was that a driver for you?
JH: Both the world of art and the world of sports, the way I saw them was, they were always.… They became an invitation to connect to people, and to have people connect to me. And that invitation was potent. That built friendships. That built capabilities. That built mentors. That built teams.
AZ: And it’s clear. It’s just, “Let’s do it.” And it’s here. It’s not some unknown thing. Because at the time, I think a lot about dyslexia being something that wasn’t really understood. It was this nebulous—
JH: Yeah. I think it was miscast as a learning disability. When I speak about it, I speak about it as a learning agility, that I think is just a different way of thinking. It’s a different way of processing. I’m really lucky because I’ve been able to be educated and go on through graduate schools, et cetera. And what I’ve found is that I think I have a pretty ambidextrous mind, and that’s powerful. To be able to speak the language of business and speak the language of creativity, simultaneously, and then cross-pollinate those things has helped me.
AZ: And these experiences of activating your body, in terms of your understanding of body and self and nature.
AZ: I read about an experience you had of Fallingwater, your first experience really seeing Frank Lloyd Wright in reality. And you’ve referred to nature as a master class in adaptation, and this need for this symbiotic relationship between a living thing and its environment. If you think back to that experience of seeing Fallingwater—not an image of it, but actually being there, and feeling the water, and feeling the inevitability of those two things working together, and how fully resolved it was—how much that put you in that mindset, and how often do you think about that in your own work?
JH: Obviously, I had studied Frank Lloyd Wright, and I’d seen the classic images of the trays cantilevered over the waterfall in the summer, and the fall, and the winter. Michael Graves, who was a great mentor of mine, took the office to an opening of the Crown [American] headquarters in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and made a point to take us to Fallingwater. So you have one master inviting you to look at another master’s work. Again, what I would tell you was, it wasn’t the form vocabulary. It wasn’t rights, theory, and discourse. It wasn’t the material choices. It was the being there. It was the feeling of being there, and being literally in awe of nature. And every stroke that he made with this building was provoking you to think more deeply about nature.
I remember being emotional, swept up in the, Wow. Okay, so this is design. This is what design can do. It can get the hairs on the back of my neck up. It can stir my emotions. It can challenge the conventions of a house, of a wall, of a material—all the while breathing life into what is all around us that we’re sleepwalking through. And to feel that, and to be above and below the falls was, again, I think a transformative moment for me.
AZ: And working for Michael Graves, this is a parametric firm. There aren’t that many of them in the recent history.
JH: Very few. Frank Lloyd Wright was parametric. Yes.
AZ: Frank Gehry, to a certain extent. There have been many architects that have worked across many sectors and designed many things big and small, not as successfully or thoroughly as Michael Graves really did over time. You started as a model-maker there.
JH: I did.
AZ: Which I think is fascinating for you, in particular, because, not only starting at the bottom and working your way up as far as you did there, but also the touch, and the hand. And this is at a time before digital architecture was really—
JH: Just nascent at the time. Yeah. Digital was just nascent.
AZ: How important do you think to your development are these handmade processes, and how the model-making really put you through that process with Graves? How much did you learn in that? Or were you kind of like, “I can’t wait to get out of the model-making studio and design something?”
JH: No, I was really persistent in chasing down this opportunity. I was fixated on leaving school, and wanting to have an impact in my life. And Michael Graves’s work spoke to me from a painterly perspective, and compositionally. But what I really enjoyed was the playing of the narratives of the classics, and the continuous reimagination of what the classics were. And Michael, even just through the studying of his work, was really fixated on the feeling of a building—not the artistic sculpture, but what’s it like to be in a room, to sit in a chair, to hold a spoon?
AZ: He’s a Heideggerian architect, in many ways.
JH: Very much so. And parametrically, from urban planning to a place mat. I was captivated by that. Because of my athleticism and dexterity, I was very fastidious. I was very good at building models, paper models. I would get lost in the making. Literally, time would dissolve in front of me, and I’d look up and it’d be ten hours later, and I’m still at it, and I became very good at this.
I was at Penn State and, back in those days, they would send these letters to the department chair. And there was a letter that was pinned up on my board outside of my studio that said, “Seeking model-maker.” And it had the Michael Graves header on it. I had already got, I don’t know, four or five rejection letters from the office. And I looked at that letter and I said, “That’s my job.” I actually took the pin out, and I took the paper, and I went back, and I actually hand-made a series of models to bring down to show my skills.
I drove down my senior year, and met with a gentleman named Alex Lee, who was in charge of model-making. I think to his surprise, I actually brought down the examples in the style of Michael Graves. And I was able to share with him, “This is the way I think. This is how I’m building stuff.” I drove back, and I got a phone call a week later, and it was the dream job. It was absolutely the dream job, because I had landed this really hard spot with Michael Graves.
I did come to learn that it was the lowest on the totem pole, because the last person to get information was the person that built the model. I’m fond of saying that I got a chance to be super close to an American master. Within a year, I could predict the form vocabulary, the shaping, the proportion, the color. And I became quite good at doing it, and then working directly with the architects and, of course, Mr. Graves. And then—I remember like this was yesterday—he looked at me and said, “You’re an architect, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Yeah, you probably should head upstairs and start doing architecture.” And at the ripe age of 23, 24, we had so much work in the office that stuff just came to me, and I began to do interior work, and furniture work, and eventually buildings. Again, I was parametrically doing plates to chairs to urban planning in Tokyo, and that was really fun. I’m forever grateful for that experience, because I could have done different things. But I had an intuition that I had to do this, and I had to make it happen. I had to manifest it. I had to learn from that, and then keep growing, and keep adapting. And then, eventually, I went back to UPenn, to get my graduate degree.
I studied in the GSD, architecture, but I studied a lot about space, but really about objects and space and the relationship of, What is an object? What is it as a totem, and how does it relate to people? And what do they project onto it and vice versa? That got me back interested in not just objects, but things that were on the body, because the body itself is an object, and it’s communicating and telegraphing things. That became another interest of mine.
I skipped this part of the story, but I was asked to give a lecture to the undergraduates around health, imagery, and wellness in architecture. And so I was deep into the California school: [Rudolph] Schindler, [Richard] Neutra, the [Lovell] Health House, and really fighting tuberculosis at the time with a modernity of light, and so on. That lecture, I made contact with Nike and I said, “I’m really curious about what you guys are doing with architecture.” This gentleman sent me a bunch of slides, and I presented these slides, and it was the very first NikeTown. And I thought, Man, that’s powerful. Because it was a three-dimensional advertisement. It was this experience that you were immersed within, of the brand values, the brand ethics. And I presented it to the student body, and that got the correspondence going.
AZ: How interesting. It seems like philosophical product was what you were trying to understand—what that is. They talk about that with the Bauhaus. This teapot represents a philosophy, it’s an artifact—
AZ: Of a thought, which you’ve clearly done at Nike for the last thirty years.
AZ: But Graves, people think of him as a postmodernist. He probably didn’t think of himself, maybe, that way.
AZ: Probably was more on the Corb tip. But without these ridiculous, unnecessary labels, at Nike, would you think of what you guys are doing on a certain level as postmodernist?
JH: It’s clearly in the realm of studying symbol, and looking at the symbology of what it is we do, building artifact of the future, and then connecting that artifact to self-empowerment. And I think in that way, yes. But I also think there’s a strict modernity in the work that we do, which I like. And that goes back to the form and function following footprint, which is, there’s a rigor backed by science, tested on athletes, knowing that we do not want to produce junk form.
AZ: It’s not decorative. And that’s what’s interesting, that’s what I was imagining you might think about. Because it is modernist, on every level.
AZ: It’s just the outcome of it is very different than what modernism may have looked like in the 1930s.
AZ: So you get to Nike in 1992.
AZ: You’re 28 years old.
AZ: And you start designing—again, parametrically, which you’d been used to. You must have thought, Oh, all design jobs are like this. You get to design—
JH: I guess I was lucky that way. Yeah.
AZ: A million different things.
I don’t think that’s the experience of many designers, you know?
JH: Yeah. It’s unfortunate. Yes, I’m very lucky to have had those two experiences.
AZ: And you move through it. And eventually, you move into creative leadership roles.
AZ: What I was curious about is what have you learned to embrace, and what have you left behind in relationship to creative leadership?
JH: As I mentioned earlier, the big shift for me was coming to the full realization that my impact could be scaled exponentially by leading others, and setting a standard of excellence for others, and promoting their work, and then our work together. That there was an inherent limitation based on: number of hours in a day, two hands, two eyes. What if I could teach more people to think in ways that I think? Could that be a way of having a much bigger and deeper impact? I’ll be honest, that transition wasn’t the easiest, because I—
AZ: Couldn’t have been.
JH: Because I love to design. Design and making are in my marrow. But what I got to was that, I get to sculpt in much bigger ways, and solve problems much more panoramically, and bringing that same approach and philosophy to more and more things became really important to me. I have always led by saying this, I say, “I don’t think I know a lot, but I’m really curious.” And it’s the curiosity that keeps me waking up and like, Hmm, okay. So, how would I put these things…. How would I address digital, the metaverse, the coming materiality that’s going to change? I live with wonder about, Where’s this all going to go? And I can’t help but think about, It’s always going to be better. Or, I want to be better. So how do we approach that as a team?
AZ: This relates to this idea of progress, not perfection, right? Perfection has a finality to it.
JH: I just don’t believe in that, I never have. I believe perfection is a trap. Change is a constant. And as designers, how many times have—well, I’ll speak for myself. I revisit projects of twenty years ago. What did I learn? What was the decision? How did I think about it? How do I think about it now? To me, that’s really healthy, because it demands that you’re not stagnant. Right? You’re constantly exploring. You’re constantly experimenting. Methods, inputs and outputs, makes—how does it relate in today’s society? I just think that, to me, is progression. And Nike, and Nike Design, because we talk to athletes, and because sports will always evolve, and the progression of sports is not a given but a pursuit…. Same thing is true in design.
AZ: But progress is linear in a way, maybe, but not always quantifiable. And I was wondering how, in a corporation, how do you create space for these winding roads? Because like you were saying earlier, you have a business mind, you have a creative mind.
AZ: How do you create a scenario that has winding roads, that has space?
JH: I think you teach eyes on the north star of the company. And then let them meander in the journey, because sometimes the progression is not linear. Sometimes it’s backward, and you need to backtrack and you need to revisit, reappraise some of the things that you’ve done. But for us, the most important North Star that we have is that we exist to make sure that sport is a birthright. We exist to help athletes progress, and progress to break down inherent boundaries of the status quo. That could be records on the sports field, that could be cultural boundaries and barriers, that can be personal boundaries and barriers. When we do that really well, what I’ve witnessed with our athletes is that they show us a new way, they show us another path. And that path can be studied, again, parametrically. If this athlete can do it and that pulls us into this new domain, this new frontier, the public will follow.
AZ: Right. One of the advantages of being at Nike for so long—thirty years.
AZ: It’s really extraordinary. I imagine you’ve had the ability to have these insights over time, from this type of first-order observance. And thinking about thinking. Thinking about how you were thinking, thinking about how others were thinking about something. What are the traits that you’ve seen that you think connect the great creatives? And I don’t mean just people that make visual things, the creative business leaders. Everyone that you’ve encountered that’s creative, what is it that they’ve embraced that’s lasted through time?
JH: In my experience, I think some of those traits are just being obsessed with making progress and trying to push beyond the things that you’re conflicted with or you’re constrained by. That, along with a really healthy disregard for the status quo. And then just being super curious about, What if I put these new things together? How do I make that expression something unique, something that has an impact? And the last thing I would say is just, hustle and make. I think in today’s world, the ability to get your hands on things, and make things, and literally getting tactile with holding materials and things in your hands, and knowing that that is probably one of the most important parts of the human experience—which is to look around and perceive the things in front of you, and nature, et cetera—and imagine, audaciously, something different, and then make it. And trial and error, and trial and error. And I think those are the traits that I think I found really powerful.
Again, working for Graves and knowing Mr. Knight and Mr. Bowerman, it’s also this vision, this relentless vision of, This is what we’re trying to accomplish, and it’s not easy. Right? So, we’re going to fail. We know that. But let’s go hack into that waffle iron anyway. Let’s go figure out something new, a new way of thinking, a new way of processing. And that to me has always been really infectious.
AZ: And very evident in your Phaidon book [Nike: Better Is Temporary].
AZ: So you have this fifty-year—
AZ: Looking forward… you have this extraordinary book that chronicles fifty years of design at Nike. What does the book capture beyond just the products? What does it capture in its entirety for you?
JH: I think it’s best expressed with the introduction and the conclusion of the book, and frankly, captured in the title, which is that better is temporary. I remember sitting across my office with Sam Grawe, the author. And he came to this interview with this clincher question; the first one out was like, “What’s the vision of the company, and what have you learned?” And I was like, “Okay.”
AZ: “Let me get comfortable.”
JH: That’s a tough one, yeah.
JH: But I said, again, “This is a lived experience.” Athletes have taught me that the best is temporary at best. The best record, the best gold medal, the best performance—it comes, it sits there, and immediately is being chased after. And I said, “That reminds me of design. That as soon as the design is done, we tear it down, we look at it, we reappraise it, and we say, ‘What can we do better?’” So connecting those two dots at the beginning, which is—that’s the lesson and the gift that Phil Knight gave us: If you listen to athletes, and you observe their ambition, and you’re a part of that ambition coming to life, you’re on a path of continuous improvement. As a designer, I literally can’t think of anything more powerful than that, where, every season, every week, every year, every month you’re learning something about what you did, and you get a chance to revisit it and improve upon it. And that’s kept me there for thirty years.
AZ: In pragmatic terms, you’ve operationalized it in extraordinary ways. You just did the Olson Kundig building with these incredible studios for visualization. You’ve created actual machines for observation, for active looking.
JH: Yeah. We’ve got two brand-new buildings, which I think are amazing investments on behalf of Nike: the LeBron James Innovation Center by Tom Kundig [guest on Ep. 37 of Time Sensitive], and the Serena Williams design and product building by my friend Jeff Kovel of Skylab. These are not just wonderful architectural masterpieces. It’s a commitment by our company that says, Innovation and design matter.
In the Innovation Center, the Kundig building, as you mentioned, we have completely new ways of observing athletes. Phil Knight’s gift was, “Always listen to the voice of the athlete.” We’ve surrounded that voice with what they express, with this amazing visualization of data sets. So now it’s what they express, plus the science and the data. And now with algorithms and A.I., it’s this exponential data set that we get to look at, and that’s really powerful as a design advocate. But we do know that design doesn’t dream; designers do. So it’s not enough to possess data. It’s, what do you do with it? How do you use it as a jumping-off point? As a rich creative investigation, where you’re free to dream on top of that? And I think a rich data set, multiplied by a pretty audacious imagination, is really magic.
AZ: Which you refer to as “quantum creativity.”
JH: Quantum creativity, which, right, is looking at the data, and looking at the power of the coming computational design potential. Think of Moore’s law, of unending doubling of speed and of intelligences, and then applying that to the act of creativity and imagination. And for me, quantum creativity lets us iterate very quickly—lets us explore exponentially very quickly, and puts designers on a path to be able to curate and set parameters of design, and then create things that no human hand could conjure alone because of the limitations of…. Because you’re designing it at atomic scale, at some point.
I just think that—well, I don’t think; I know—what’s coming is truly a revolution in form-factoring, in having objects that transcend the inert to the alive, so that products and projects become totally symbiotic, predictive, sympathetic to an athlete. And that, to me, is as personal as your fingerprint. What I like to say is that your birth anatomy is no longer your athlete destiny. We can fill some of those Darwinian gaps with our products. And to think about that as a designer, to be able to now conjure that intelligence and materiality and personalization, letting us amplify some of Darwin’s adaptation philosophies—again, pretty magic.
AZ: Yeah. Well, it’s very much in line with where we’re going. We are, right now, in a conversation with where we end and where other things begin, whether it’s technology or the objects in our life. In terms of that, after working virtually for a year, all this chatter of the metaverse, the expanding presence of virtual life, how are you thinking about the human relationship to the network, and how it’s changing the self, and where you think this is creating opportunities for designers?
JH: The thing that I’ve been thinking about and talking to my teams with is that we cannot villainize technology. It is. What we can do is make peace with it, and then describe it as a co-conspirator in creativity. That to me is really exciting, where it isn’t the algorithm or the bot replacing us—it’s the power of these two intelligences commingling, and finding completely new grounds and new spaces. We mentioned earlier, the metaverse. The metaverse, it’s coming. It’s here, it’s coming.
AZ: Whatever that means.
JH: Yeah, I don’t know what that means. But I know it’s internet 3.0. I know it’s coming.
JH: And I’m certainly excited about what that potential is to, I’ll say, detach from fixed screens, and to have information come at athletes in new and better ways. I think that’s pretty powerful, again.
But as I think about where this is all going, what I really hope at the end of the day is that it makes us more human, not less, and that we fall back in love with the biology that we’re given. Our original operating system, 1.0, is nature, our nature, our humanity. And to reacquaint ourselves with that, to feel our beating heart, to feel our breath, to feel our sweat. To feel, as humans, I think is absolutely essential, not just in sports, but in life. It’s the way we relate.
Part of the pandemic—this is an observation—is, we got more and more isolated, and more and more [deprived] of some of those senses that are just innately human. And sports takes that and amplifies it, right? It amplifies the senses. It amplifies the connectivity, the culture, the emotion, if you will, of the moving body. So I really sincerely believe that the next revolution will be a rewilding of us, and a deeper sense of our humanity, a deeper sense of knowing our biology, our anatomy, in a different way, in a way that helps us relate to ourselves better, and other humans better, and then eventually, technology better. That’s not subservient, but again, as I would call it, a co-conspirator in a better future.
AZ: I love that. And we’re all very much looking forward to seeing what’s next from you. Thank you so much for joining us today, John.
JH: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on October 27, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineers Pat McCusker and Johnny Simon.