Dynamic Duos: 5 Ways Nike Factors Design Into Its Innovation Equation

Mark Parker started out as a shoe designer, and he’s made design a central part of the fabric at Nike. John Hoke is his partner in integrating design. Here’s a peek at their formula for the global brand.

Dynamic Duos: 5 Ways Nike Factors Design Into Its Innovation Equation
Mark Parker, CEO John Hoke VP, Global Design

Mark Parker, CEO
John Hoke VP, Global Design


1. Doodling Is Valuable

Hoke: I’m one of the guys that knew I had to be a designer when I was a kid. I’m dyslexic so I really struggled as a young kid, reading and writing, etcetera. And I was a good athlete. My first language was actually drawing so I’m a compulsive doodler. Mark and I share that a lot. We do a lot of drawing.

Parker: Yeah, we doodle.

Hoke: And so long story short, my father was an engineer and I used to only run in the waffle trainer cause that was my shoe. I had to have it. It was the best. And when I was done, I would band saw the shoe in half and I would look at the two halves of the section and I’d look at my air mattresses, my pool, my bike tire mattress, or my bike tire inner tube. I was like, why can’t we just put a tube in there?


So I drew these things of putting this air system where it would cushion your rear foot to forefoot blow in transition. I’m twelve, and my father was like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of a cool idea. And he said, ‘What do you want to do with it?’ And I said, well, actually I’d like to send it to this company. I put the orange box on the table. And so we didn’t have the Internet then so we had to go to a local library and look up where [and who] they were. And sure enough, it was [current Nike Chairman of the Board] Phil Knight.

And so I hand wrote this note in school: ‘My name is John. I’m 12 years old, and here’s my drawings.’ And sure enough the company wrote me back. The letter is in my office. And they said ‘That’s great. Here’s the stuff we’re working on. When you get old enough, you should come work for us.’

And I just sort of put that away on the shelf. And I think it’s the reason I decided to apply. I’ve been an employee for 20 years. I’ve been an advocate for a long time. I was in some ways kind of destined to get here. And I did a lot of hard work to make sure that I had the skills to get here. But in my twenty years, I mean I’ve kind of grown up here.

Mark Parker and John Hoke

2. Passion And Problem-Solving Matter More Than Formal Training

Parker: I don’t have a design degree but I have always had an appreciation for design, for innovation, for problem solving. If you can make things perform better, you can actually help people perform better. That’s a shared obsession here, and we talk shorthand when we talk about those things. I don’t think you need a certificate to truly legitimize you or authenticate you as a designer. I think real innovation and creativity can come from everywhere.

I mean I know people that are highly creative that aren’t necessarily formally trained as designers. [Nike cofounder] Bill Bowerman was a fantastic designer, never trained as a designer. He had an innate curiosity and an obsessive compulsion and fixation on problem solving. How do I help my athletes perform better? I mean it was really quite simple, but he applied that to every potential advantage from the product to make it lighter so that they can run faster, the surface to make it return more energy and protect the athlete when they’re running, training, or competing.

Hoke: If [Mark and I] are comparing notes on a design or something that we’re seeing, because we’ve spent so much time together, I might gut check that with Mark. I mean we both have different things we’re thinking about and talking about, etcetera, but I think we have a shared creative compass and that’s pretty unique.


I think individuals take different paths to creativity. Some are designers and they know that they’re designers by the time they can speak and write, and some take much longer in their life. We have 600-plus designers. I could tell you there’s quite a few that have no formalized certificate of design but have all the qualities of an innovator and a creative that we love. And I think those just transcend an individual school or a certificate and a degree.

If you’re possessed by focusing on the consumer or the athlete and you’re possessed on making improvement, and you can demonstrate that by making, by drawing, by shaping–shoot, you’ve got half the thing done.

I’m a designer twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year. It’s not something I can turn off.


3. Design Is Not A Short-Order Cook

Parker: for us it’s really the foundation of the company. It’s not a function of sitting over here with marketing and sales and supply chain and legal and HR. It’s absolutely foundational and really represents, as much as any other part of the company, the culture. So we are design-obsessed. That’s how we take insights and make them into something that’s meaningful and relevant. So I would just say it’s integral. It’s core. And I think for any company that’s had great success over time, that’s been the case.

Design isn’t looked at as a service function for marketing or sales, it’s truly on the front line, really mining insights. I think a really great creative person is almost by nature incredibly curious and digging deeply into cultures and technologies and getting all this input and using it to make things better, basically, creating better solutions.

So there’s a really powerful set of insights that come through that community that need to be shared at the highest level so that when we look three, five-plus years out we have the value of tapping into those insights, they’re not just serving the next generation of product, they’re serving the direction of the company. There is a higher level of regard for design here in that sense.


Many companies, I’ve seen it, where design is kind of almost subjugated into a bit of a short-order cook.

Hoke: Yeah we’re not that at all.

Parker: Without that design culture being truly a fabric of the culture of the company, I think you are always at risk of not being able to take those insights and create something really meaningful. It’s really a part of not only the product we create but how we think about really everything that we do–the supply chain, how we communicate, how we tell stories, whether it’s online or in-store or advertising. Design is a vehicle that allows us to again take insights and create really meaningful things.


4. Curiosity Is An Essential Mindset; The Charrette Is An Essential Tool

Hoke: We believe that our compass is athlete performance. And true north of that is innovation and design. Under Mark’s leadership, we have a company that doesn’t just talk about design, doesn’t just sponsor design, it is in fact integral. I mean it’s everything that we do.

Parker: We really like design to work together as a community and then share those best ideas and then leverage those as appropriate across multiple categories, multiple brands even…. I’ll give you a good example. We’ve got this creative group coming together to work on an idea that is coming from the Converse brand. And it’s a multi-disciplinary, multi-brand charette. It’s kind of an opportunity to get all these people together who have day jobs. Come in and work on a project that you normally wouldn’t work on. Then you stop and then you post ideas and you compare notes and you go ‘Oh, that’s cool, that’s cool, that’s cool. What if we put those together?’ And then you have a discussion about that and then more intense design activity. So in a very short period of time, you can do a lot of incredible design.

Hoke: The community loves it too because it lets you step out for a bit, go deep on something.


Part of being a great designer or a great design-led company is this notion of curiosity. I think design provides a vehicle of curiosity for our entire brand. It’s how do we think about our consumers, think about athletes, learn what their problems are, learn what their needs are, and then be problem solvers and be taste makers.

Every single person at this campus considers themselves innovative. Every single person on this campus considers themselves to be on the forefront of design. We like that because that helps lead our company. It keeps us deeply connected to all the kids out there that love our brand and all the athletes that rely on our brand to help them be great.

Innovation is always a commitment, never a guarantee, and that design can take that committed innovation and solve a problem functionally in a way that’s beautiful and taste-making.


Parker: I always refer to Bill [Bowerman], because he represented that dimension of Nike in the earliest days, but there’s many more examples of people like Bill who helped to innovate or lead innovation in other parts of the company.

Hoke: What are those evergreen principles and what do we believe in? Curiosity, problem solving, taste-making, obsessed on the athlete, integrated innovation…. And then I filter that each season with a couple of key thoughts and ideas. We want to rally all the disparate parts of footwear, apparel, etcetera together up under an umbrella. So we’ve got a couple of things that we work on that are larger creative strategies and visions.

Parker: And you also pull the design community together as a community.


Hoke: We’ve got six hundred people. We do internal events. We do external events. A big part of my job is to I think lead and inspire the next generation of Nike designers to make sure that they know who we are, they know what we stand for, they know our company is different than our competition, and they also see the huge potential between where we are and where we want to be. And that excites me and it excites them so that’s a bit part of what I do.

5. Radical Change Is Our Friend

Parker: We had to look at the manufacturing [of Flyknit] because it completely forced a whole new perspective on how shoes are made so there’s also equipment, capital investments involved and the way that the typical factory is laid out, one huge labor intensive piece of the process has now gone away and it’s replaced with these brand new knitting machines that have never really been used in production before and certainly not for what we do. So we had to customize all that, build this machinery, invest at incredibly high levels and big spaces to create the capacity to meet the demand. And then the demand has grown so we have to open up that capacity over time and not too much and not too little. So yeah, you have to plan, but I think it is a good example of where design and the business side have come together to make a massive impact.

As a designer too, just the way that we designed for that knit shoe is radically different than where we were I’ll say even three to five years ago. It was more of a cut-and-sew model. You could draw a side view, a top view, a three quarters view, and you could then interpret how you pulled that apart into flat sheets and then assemble it. And so I think where we are now is all that’s done via the machine. So the parameters of the design are opened, they’re wide open.


Hoke: I think the thing for us is thinking about designers today and tomorrow, how are we going to use technologies, like the knit machinery, and think differently about the way we design? Because some of the constraints are being removed. From the drafting room to the boardroom I would say that design is the magic of the business of the future.

Parker: Consumer expectations are so much greater than they were ten years ago and they’re going to be even greater ten years from now. You have more choice, more access to choice–there’s just, generally speaking, better design. And I think the consumer is more sophisticated and I think has a higher standard.

I mean I’ve seen it happen all around the world. China is one of the best examples. China 10 years ago versus today? It’s like absolutely night and day. Not only what it looks like and how they have developed as a country and a culture but the sophistication of that consumer. They are looking for the best choices. So if you’re not moving with again the help of design, you’re not gonna keep pace, there’s just too many other better choices out there.


One of the more exciting things is actually having sensitivity to how the world is changing. And it has never been changing as fast as it is. Having six hundred formal designers, plus all the informal creative community here at Nike, feeding insights into what’s happening and then using that to help guide how our vision needs to change as a company and how we need to evolve, even when things are really successful…. We challenge ourselves, even when things are very successful and I’m really proud of that.

I’ve never seen so much opportunity to innovate than I have today and that’s just going to get geometrically or exponentially greater, I think. New materials, customization, 3D printing, new manufacturing techniques, new breakthroughs in sustainability.

It’s never ending. There is no finish line.

Read more pairings from Fast Company‘s 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

Photo by David Black]


About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations