Why Did Apple Just Hire A Nike Shoe Designer?

One thing we do know: Ben Shaffer was not a top FuelBand designer for the athletic company, as reported by sources hungry for iWatch fodder.

If you believe the rumors, Apple just poached top Nike "FuelBand designer" Ben Shaffer, a sign—as myriad Apple blogs were sure to parrot—that Cupertino MUST be ramping up development on its long-rumored iWatch, if not wearable computers in general.

We have confirmed that Shaffer no longer works at Nike and that he is indeed going to Apple. There's just one hiccup: Shaffer wasn't involved in the FuelBand project. He was not a "FuelBand designer"; rather, his contributions at Nike were related to footwear innovation. In fact, multiple Nike sources have told me that Shaffer didn't even do work on the FuelBand. It's yet another example of the interminable Apple rumor mill—and serves as a sign of the intense anticipation for Apple to get involved in the wearable computer space, and of our tendency to grasp onto rumors and their expected connotations, regardless if they're even true.

Ben Shaffer

First, some context. For our recent cover story on Nike, I interviewed a slew of the company's top designers and executives. The purpose of the story was to learn what DNA yielded innovations like the FuelBand and Flyknit, the company's new flagship, ultra-lightweight shoe line.

I got to spend a good period of time with Shaffer, who took me inside the company's so-called "Innovation Kitchen." But it was clear his involvement was with the Flyknit—not the FuelBand. We spent an extensive amount of time discussing—of all things—the intricacies of knitting.

On the other hand, when reporting on the FuelBand, it was appropriate to talk to top Nike engineers and designers such as Aaron Weast and Jamian Cobbett. I also spoke to top members of Nike's Digital Sport group, including Stefan Olander and Ricky Engelberg, who were crucial to bringing the project to life. The FuelBand also received significant support from third-party firms, including Astro Studios, Synapse, R/GA, and Whipsaw.

Point being, if Apple wanted to steal talent from the FuelBand project, it would likely want to start with Nike's Digital Sport group or with a design firm like Astro. Yes, Shaffer served as the Innovation Kitchen's studio director, but he and that group are centrally involved in footwear: There are knitting machines and shoe prototypes all over the lab. The Innovation Kitchen was not responsible for work on the FuelBand; Shaffer did not do work on the FuelBand, a high-level source at one of Nike's FuelBand partner firms also confirms. Rather, it was the Digital Sport group that led the development of the FuelBand—an independent group that is actually in a separate building.

That's not to say that Shaffer won't be a valuable asset to Apple. To be clear, he's incredibly smart and a brilliant designer, certainly savvy in branding and building product narrative given the decade-plus he spent in Beaverton. Maybe he will end up working on the rumored iWatch project—who knows?

But it's certainly a misrepresentation to say Apple needed him for his expertise in wearable computing. It'd be more reasonable—though likely just as wrong—to infer that Apple needed Shaffer to develop an iShoe.

[Image: Flickr user Arek Olek | Headshot via YouTube]

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  • nyce

    Austin please tell Shaffer I said sorry I admire your work but this time I beat you to the punch, please see below :


    I can control this real world "iShoe" functional prototype with a smartphone and it can beam all other embedded sensor data back to the smartphone for all kinds of tracking including measuring the user's weight etc.


  • Toby_Barnes

    Wearable computing is 2 things.
    Computing and wearability.
    Combining those with ample desirability is hard.
    Shaffer can help Apple with at least one half of that.

    that's why he was hired.

  • Darren

    Austin, what really fascinates me about this article is you haven't really tried to connect point A and B. Shaffer was hired by Apple. But, Why?

    You suggest that Apple would need to sell a shoe to make this hire relevant to wearable computing--I wonder if you thought for a moment that Apple might have hired Shaffer for his experience designing with fabrics, leathers, knits, textures, and color... with durability and comfortability in mind. 

    To me, that sounds extremely relevant to wearables.

    For a moment consider, for instance, that the Apple watch would have swappable bands for different environments, who better to design one for "sport" wear than someone who worked in the Innovation Kitchen, working on shoe prototypes at Nike? 

  • Idohd

    Apple is probably planning long term on other types of wearable devices. Seems like a strong background for that.

  • Evan Bradley

    There has been talk around product design circles on a wearable that is ankle based that would allow for larger screen size.  I can imagine sitting with one leg dictating an email, though I think I would rather be looking at my forearm.  Design is an exercise in research, art, experimentation and iteration.  Maybe shoe design is perfect for Apples needs as it crosses fashion, technology, durability, and shoes are wearable...