The 2013 Innovation By Design Conference kicked off this morning as Fast Company Editor Robert Safian sat down with Nike President & CEO Mark Parker and VP of Global Design John Hoke for a conversation about how design propels Nike’s $60 billion business forward. In a sweeping discussion, Parker and Hoke revealed their maker backgrounds, talked about overcoming resistance to change, shared an inside look at Parker’s creative left-brain/right-brain sketchbook, and more. Here are five important takeaways about Nike’s unique relationship with design that every innovator should know.
Both Parker and Hoke were makers and modders before they were designers. While running track at Penn State in the late ’70s, Parker would hack his running shoes to make them better, ripping apart the outsole and modifying the insole in pursuit of the ultimate performance. Hoke, a dyslexic, found self-confidence in drawing, and would cut his sneakers in half to draw them and have a better understanding about their form. He even came up with a concept similar to Nike’s iconic Air line of shoes when he was 12. Nike was so impressed that they sent him a letter back, telling Hoke to hit them up for a job when he was old enough. With that letter in his portfolio, that’s just what he eventually did.
Even as a CEO, Parker still keeps a sketchbook. Parker’s sketchbook, however, is different in that it keeps both hemispheres of his brain in balance: Every left page is devoted to business brainstorming, while every right page to designs and doodling of the elaborate shoes he might dream up. To Parker, his sketchbook represents the importance of balancing design against the needs of the business. “I think about balance a lot,” Parker says. “Most of us are out of balance, and that’s OK, but you need to keep your eye on the overall equilibrium to be successful.”
Not surprisingly, Nike tends to use sports metaphors to explain achievement. To Parker, the success any company experiences is like a track, and you can get very comfortable running on that track every day–right up until the point that another runner blows by you. The role of design, says Parker, is to show you where you are in relation to the other runners. “Design helps a company think about where it is and where it wants to be.”
It’s important to be open to new ways of innovating, even if they come at the cost of the proven way of doing things. As an example, Parker points to Nike’s new Flyknit running shoes. For centuries, shoes have been made by cutting apart material and then sewing it back together; with the new line, Nike knits a shoe together, stitch by stitch. Although Flyknit technology allows for Nike to fine-tune the engineering and performance of a shoe–Hoke equates it to the difference between painting something pixel by pixel, and cutting a collage out of magazines–and eliminates 80% to 90% of the material waste of shoemaking, there was initially resistance within the company to putting the resources required to create this new way of shoemaking. Now, Flyknit represents the future. “The role of design at a company is to allow you to recreate yourself, to allow your company to find a new way of success before the old way fails,” says Parker.
Hoke says Nike is institutionally blessed with “supreme clarity” about its mission: to merge performance and beauty in athletic products. Part of what allows Nike to retain this clarity is by not branching out too far, and instead partnering with other companies who might have strengths that Nike can leverage. The Nike Fuelband and Nike+ activity trackers are a examples of these kinds of partnerships. Realizing that Nike would not be able to create the latest and greatest in sensor technology on its own, it forged partnerships with mobile hardware and software companies to bring that technology to its audience in a way that is in keeping with Nike’s mission.
“We can only do so much on our own.” says Parker. “We’re not going to innovate in isolation.”