Best known for designing the first Air Max runner and many of the most loved Jordans, Tinker Hatfield was also a prolific contributor at ACG. From our campsite in Moab, Tinker explains his Mowabb design philosophy and why he loves life in the great outdoors.
What does being in the outdoors mean to you?
I think being in the outdoors is about conquering your fears, doing something that you’ve never ever done before and all the rest of it. But I think it’s also about getting away from your daily life, having fun with your friends and doing something that maybe you don’t do all that often. The outdoors can do that for you. For instance, we could come to Moab a week later and this could be quite a different experience.
Do you remember who came up with the name ACG?
I don’t remember who came up with the three letters. I suspect it was one of those collaborative meetings in a bar someplace and somebody probably blurted it out. I do remember when we started talking about developing outdoor products as a sort of sub-brand and using that as a platform to tell stories. The reason I always say Nike is in the storytelling business is that if products don’t have meaning, if you can’t attach it to something in your life, then they’re really just sneakers and socks and jocks. They may be cool objects of desire for a little while, but they won’t have much of a life beyond that. The reason we hire all these brilliant athletes is because it’s a great way to tell stories.
Did you rely on your personal experiences to bring new insights to the ACG shoes you worked on?
I think it’s important for people to go out and look for inspiration that helps them to understand the culture. There’s a culture around running that can drive you towards a solution – not just performance, but a style solution. And I think the same thing is true in the world of the outdoors. You can develop these visions in your head of understanding the sport, but it’s also about how people hang out, what they do in between playing the sport. And those things can sometimes bring unique differences to products; I’m talking stylistically and maybe attitude-wise rather than all-out performance.
How did you get away with designing the Mowabb?
So I’m thinking, well, we’ve got this ACG project, so I’m going to design a shoe like no other. And being the fool that I am, I think I’m going to get away with it even though that’s not always the case at Nike. I had built up some political clout from previous projects and I think it’s a mistake if you don’t take advantage of that to do things no one’s ever done. Anybody can come along and just keep doing the same old stuff. That is not my nature, I don’t believe it’s the nature of Mark Parker and I don’t believe it’s the nature of Nike. We are really interested in being leaders, not followers. The Mowabb was born of my repeated trips to Moab, Utah.,
I can see why you come here. It’s spectacular.
I came to Moab mainly because of a guy named Monty, a longtime Nike employee who would come here with a few of his friends. We’re talking about people who were doing extreme things, really hard rock climbing and dangerous mountain biking and even more dangerous bar hopping at night, all that kind of stuff. Moab is this perfect place to do it. So we came here and we climbed and we biked on the Slick Rock and Porcupine Trail and the Poison Spider Mesa and numerous times we nearly died and were given up for dead. During that time, I was inspired by the area and started to design an outdoor shoe that was more like a Native American moccasin. If you really think about it, in this neck of the woods, the very first outdoor athletes were Native American tribes. So I just drew this picture of a fish really fast and I started thinking about trying to design an outdoor cross-trainer, a shoe you could just do anything in. I was also thinking about how shoes work on a bike pedal, how they should work as you step on a rock and wobble a bit – all of the little issues that you have to go through in your mind to design something multipurpose. Moccasins have no outsole, they’re leather on the bottom and on the upper. That’s partly because they didn’t have rubber, but it’s also because they didn’t really need it – the shoe actually conforms to the surface it’s on rather than dig into it. And that was a big revelation. No one had ever designed an outdoor shoe like that. I thought I was really on to something and I started thinking about the colours of fish, the nearby Colorado River and the Green River that runs through here.
The speckled midsole on the Mowabb has become a Nike staple. Was that the first time it was applied to a Nike sneaker?
Yeah, that was the first time we used the speckle. It wasn’t an easy thing to get down and we had to spend a lot of time in Asia working with the factories trying to figure out how to actually achieve it in mass production.
You had to stand there with them and actually flick paint on it?
Well, the first few samples were sort of artistically done individually, and then they figured out how to splatter paint in order to make lots of them. That’s another part of this process that most people don’t know about. Once you come up with all these crazy ideas and you end up with a sample, then you’ve got to go to some factory in a foreign country and actually try and communicate your idea. Then they tell you stuff about how to make things producible en masse, things you don’t know about.
Was the Revaderchi a relative of the Mowabb?
Actually, Steve McDonald came back to me with a new version of the Mowabb. He had a few additional ideas that he called the Air Revarderchi. I think that’s just a super-funny name. If you look at it, the way it’s spelt there, it’s a joke.
I know, I’m laughing!
Good! The Air Revaderchi was technically part of the Huarache line, but truly, it was an evolution of the Air Mowabb. I like to give Steve McDonald plugs because he’s still doing fantastic work for us today and he also really helped invent Nike’s Considered approach to product design. He had a few different ideas about the outsole and how it worked, which is why this shoe is a fun one to talk about even though it didn’t sell a huge amount. They are what we call niche products but they help set the tone for every other shoe. They’re the leading edge of the product development process. And again, I think it was an interesting and unique approach to shoe design – no one really had caught up to us at that time.
What was the Lawnmower Man all about?
The outdoors can be gnarly. You can be climbing a mountain, bombing down a single track on a mountain bike and dropping off ledges. You can be mountain boarding with big rubber wheels and doing crazy stuff. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that some guy who goes out and mows his lawn every Sunday morning is actually doing an outdoor activity. We just thought it was funny to lump that person in with all the other things that go with the outdoors. I think it’s self-effacing, it says you don’t have to be a super-athlete or a super-crazy person to have fun in the outdoors. If you’re rock climbing and you make a mistake, it’s very serious, but sometimes you make mistakes and it’s no big deal. It should be about fun. So that’s why there’s the Lawnmower Man.
Out of all the ACG shoes, which is the most influential?
Well, it’s easy to say one of the crazier designs like the Mowabb. But it’s not like you could go into small-town USA or just anywhere in the world and see the Mowabb on the shelf. It was a shoe for people in the know, people who were interested in unique things. More widely, the most influential might be the kind of product that meets the market on a much bigger scale, which is hard to do. Not long after the Escape II there was a shoe called the Mada. Do you remember it?
Sure, it’s plain and brown and outdoorsy looking. Pretty nondescript really.
Well a guy named Sergio Lozano, who still works for us and is a fine designer, took the Escape II and the Mowabb and sort of turned it into the everyman’s shoe. I think it was influential because it took these ideas and turned them into product that anybody in the world could go and buy. We sold millions of those and I think that had a big impact on the way all outdoor shoes are still designed today. If you look at all the outdoors brands, they all have components inspired by the Mada.
Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 14, November 2008