Wouldn't it be neat if my shoes had springs? Every kid who's ever slipped on the high-tops, picked up the rock, and left it all on the court at the end of the fourth quarter has asked that question. It comes up during pregame warm-ups, postgame bus rides, and in sporting-goods stores all over the world. It is the natural by-product of millions of young athletes with endless amounts of imagination chasing stardom and glory in their chosen sport.
It's not a new question. Shelves at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office groan with evidence of failed attempts to come up with a spring-loaded sneaker that a factory could actually make. People have been trying to do it for 100 years. And for the past 16 years, shoe designers at Nike Inc., a company with a history of brash behavior, seem to have taken it on as a personal challenge. By now, the results of their efforts have probably made their first public appearances on the medal stands in Sydney, and soon, they'll be in stores. They're called Nike Shox. And they really do have springs in them.
Shox couldn't be coming at a better time for Nike. The company has been in a prolonged slump, with flat sales in the United States and a stock price to match. While plenty of dusty attics are littered with the ghosts of shoe gadgets past (anyone remember the Reebok Pump?), many more bedroom closets have two or three newer pairs of shoes with packets of Nike Air in the soles. Air technology, which Nike introduced in 1979, changed the athletic-footwear business forever, and 20 years later, Nike is still selling billions of dollars' worth of Air-equipped shoes each year.
If history repeats itself, Shox has the potential to be a relatively quick fix to Nike's bottom line. But the technology behind it did not spring from the research lab at exactly the moment the company needed it most. In fact, it took nearly 16 years of fits and starts, teamwork, and brainpower to bring it to market. For a company that was started by and for track-and-field athletes, that pace may seem slow. But as Nike has matured into a company that cares more about the marathon than about the 100-meter dash, running the shoe-development process as a relay has turned out to be a good way to produce the kind of technology that has the potential to finish first.
On Your Mark: The Big Idea
Back in the late 1970s, a young professor of biology and applied mechanics at Harvard named Tom McMahon helped invent the tuned indoor track, which uses carefully calibrated layers of plywood and polyurethane in order to create a springiness that helps improve times and reduce injuries. Engineers at Nike caught wind of this development, and a few years later, they invited McMahon to spend part of his sabbatical at Nike trying to apply his new technology to athletic shoes. "They concocted this Frankenstein-looking aluminum boot," recalls Bruce Kilgore, 45, director of advanced research and development at Nike. "They'd change different springs in and out of it and run people on the treadmill, and from that they eventually arrived at a magical spring rate. They could tell that it had a very different feel because of the smiles that would break out on people's faces as they were running."
To Kilgore, who is an engineer by training, this was pure research and development, absent any pressure to produce a particular shoe with a particular design by a particular deadline. "We were thinking about creating a cushioning system that could have good vertical compliance and maintain some torsional stiffness that would help correct the stability issues we had," he says. Translation? "Even though the prototypes fell apart after five miles, there was some magic for people in putting that shoe on. That's what inspires you to keep going, failure after failure," says Kilgore.
McMahon returned to Harvard, and the Nike team eventually reached out to materials experts from the automotive industry in order to get rid of all of that aluminum. "We found a company that had worked on Formula One race cars," Kilgore recalls. "They wanted us to change the shoes to make the back half look like a big cantilever." (Picture a "V" turned on its side.) According to the mathematical model that had been worked up for Nike on a computer, the shoe could easily withstand the forces that runners would exert. "When we tried them out, they were very heavy," Kilgore says. "And when we walked in them, the heel bottomed out, and it hit the sole of the shoe before we even broke into a run."
At that point, Kilgore decided that he needed a break. He put the prototypes away, taking them out every so often just to keep his brain thinking about how to get them to behave like that original prototype sheathed in aluminum. During the next couple of years, he played around with the idea of putting piano hinges inside the shoes, but that approach didn't seem to solve the problem.
By 1990, John Tawney, director of Nike id, had arrived at the company from Ford Motor Co. "There were all these failed samples and boxes of parts and things lying around," Tawney, 37, recalls. "But I saw what they were trying to do, and I got the impression that there was something special to be had there."
Tawney and Kilgore's group had run out of money to pay the company that had suggested the cantilever shoe, but the company gave them one last bit of advice. "They said that our best chance was to put cylindrical tubes through the shoe," Kilgore says. He dutifully went around to all of the big thermoplastic manufacturers in search of the right material, but none of the compounds were supple enough to bounce back to their original shape after a runner's foot had stomped them down. Eventually, it occurred to the team to turn the columns vertically, and soon Kilgore stumbled onto another automotive company, one that made jounce bumpers, which are used in automobiles to absorb shocks from rough roads.
"They had springs made out of this high-density foam material that could withstand 100,000 miles of driving," Tawney says. "If you jump on a metal spring, at some point it will deform and hit a solid stop. You hit the bottom and it goes 'Kaboom!' With the foam springs, you get both deformation of the geometry and compression of the material. It is the compression of the foam material that allows us to avoid the abrupt bottoming-out point experienced with springs made from solid materials." Eventually, the team produced a four-column prototype that resembled today's Shox. Team members began limited testing on real runners, who were, for the most part, delighted by the way the shoes felt.
Meanwhile, back in the part of Nike where engineers and designers were actually producing revenue, shoes with Air technology were flying off the shelves. Michael Jordan was about to win the first of his six NBA championships. Bo Jackson knew football, he knew baseball, and he definitely knew how to sell his Air cross-trainers to the youth of America. So the company wisely decided to focus almost all of its energy on refining the Air technology and getting it into new shoes. To Kilgore, Tawney, and those who were working with them, this made perfect sense. The springs went back on the shelf, and people went to work on other projects.
Get Set: The Inspiration
In the first half of the 1990s, most everyone at Nike was busy making and selling Air shoes. But by then, there were also a lot of people who had gotten their hands on the spring-loaded-shoe samples. Many of them couldn't resist taking the shoes out of their bottom drawer every so often and walking around in them. By the end of 1997, brand-innovation group director David Bond, 37, got his hands on a pair, and he wondered aloud why the shoes had been allowed to languish for so long. Soon, a new group of engineers and designers got permission to start playing around with the prototypes, with Kilgore and Tawney serving as consultants.
Like Kilgore and Tawney before them, this new group turned to two unheralded but crucial departments at Nike to help them test prototypes. At the sports-research lab, biomechanics researcher Gordon Valiant, 47, was busy wiring testers' muscles to various machines to see how they responded to the shoes. The lab is equipped with high-speed video cameras that help researchers apply physics to the study of human movement. Over the years, Michael Jordan, Marion Jones, and many other athletes -- from the famous to the average -- have passed through the lab to serve as subjects for study.
On the same floor, Jeff Winston, the director of material and mechanical testing, was exerting every effort to make the prototypes fall apart. His lab is filled with more than $1 million worth of test equipment -- machinery that examines how shoes stand up to sweat, rain, and the different surfaces they may encounter underfoot. Working with the shoes that would become Shox, he removed the columns from under the heel and put them on machines that could rapidly push them up and down. "We can put 1,000 miles on these things in 30 hours," Winston, 45, says. "Testing out in the field takes much longer, plus all is lost if testers drop out because they've hurt themselves or gotten bored and stopped running."
As Winston was busy figuring out which columns would chunk up and fall apart, design teams for the new shoe began to form around the three biggest sport-shoe categories: basketball, cross-training, and running. Designers and engineers racked their brains to consider the individual needs of athletes in each category and how the placement of the columns would affect cushioning and stability. They also began to think about what the shoes might actually look like once the technical details that would assure optimal performance had been worked out.
One of those designers, Sergio Lozano, had earned his industrial-design degree in 1990 with the sure knowledge that he was destined to design things more important than sneakers. "I interviewed with Nike just to get interview experience so that I could get a real job at a design consultancy," Lozano, 34, recalls. The company's recruiters did a masterful sell job on him, however, and he decided to give shoe design a shot. He worked on some innovative designs for Nike's All Conditions Gear line, but nothing had excited him as much as the spring-loaded shoes, which he first saw on the feet of Nike employees strolling the company's campus in Beaverton, Oregon. "I remember thinking to myself that the company would be absolutely crazy not to try to sell that shoe," he says.
Soon after that, Lozano was thinking about ways that Nike could incorporate the new technology into running shoes. "It was real, true product design," he recalls, the kind of thing that he didn't think was possible to do at a shoe company. "We had to make stuff that we knew wasn't going to work. We took our best guess, made it, tested it, redesigned it, made it again, tested it again, ripped it apart, and made it again. I had never built a product like that before, where we didn't have any best practices to work from like we did with Air. It was a completely new way of working, with longer lead times because there were more unknowns."
Early on in the process, Lozano happened upon an old postcard that pictured James Dean in front of a silver sports car with red leather seats. "I had wanted the columns to end up looking like pistons of some sort," Lozano says. "And in that picture, it all sort of came together. The color scheme of the car and the interior, the super-soft leather gloves he's putting on, looking so laid back and casual. It was all there -- the materials, the finishing, the colors."
Eric Avar, 32, a Nike basketball-shoe designer who worked at the Athlete's Foot before getting his industrial-design degree, took his inspiration from other powerful vehicles. "I looked at the bottom of the original Apollo rockets," he says. "We had a unique opportunity to go somewhere where no footwear had gone before, and I thought about what it could mean in terms of the pride we could take in bringing this new technology out into the world. With Apollo, the United States, within its universe, was trying to do something similar."
Though John Hoke III, Nike's creative-design director, is an architect by training and has worked on several of the company's NikeTown projects, he had actually sent in shoe designs to Nike founder Phil Knight when he was a boy. Two years ago, he took a break from building stores to pitch in on the spring-loaded shoes. "I had this picture of a train in my mind," Hoke, 36, recalls. "It was designed in the 1930s, and it was called the 20th Century Limited. It was sleek and silver, with the wheels in the back, almost as if the designer of the train had wanted your eyes focused back there."
Go: The Launch
During the last few years of the 1990s, as momentum was building behind the spring-loaded shoes, Nike's sales-and-marketing staff began to think about how it might try to sell them. For most of the past 15 years, this had never been much of a problem. Nike could funnel its latest technology into the Air Jordan line, shoot a few commercials starring Michael, turn him and his shoes loose on helpless opponents, and watch the halo effect boost sales across the company. The Jordan factor is so profound that the company's stock has moved more or less in sympathy with the whims and maladies of its most famous endorser. When Jordan was injured and missed most of the 1985-1986 season, Nike's stock dipped. When he retired for almost two seasons in the mid-1990s, it took a dive. Once he returned, so did the stock, but now that he has retired permanently, both the stock and the company's growth have been in a prolonged stall.
Nike would like the introduction of Shox to rise to the level of a cultural event, but the question lingers: How will the shoe fare without the services of the world's most famous athlete? Hoke, for one, says he's not worried. "The shoe itself reeks of innovation and athletic performance," he says. "I can see the product taking on its own personality, without needing a celebrity to define what it is."
This is reasonable -- up to a point. Serious athletes are certain to try the shoes simply out of curiosity; many of them are the equivalent of early adopters who buy every new PalmPilot the moment it comes out. But most people believe the old industry yarn that 80% of all athletic shoes are not used for the sport for which they were designed. While nobody at Nike wants to admit that the company designs its shoes for people walking around the zoo, if those casual users don't buy them in droves, the shoes will likely be a flop.
Since those people who make up that 80% are more likely to respond to heroes than they are to technology, Nike needs the marketing campaign for Shox to tap into people's emotions. To find out how the world was likely to respond, Nike sent teams of designers and marketers into the field to give people around the world a sneak peek at the shoes. "As we took them out into the field, the word 'boing' kept coming up," says Hoke, who is now in charge of all image design for Nike, from logos to store displays to trade-show exhibitions. "What we found was that the word sounds the same and means the same thing in almost every language. You're starting with a huge advantage when you can boil all of the technology down to a simple word like 'boing,' and have it be cool."
Hoke and his team have designed store displays for Shox that will make a "boing" sound whenever someone picks up the shoe to look at it, and he hopes that the ads will invoke it as well. "We want to own the audible experience of 'boing' in the same way that Intel's tune is associated with 'Intel Inside,' " he says. Or, as Juliet Moran, 44, a Nike vice president, puts it, the marketing campaign will rise or fall based on the answer to the following question: "How do you have fun with 16 years of scientific experimentation?"
Ron Lieber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. He played center for the Francis W. Parker Colonels and wore size 12 Nike Air shoes. Contact Bruce Kilgore by email (email@example.com), or visit Nike inc. on the Web (www.nike.com).