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Design Insight With Brett Golliff: THE ARCHITECT | Tinker Hatfield Interview (Part 3)

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The final installment of Brett Golliff’s interview with Tinker Hatfield.

What’s up everyone? I give you the final part of my conversation with Tinker Hatfield (see: Part 1, Part 2). This part is actually my favorite portion of the conversation. I felt like I really got the chance to understand who he is as a designer. I talked about the evolution of Tinker as a designer and to hear him break it down is just beautiful. I hope you guys have enjoyed this interview as much as I have. I have no idea how I am ever going to top this.

I also wanted to let you guys know that I am in the process of starting my own website but in the meantime I have started a tumblr account: I am really excited for this because it will give me the opportunity to talk more than just shoes. So check it out!


We, as designers, all do our inspiration board or whatever it may be. What industries inspire you the most? Is it an industry? Is it a thought? Is it an idea? What inspires you?

I will tell you I am still most inspired by amazing sporting events or sporting accomplishments. I make a point of going to a lot of sporting events at all different levels; high school to college to professional. I see people do amazing things and that inspires me the most because in the beginning almost every project revolves around trying to help those very people to be even better somehow. That is really where it starts for me and having been an ex-athlete I am really sympathetic to that and I enjoy watching it and understanding it. That’s number one. Number two though is a trickier answer for me but probably the second most inspirational business or design arena that influences me the most would be the automobile and motorcycle industry, those industries where everything has to work really well for performance safety and lots of complications. I’ve always said to people if you look at a car it has roughly the same proportions as a shoe. You can see what people are thinking about it, of course cars take a long time to develop and so do motorcycles and other things of that nature, so they sometimes are not as far out as they probably should be and there’s so much investment and you see concept cars that sometimes take that leap forward a little bit more. I pay a lot of attention to those industries. I am a motorcycle rider and I love to drive. Often times we’re looking around to see what’s cool out there in the world of transportation. That probably is the second most inspirational part of my design process.

Then I would like to just add that I talk about, but other people here at Nike also talk about, how every time I sit down and design something that what comes out on the computer screen or the sketch paper is really a culmination of everything that I have seen and done up to that point.

I love that you just said that!

I think it’s really true of writing, it’s true of design, I think it’s true for people who are creating music and all of it’s just really a jumble of all of those things that ultimately leaks back out when you try and create. That’s really important because that means a person can inspire you, or a piece of architecture or music, you just go on down the list and it is an amazingly rich palate to draw from.

I think my favorite part about that is when you’re drawing something like two months after you’ve seen something that resonated with you but you didn’t know why and then you realize why you were attracted to it and what made you want to study it. I love when you get that element of this all adds up for one reason, you know?

Yeah, exactly! Then kind of almost in retrospect you go, “oh my gosh, I get it now.” You totally start to understand yourself a little bit better.

Yeah because there is something that you couldn’t figure out months ago that starts to come together naturally.

Something pops in like “whoa, yeah I get it.” That happens to me and I think that’s a little bit of a mysterious process to a lot of people who aren’t creative or don’t see themselves as creative and they completely freak out and I think it’s kind of funny to listen to people who are very smart people but they just go “I don’t know how you thought about that or how you come up with that but it’s really neat” and you just answer with, well, it’s paying attention.

Can you describe an evolution in your work?

I do think I can actually. I remember when I was in architecture before working on sportswear and footwear. Early on I was really driven on a little bit more of a utilitarian approach to problem solving and then I think I might be, but I am not certain of this, but I might be one of the first if not the first footwear designers to start to understand the delicate but important relationship between utility and art. What I think happened for me in the mid 1980’s, toward the end of the 1980’s, I think I really started to establish myself as someone who was bringing art to the process of designing athletic footwear and art to me isn’t just a part to describe the creative process, it is the aesthetics, the color, and richness, and texture, and composition, and all of those things we associate with good art. So that happened for me.

Then I think sort of evolving further forward I think that Nike benefited from that, I don’t know of any designers who were inspired by so many things as I was in the mid 1980’s and then toward the 1990’s. My presentations were much more rich and involved than anybody else’s because they were again just trying to solve some utility problems and performance issues and they weren’t linking that back to anything in modern culture or with the personalities with the athletes. I feel pretty good about that and that was an evolving thing for me because I don’t think in architecture before that or in some of my other product design and graphic work before that I don’t think it was as evolved.

Then I would say that through the years the process for me, it’s not that I changed the approach but I just got a lot quicker at it. I pretty much design shoes now in an hour. I think I have somehow internalized the process enough and have enough experiences that when someone asks me to do a project or I am thinking of doing a project, I might sit around for a few days and ponder it but when I sit down and get ready to go I usually have a pretty well thought out design in about an hour. I am doing it all on an iPad now so I can color it and even render it pretty quickly and actually shoot it to somebody.

Like I’ll tell you a quick story, I was at the French Open last year sitting in Roger Federer’s box with his wife-to-be, Mirka, with my daughter sitting next to me and we were going to have a meeting the next day. So I watched him play tennis. He actually lost the match but it was still fun nonetheless. But I went back to my hotel room and thought about the fact that I was going to have a meeting with him and I guess I knew so much about tennis and knew a lot about him. So I decided to go to the meeting without any preconceived ideas, I should say without a preconceived design, and we had the meeting. I talked to him and listened to him and I literally jumped on the Metro, took the train back to my hotel after the meeting – this is the day following his match. Drew something up in forty minutes, emailed it to him and to the Creative Director of Tennis, to our head of Sports Marketing of Tennis, to Roger, and to a couple of other people and everybody got it an hour from when I started. Roger had an iPad and he got back to me right away and said well this is very cool. He said, “How did you do this so quick?” I just downplayed it and said it is not that difficult.

You just know what not to do.

What I would say about this evolution process is that you’re learning and then maybe you come to some sort of realization about what could be different and fresh about how you design, which I think happened to me in the footwear side of things. Then you can refine that and you may not change and in my case I don’t think I have ever changed my general philosophy but the evolution is that I got so much quicker. I can just spit out stuff right and left. It still takes time to refine the design and/or go through the sampling process, as you know full well, that you have to wait for things, but just getting the drawing out has become a real quick process for me.

You said you were just at the French Open, how has traveling and experience affected your design and process. Can you give an example?

I have told this story before and it’s an easy one to tell. Back in those 1980’s, it was about 1986 or so; I traveled to Paris, went to the Pompidou Center. I was really struck by it, I knew it was controversial and there were still a lot of people in Paris that hated the thing but I thought it was really interesting in how Renzo Piano had turned everything inside out and you could see the guts of the building and all of that changed architecture forever when he did that. When I came back from that trip that was really when I thought about exposing this Air technology that we have and cutting a window that is on the side of the midsole and essentially letting that spill out and letting people poke it, touch it, see it and shine a light through it and I wouldn’t probably have done that had I not traveled to Paris and been somewhat influenced by that work of the Pompidou and have it leak back out on to the page and on to the tracing paper. That happens quite often.

Is there anything that you would like to design yet that you haven’t? It doesn’t even have to be a shoe, it could be a phone; is there anything that you have not been able to do but you still have ideas that you would want to try?

Let’s see, I still do architecture, I’ve done furniture; I think that something I’ve always wanted to design would be a boat.


Like a beautiful motor launch of some sort, I say that because I like boats and I think that the fluidity of a boat and the fact that a boat actually has to move through this medium. There’s something in common about most boats and it has a lot to do with the hydrodynamics, obviously. I just find that to be really fascinating and beautiful. I love the water and I think I’d like to do that maybe before I totally hang up the design spurs that would be something that I could handle. I’m not so sure about designing a car and the reason for that is I think there has been an amazing amount of interesting work done over the years with cars. They are complicated and I don’t see myself confidently making an improvement or changing the way cars are designed at all but I could see that with a boat for some reason. I don’t know, I am not sure, but I just assume stick with that story for now.

You have mentioned retirement a couple of times, do you really believe you can ever retire from design?

I don’t think I will ever retire from design. I can see myself retiring from Nike and all the travel and the meetings and the deadlines and all of that. I could see cutting back on that kind of a lifestyle. I don’t think I could ever stop designing. I do a lot of funky little projects on the side. One of my daughters got married this summer and I was put in charge of designing all of the invitations and save the date cards. So I am enjoying that and I think that is every bit as serious as designing a shoe or a building and it takes a great deal of care and there should be a story and some meaning behind that and that is what good design is all about. So, yeah, I think I’ll be designing ’til I drop, but I don’t see myself just burning the midnight oil as much. It’s kind of hard to envision putting so much energy and time into the business of design and complexity of the design work that I am doing now forever. Maybe I would like to cut back some time.

I want to be a surfer! I am trying to learn how to surf and I have been trying to learn for a while now, a few years. I would like to spend some time before I get too old and crippled up and just be able to say, hey yeah, I am a surfer. I can go surf but I wouldn’t call myself a surfer yet. I don’t catch waves with regularity so I am still struggling.

That is awesome!

I can’t thank you enough for doing this. Truth be told, not to get too sentimental or anything but I really don’t believe that Brett Golliff becomes a designer without you. I mean, I grew up in Angola, IN and in 7th grade we were asked to pick what we want to be when we grow up and at that time I had just read about the Jordan XIII; which to me is the best idea of Industrial Design. I remember telling my teachers I want to be a shoe designer and them looking at me like I was crazy, like no, you have to be an engineer.


I sought you out and from that point on every time in art class we had to use an artist and give the history on them you were the person I picked.

Wow. Well you don’t know how meaningful that is to me because I have to tell you that I still don’t always understand the fascination that people have with footwear or sneaker design. It’s kind of like wow, who’d of thunk that? So it’s really fun to hear that from somebody from a completely different state or region or even a culture, so I thank you for that. Thank you for making my day if not maybe the rest of my career; just hearing that is pretty cool, thank you.

Brett Golliff is a Lead Designer at General Motors and former Designer at New Balance.

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Comments (6)

Best part of the Tinker interview series–tons of great insights!! Outstanding job Brett!
The inspiration Tinker gives me makes me want to go out and create and push myself now. He’ll go out on top as best sneaker designer of all time!!

Makes me sad to think he might retire soon!

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worth the wait! awesome interview, man.

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Thanks guys!

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Great articles, and insightful questions. Ever find out which iPad app that is? My bet is on sketchbook pro or adobe ideas :)

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I have read through every Design Insight article and interview, this one with Brett and Tinker is incredible! Best sneaker blog column around. Hats off to you Brett.

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