This week’s topic is in connection with the CounterKicks Air Jordan 2012 Design Competition. As everyone begins to plan their project and create the next performance icon, I wanted to remind everyone what has been great about the Jordan line for so many years: problem solving!
Too much of this industry has become about creating a style or a compelling aesthetic that does nothing to improve the athlete. It is great to have details that tie back to how many points an athlete scored in a game or to have graphic interpretations of where the athlete grew up hidden on the shoe but if they’re not aiding in the performance of the shoe they are nothing more than a decorative element that adds nothing but marketing. Performance shoes were meant to be used on the court and not kept on the shelf, so I went back and did some research on perhaps the most iconic basketball shoe ever, the Air Jordan XI. So come with me for a little history lesson as to why the shoe is more than just a beautiful sculpture but a true performance icon.
B’s note: All quotes in the following post can be found in the book Driven From Within by Michael Jordan and Mark Vancil, between pages 143-151. Also, if you’re a footwear designer and you don’t have this book then you are doing yourself an injustice and it needs to be corrected.
The Air Jordan XI is the first shoe I remember truly having to have. I could not live without them. It was more than a shoe, it represented the rebirth of Michael Jordan. It became a symbol of dominance in how it helped MJ lead the Bulls to the greatest single season win record in NBA history with a record of 72-10, his fifth MVP award, his third All-Star game MVP and most importantly his fourth NBA championship and fourth NBA Finals MVP award. You are probably asking what does a shoe have to do with MJ winning all of these awards? While the major portion of all of these accolades were because of MJ’s natural ability to dominate combined with his court skills, the Air Jordan XI was a key component to his success.
Nike has always used footage of their athletes in effort to break down and evaluate how their shoes were functioning at high levels of play. In the summer of 1994 while Michael was off playing baseball, Tinker Hatfield sat down to start working on what would become the XI. He didn’t start by creating a beautiful sketch; he started by watching that footage. What he learned from the film was how much Michael’s shoe would bow and twist during competition making them stretch and contort; “With all that mass moving around, and Michael being able to change direction so quickly, he would torture his shoes. His feet were incredibly messed up, just destroyed because of the force.” This made Tinker rethink how a basketball shoe is built. He would go back to his days of playing high school football. Football is quite similar to basketball in movement being at constant change. The key difference in a basketball shoe and a football cleat is the plate system that is used to create rigidity under the foot. The footage that Tinker had been watching of MJ told him that Michael needed more rigidity to harness his explosive energy on the court.
So Tinker began by looking at lightweight, structurally-sound materials to create a plate under Michael’s foot. His searching led to a result that had never been done in a shoe before: a carbon fiber plate that was sandwiched between the midsole and the outsole. The idea was that the plate would make MJ milliseconds quicker because it helped stop rotational rigidity, which allowed Michael to transfer his energy in opposite directions faster. Carbon fiber is a material that is created out of extremely thin fibers that are composed of carbon atoms. They can be woven together, and in the case of the XI, combined with a plastic resin to create a lightweight plate. Carbon Fiber can come in many different weave patterns to create a truly unique appearance and a focal point of interest. In the XI it became the dominating element of the sole unit. It was such a strong innovation that Tinker wanted to highlight it by having it be visible in areas of the shoe so they placed a completely clear rubber outsole over it making it visible at all times. This is a good example of form following function, meaning the form or aesthetic of your design follows the function that you are designing for.
The XI was created to improve Michael’s play. All the materials were selected to improve the performance of the shoe. The dominating element of the Air Jordan XI is its striking patent leather rand that wraps the whole midfoot, heel and toe box. It surrounds and binds the foot in a supportive form following shape by hugging and tapering around the natural figure of the human foot. Patent Leather has a high gloss and shiny appearance creating a deeply reflective finish. It was originally created with a linseed oil based lacquer coating but modern versions generally use a plastic coating for mass production purposes. Patent leather has been notoriously used in the fashion world, especially in hand crafted footwear. It had never been considered to be used on the basketball court nor had ever been considered a performance element but the coating that is applied to the leather also creates strength and rigidity to the upper. That strength becomes a necessity on the basketball court where constant change of direction happens. The patent leather provided the perfect complementing component to the carbon fiber plate in the sole unit by working together to keep Michael’s shoe intact for the whole game.
Tinker wanted to create a shoe out of materials that had never been used in a basketball shoe before, he already had patent leather and carbon fiber, he needed one more element to pull the whole project together. He began looking at products outside of his industry and he landed on high-end backpacks, architecture and a bright yellow lawnmowers, each providing him with a different inspiration. The backpack led to Tinker finding a lightweight nylon, called Cordura Nylon that was developed in 1929 by DuPont that would stretch, tighten and reinforce the upper of the shoe. Tinker was also inspired by the newly constructed Denver International Airport because it featured elements that were shiny like the patent leather and a cloth top roof like the Cordura Nylon upper. The lawnmower helped create the identity of the shoe by proving that no matter how the product is intended to be used it could still look unique. All of these elements created a shoe that was truly distinctive and fresh to the world. That shoe took the footwear industry in a whole new direction and it’s hard to argue that there has been a shoe since then that has had an impact like the XI.
Michael premiered the shoe during the second round of the 1995 playoffs against the Orlando Magic, a full seven months before their intended release. Tinker took the footage from that game and reviewed the same way he did before starting the development of the XI and found that when comparing it with the old footage it actually made Michael quicker. “The patent leather was a robust material that didn’t stretch very much, and it was lightweight. The carbon fiber plate kept the shoe from contorting when he stopped.” Tinker also stated, “Before the XI Michael’s shoes couldn’t last more than a single game,” and Michael has even stated the progress that was made in materials on the XI helped extend his career.
The development of this shoe provides a lesson for any young designer: think outside the box! Don’t settle for just an aesthetic, create a product that truly solves a problem. The footwear industry has created millions of shoes, what makes the new shoe you are creating worthwhile? Why does the shoe need to exist? The only way you create a product that has meaning is to ask questions and to challenge yourself to find the new answers.
Brett Golliff is a Lead Designer at General Motors and former Designer at New Balance.