Interview with Nike’s Tom De Blasis.
If you’re a fan of design, soccer, being inspired, or just want to read up on a piranha (more on that later) making a real gamechanging difference in the world, you need to read this interview. We speak with Tom De Blasis, Global Design Director of Nike Football (or Soccer, as us Americans call it) in this in-depth chat as part of the great treadproject interview series, where Tom recently gave a talk to students at Hughes STEM High School in Cincinnati before graciously giving some time to us. Read on…
CounterKicks: You’ve had a really varied career in design before coming to Nike. Tell us about your design background, what companies you’ve worked for, and how you got into the footwear biz and Nike.
Tom De Blasis: I guess that I’ve been destined to be an industrial designer ever since I took apart my Star Wars Tie-Fighter at age 8 and saw the guts of the toy spill out onto the floor – a day that I also learned a painful lesson on the physics of spring-loaded assemblies.
As far as my design career, the best thing that happened for me occurred as I was just starting out within a span of a year. The first was that I won a Gold IDEA Award from IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America), what I then felt was the highest award that I could ever win, and the second was that within 12 months I was fired. One September I was collecting my IDEA Award at the National Conference, and the next September I was collecting unemployment checks and laying by the pool. The beauty of these two events is that they both happened at the very beginning of my career and I’ve had no desire for or fear of either since then.
This allowed me to be free as a designer to focus my energies on the work itself, and so I decided to value new experiences, growth and learning. Most of my career decisions have been based on those goals, and this has lead me over the years to work for many different design studios, including IDEO, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, ballydesign and now Nike. It also, in large part, has lead me to have 25 different addresses in the last 20 years in places like Oregon, California, Colorado, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Tennessee…like Tom Waits sang, “Anywhere I Lay My Head”.
I’m a big believer in what I call Experiential Design, which is a way of designing centered around the notion that a designer needs to use the product in the intended environment and experience all of the associated interactions before putting pen to paper. This is how we understand the product in our gut, not just in the abstractions of our mind. This approach has led me to experiences like shooting an illegal Belgian semi-automatic assault rifle, walking into a burning building in full firefighter turnout gear, going on a stakeout with a private detective and walking the tent cities of refugee camps.
Getting to Nike was, in hindsight, unbelievably easy for some reason that only the universe knows. In August 2005 I made the decision that I wanted to move to Portland and two months later, in October, I started my first day at Nike. The way I got here was that after deciding to move to Portland, I looked up job postings on Core77 and found one for a Design Director in Soccer at Nike. I was stoked because I’ve played the sport since I was 9, so that night I wrote up my resume and a cover letter and sent it through the online submission link. The next day I got a call from the recruiter and had a phone interview within a week. It just went from there. Only after getting here did I learn that it almost never happens that way.
CK: You’re a Global Design Director for Nike Football (Soccer). What all does that entail?
De Blasis: I direct the design and innovation work for all of Nike’s footballs, shinguards and goalie gloves and I work primarily with a handful of very talented designers and innovation engineers. This work for me entails leading strategic product line constructs, advanced innovation (road-mapping, priorities and briefing), translating Nike Design creative direction, creating seasonal design direction, directing the seasonal design workload, presenting our designs to category and design leadership, and leading the design work on some key projects.
CK: What have you designed at Nike or in your career?
De Blasis: I’ve been Design Director during my whole time at Nike, so my design projects have been limited to a couple of new innovations like the Mercurial Blade carbon fiber shinguard, T90 EXP shinguard, T90 Confidence and Tiempo SGT goalie gloves, and a number of (mostly Italian) club and federation replica balls. I’m currently working on an advanced innovation concept for a new football as well as working outside of football on the 2012 London Olympics for Nike.
Before coming to Nike, I’ve designed a broad range of products including thermal imaging cameras and other equipment for firefighters, a wet/dry vac, school supplies, scuba diving equipment, TV’s, a robot, an infrared scope for US Special Forces and a bunch of kitchen items for OXO.
CK: What does a typical work day look like for you?
De Blasis: First of all, I’m very lucky that Nike allows me to work an alternative work schedule where I work 4 days per week. 10 hours per day. This is an awesome schedule and I’ve found that I’m more focused and effective both while at work and when not at work. If you’re able to, try it sometime.
As I live in Portland, a typical day starts with coffee. I never drank it before moving here, but there’s so much great coffee here that resistance is futile. Most days for me are a combination of working with my team and advising on their projects, attending many, many meetings and working on my own projects.
CK: Tell us about the Gamechanger Bucket project.
De Blasis: The Gamechanger Bucket is a kit including a football (soccer ball) and a water filter, providing clean water for 100 people for at least 5 years and stopping the spread of cholera and other water-borne diseases.
I co-created it while in Haiti last year with Jon Rose, the founder of Waves for Water which is an NGO supported by Hurley and whose mission is clean water for everyone. Access to clean water and access to sport are both in great need and short supply in Haiti, and the Gamechanger Bucket was created to address both of those needs at once. Initially Jon and I dubbed the concept the Health and Happiness Kit because the water filter brings health and the football brings joy. As I’ve seen again and again as I’ve traveled around the world – football can change lives, water can save them.
We envisioned this project as having immediate application in Haiti but also having impact in other disaster areas and developing communities all over the world. We started by prototyping the concept with a distribution of 30 Gamechanger Buckets in Haiti last September and proved the idea on the ground in two villages in Leogane – the epicenter of the earthquake. This moved the concept from abstract to tangible and mobilized a large sponsorship by Nike to facilitate an initial distribution in Haiti that will bring access to clean water and sport to 100,000 Haitians. I’m working on this right now and will back down in Haiti in the near future to do the distribution. We are also looking at other communities in need around the world and gathering funds and support to make Gamechanger Buckets available to as many people as possible, as soon as possible.
Here’s a link to where people can learn more about and/or support the project:
The stats and projections about the global water crisis are staggering and hard to wrap my head around, but as Jon often says, “there are many problems in the world that seem unsolvable – water’s not one of them”.
CK: What’s the best way for aspiring designers to get on the path of becoming a designer at Nike?
De Blasis: If working at Nike is a strong desire for you as a designer, the best advice that I have is to find a way to separate yourself and your skills from everyone else. Designers all over the world want to work here, and they’re all talented. Talent isn’t enough, desire isn’t, great sketching isn’t – it’s all of those, plus. To paraphrase how Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger puts it when talking about what it takes as a footballer to get into the Arsenal Academy – ‘To make it, you have to be really good at everything and great at something’. For us, it’s similar.
I’d also suggest that younger designers spend more time thinking and less time sketching. It seems that too many schools these days are molding designers with flashy rendering and aesthetic skills, but little in the way of design philosophy and methodology. I see too many stylists and not enough designers. At Nike we design for the athlete and their needs and dreams – everything starts there. Be humble, ask questions, immerse yourself and experience whatever you’re designing. Then be a great storyteller.
CK: How important is the storytelling process in design for you?
De Blasis: It’s huge, especially here at Nike. I’ve seen good designs passed over because of bad storytelling, and vice versa. Maybe it’s the audience or maybe it’s the nature of people these days, but a designer must tell a story around their design and bring it to life to be successful.
Storytelling is without a doubt the key element that got the Gamechanger Bucket project funded. The concept was solid and I had just returned from a successful pilot distribution that prototyped the project on the ground. I knew going in that I’d have to tell a compelling story from that experience to have a chance competing with all of the other worthy projects requesting funding…I had to make it easy for my audience to engage, see the potential and be moved. This is why we brought a professional videographer and still photographer on the trip, and their work captured and brought to life the experience better than any design tool (like a rendering, a mock-up, or my own photography) possibly could have.
As designers, we are trained still in traditional methods of communication – sketches, renderings, models, etc., but we are in a video based culture now and if you don’t have a 2 min. YouTube clip of your project, it’s almost like it isn’t real.
CK: Any websites or resources you regularly visit for inspiration?
De Blasis: My favorite sites right now are Nowness, The Selvedge Yard, drift surfing, Design Observer and lifeiscarbon…although I have to say that I rarely go online for inspiration. Mostly I go to a local, independent bookstore here in Portland named Powell’s that has a ton of amazing used and rare books.
CK: Where do you see the future of Nike Football headed? What can consumers expect?
De Blasis: The official answer is that Nike will continue to define modern sport, whether it is football, basketball, running or any other. My thought about Nike Football is that we are pushing boundaries in many directions and it’s fascinating to be a part of it. I’m particularly encouraged by the work that we’ve done in sustainability (like making our World Cup uniforms from 100% recycled polyester – using eight 2-liter bottles per kit) and the potential it represents for our sport and our planet. Of course, I think of what William McDonough said about the idea of sustainability…”If you tell me that your marriage is sustainable, I’d say I’m sorry”. We all can do much more in this space, but from where things are sustainability is an achievement.
CK: Final words you’d like to get out to our readers?
De Blasis: I’d like to ask them a question that I recently asked during my presentation at a design conference, and that is “who gives a damn”? It’s been more than 5 years since Cameron Sinclair wrote the book, “Design Like You Give a Damn”, and from what I see the response has been akin to crickets.
As a profession we spend most of our energy and talent serving the needs of business or lusting after being the designer of the next Jordan or Kobe. Through my experience with the Gamechanger Bucket I know that we can also serve the needs of the world at the same time, by using our skills and the horsepower of global machines like Nike and other companies to different ends than just selling more stuff.
What are we doing? What are we willing to do? How do we want to spend our energy and talents? What do we want to be our legacy as designers?
The world needs a school of design piranhas attacking the many plankton-like problems that this world suffers, instead of hoping for some magical whale to come by and gulp them all up for us.
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