Brett sits down with the co-creators behind the Air Jordan 2012.
This is by far my favorite interview I have had thus far, primarily because I was face to face with two designers I highly respect. I also loved this conversation for the content of it. I was really able to break down the challenges and successes of this shoe with Tinker Hatfield & Tom Luedecke and not just talk about information that has already been heard. So take some time to take it all in and learn from these two highly talented designers!
Brett Golliff: Let’s talk about this shoe, the Air Jordan 2012. How long did you guys work on the Jordan 2012? What’s your total amount of time on this thing? You said four years for the componentry, but when did the initial sketch begin?
Tinker Hatfield: Well, in terms of how the shoe is gonna look. I think that started in…
Tom Luedecke: November 2010.
TH: So, what you really see from us is about a 16 to 18 month process to try and bring the shoe to life to get it to the marketplace. The problem though is that with Jordan’s is you try to get more performance oriented and you need to be innovative is that you actually have to start on your componentry way before that. Certainly not as early as a car, but you know, because we do all this wear testing and prototyping we want to get a big jump on that. Like right now, we’re working on the Air Jordan 2013 and it’s been designed, prototyped, wear tested, and all that kind of stuff. And the componentry for that has been in process for probably over a year.
I spoke with Tom last night and this is the first shoe I feel like in a long time from a Jordan standpoint that I see a growth from the predecessor primarily because of the componentry but even a little bit of the style and there’s a little more organic on that especially through the midsole. Was that a conscious effort to grow off of where you guys were, or was it coincidental?
TH: I think in this case it’s conscious because we are sort of refining this modular approach to basketball shoe design. I don’t know if anybody else is doing it quite like this. I don’t think so. So in general I think there should be a little bit of a thread between the two. Having said that, we took some great pains to bring in this other influence via JumpTown in Portland and Harlem here in New York to try and bring a little something to it that wasn’t in the previous shoe.
To me, JumpTown is such a vibrant color influence, and it’s obviously a tonal type of pallet too but then you really break the black and the white up on colorways. Do you feel like the color pallet from JumpTown influenced the way you colorblocked the overall product at all?
TH: Oh yeah. I think without a doubt. Even my early sketches showed clear intent to have color and contrast. And then when the team took over the project in it’s entirety, I mean I don’t know how many colors we sampled, probably fifty. [Laughs]
TL: Yeah, absolutely. And obviously you get the fun of color, you get the red and white ones there that are super high contrast, and then a lot of shades in between. It’s actually a really fun shoe to color up because it gives you so many opportunities to do different things and really change up the silhouette. Tinker was just talking about even looking at the early sketches with just the saddle called out how that’s a totally different look, that’s something where every panel is contrasting.
Do you use the colorblocking to tell a different story? Like to me, let’s take a look at this one [points at Air Jordan 2012 shoe on display] we’re looking at the midfoot panel and it’s really screaming out more of a supportive element whereas opposed to you see the Wolf Grey colorway it’s all a tonal approach — I see more of a lightweight thing, I see it as a solid body. Is that an effort to kind of tell a different story or how does that work?
TH: Oh, I don’t know if we’re that smart.
[Tinker and Tom both laugh.]
TH: The reality is, we know that people walk into a store or if they’re looking online that these shoes need to speak to people individually as well as being a part of a brand or a tribe if you will. I think in general we’re just trying to mix it up and make sure that there’s kind of a little bit of something for everybody. We know that the technical story is one that needs to be told and sometimes doesn’t get told well enough, and that’s one of the reasons why we do these press events is to actually tell that part of it. So you know, the real structural nature of this shoe with the reinforced Flywire type approach. [Looks over at Tom]. What did you call that Tom? You had a name for that.
TL: That’s a Skin Flywire.
TH: Yeah. Then with the bootie designs, we think that the shoe probably — I think it should just be, well, you walk into a store and you go “that’s the shoe for me!” maybe without having to think too much. And then you sort of maybe look into the story a little bit.
Is there any effort to ever just make the strobel board on the booties your carbon plate as to minimize on the amount of pieces…
TL: In terms of the bootie?
TL: Not really. It was always meant to be a foam piece. And really, to make this part of the product, the bootie of the product as beautiful as the rest of the shoe so you don’t see the strobel stitch or anything else that you could see in a product that if you don’t tack it well. So it goes back to premium crafts where you really pay attention to those details and not just dropping in a bootie that is unfinished or a roughly finished bottom. Taking the pains to come up with not just a piece of EVA but something that is textured and molded to fit to the bottom of the foot.
TH: And theoretically you could walk around in them but that wasn’t really the concept. In some ways it helps to have a little bit of a traction pattern on the bottom as well so it doesn’t slide around.
It kind of creates friction right? I think when I first started reading the story as it was leaking, initially my concerns was that there may be too much side to side movement within the shoe because you are essentially fitting this shell into there, right?
I did not feel that at all! I was actually quite impressed with the overall fit. Was there a lot of challenges to achieve that?
TH: Yes, absolutely.
TL: As you know from your experiences, 3D modeling these days allows you to get down to fractions and millimeters and so we went through a lot of paint to make sure all of the draft angles and all of the surfaces matched perfectly with each other. Especially, the midsole to the bootie and the bootie to the outsole and having just the right amount of compression so that they are not perfectly fit, they are not one-to-one, they are actually slightly under, I mean just ever so slightly, so that there is a slight like almost like a pressure fit inside. But it is done in a way where it still easy to remove. I think that was actually the biggest problem for us is to find a solution to be able to remove all of the parts without, you know, cramping your fingers or really tugging hard on them. And say it is in a simple solution path. I think you might appreciate that more than…
Yeah, I actually really do appreciate that attention to detail…
TL: — some other people, because the simplicity is really hard to get to sometimes.
Simplicity is the most challenging thing.
TH: And the reality is it took a lot of prototyping and a lot of testing to get here.
Was that probably the greatest challenge of the shoe in general, was getting the whole system together?
TL: Tinker said it well when he said to keep it looking like a beautiful product, toe down, to now make it look wide and bulbous, and really you have to look at every single layer and make very severe calculations, because if a shoe is two millimeters wider than normal, you will know it, just like you know in a drawing on a car, if it is not perfectly in perspective, your eye picks it up and it looks awkward.
TL: The same with a shoe, if you are just a little bit wider than normal, your eye will catch it.
It’s all about proportion at that point, right?
I noticed like the toe-down in general, my favorite toe-down in the Jordan series has probably been the Air Jordan XX3. I love the way it just looks like the last is sitting inside, and even when you don’t have paper or anything, and this is pretty simpler.
Like it really talks nicely. Is it a similar last or is it a new — I mean it has to be a new last to fit in the modular pieces, right?
TH: It is a new last.
That is interesting.
TH: It is a new last, but we are — we really have to hammer on factories in our own internal sampling process to make sure that people respect the design intent, you know, and —
Capture that initial vision, right?
TH: Just keep driving and driving and saying no, it has to be better than that. It has to be sleeker than that, and the top-down view is important, just as is that side profile. And so I am really impressed that we — that Tom, especially and his team were able to essentially go over and really hammer this out with the factories who really — they don’t really like necessarily to do things so different.
They like comfort, right?
TH: Well, you know, you can make a ski boot and put a bootie in and it is a big fat thing, and in fact, even normal shoes oftentimes, the factories don’t pull them up around the last properly, and as materials get cheapened out, you pull them up the last and they kind of bag out and they don’t have the same shape anymore, you know, the original shape.
TH: These babies, when they come out of the box, they look pretty much like when they went in. They are not changing shape. I think it’s material choice. I think it’s attention to detail and all of that special engineering.
TL: So we changed the last all the way up to the very last part of the process. We kept refining the last and we still found ways to improve it after our salesman samples were done.
TL: And so we did five trips to the factory —
TL: — on this product. And on every trip, we kept hammering away at the form and the shape of it and the — not letting the process dictate the outcome of the design, but letting the design reshape some of the process in order to get the end result.
That is beautiful. That is a great, I mean, obviously that is an awesome mentality. I know we have other people comment what’s up with these? What was the choice of that and how did it come about? I have always been, that has the biggest thing that I took from it, and the Jumpman was upside down and then these two little hits, like it really intrigued me. It reminds me of elements of the Jordan XIII, like the shape kind of went like that on the XIII.
TH: A little bit. Personally, I don’t know the whole story to be honest with you, but we are always pushing for removing material where we can.
TH: And if you look at traction patterns and wear patterns, you know, there are some places where you can’t extract materials and so that’s partly that. And that, and I — maybe you put a face in there, I don’t know.
TL: And so one, it is a way to show how far up that plate goes, and so it really shows you that the plate must be going, you know, all the way up to the plate screw and so it really shows how large the plate is and gives you the most amount of the carbon visibly. And the upside down Jumpman is actually the right side up. If you think about somebody going in the air, dunking, jumping and all of that stuff, you will see the Jumpman in the right position when somebody’s hanging on the basket, he said it right —
TL: — and so that’s the intent there and it is something that we’ve been —
When they fly over? Or go through…
TL: Yeah, exactly when we look at the photography of our athletes, that’s the thing that triggered it. We had a big picture of a couple of our athletes in a presentation and I kept like twisting my head around, kind of like this just seems silly. And so it’s something that is a departure from where we’ve been as a brand but it can work.
I saw the “Jumpman” script on the toe…
TL: It’s actually “JumpTown”. When you saw the slide in the presentation before it’s literally taking that exact scrip from Tinker’s notes and putting it on the shoe and actually all the numbers are from Tinker’s hands as well. So the size numbers on the midsoles, every single one of them is hand drawn by Tinker’s hand. I took all of his notes and extracted all of the numbers he had in there from dates that he signed or street names that he had written etc. So extracted all the numbers and put the numbering together for all the midsoles.
So you guys are just going to make a Tinker font soon? Haha…
TL: Exactly! A Tinker handscript.
Haha…that’s really cool man!
Well you guys did a great job on the shoe and thank you for taking the time to talk with me in-depth about it.
TL: It was our pleasure as always.
Brett Golliff is a Lead Designer at General Motors and former Designer at New Balance.