Everybody knows Nike. How could you not? The global sportswear company is ubiquitous, thanks to decades of developing gear and sponsoring athletes competing in every sport imaginable (seriously, they even sponsor Curling). But while marketing savvy has unquestionably assured the brand limitless time in the spotlight — there’s an equally innovative half to Nike’s success few of us ever get to see.
It’s the half responsible for keeping the company’s founding mission, “to bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world” dead in its sights. What goes into designing a shoe, jersey, or ball? Looks sell — but in the performance driven world of sport, products designed for true players can never succeed on vanity alone. There’s a difference between looking like a winner, and being the winner afterall.
So what do sportswear designers consider when making a product? Is there a method to the madness? Nike invited us to their headquarters in Beaverton, OR, to get answers through the lens of the world’s most popular sport.
Find out what we learned after the jump.
Many know the highlights of Nike’s birth and can cobble together a rough outline of its particular chapter in the history of the American dream. They just always goof up on the order. There’s Steve Prefontaine, his track coach Phil Knight, and his waffle iron. Then there’s the iconic logo that was designed on the cheap by some random graphic design student, and of course — endorsements of superstars like Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, that helped solidify Nike’s reputation as the premier supplier of Basketball, Football, and Baseball gear during the 80s.
What many don’t know is that the company founded by Oregon track coach Phil Knight and his athlete Bill Bowerman in 1964 didn’t begin as Nike, and the name and logo didn’t appear first on a running shoe. Instead, the then-named Blue Ribbon Sports company paid homage to the winged goddess of victory and used the “swoosh” for the first time in 1971, on a soccer shoe, dubbed “The Nike”. Seven years later, they officially decided to change the company name. Needless to say, the brand’s connection to the global sport of soccer (or football in the minds of everyone else) runs deeper than most would guess.
Few monuments in the world of sport can compete with the grandeur of Nike’s Beaverton headquarters. After spending years in a collegiate environment as a track coach, Phil Knight wanted the facility to mimic a college campus in the hope of fostering an academic culture of creativity and innovation. Like most universities, the roughly 190 acre HQ is dotted with countless buildings, all united by a central design theme and connected by a series of sidewalks.
The educational similarities continue with the naming of buildings after people, and like a college, it’s all about successful alumni. An inventory of Nike’s facilities reads like a list of the greatest athletes of all time. Each entrance proudly bears the name of a larger than life persona that helped the brand become a premier player in a particular sport, by contributing valuable hands-on product feedback, as well as millions in product sales through their fan base. Taking it all in with the peppy and sneaker clad workforce buzzing about gives visitors the sense that they’ve wandered onto the turf of a futuristic utopian society, akin to Gattaca or perhaps on the darker side, Logan’s Run.
Being an outsider didn’t stop us from gawking at the immaculate quality of the facilities or the astonishing sports memorabilia stashed in display cases throughout the campus. It was everything we’d imagined from a company with unprecedented access to athletes and enormous financial means, and then some.
The distractions of our visit soon faded as our sessions with two of Nike’s biggest innovators, Dr. Alan Reichow, Global Research Director of Nike Vision and Sensory Performance, and Andy Caine, creative Director of Global Football, got underway.
…it’s easy to imagine how this ruthless attention to the game must resonate with the world’s most competitive individuals. Nike is a company that searches for an edge in every nook and cranny — no matter how small. They think like an athlete. They think like someone obsessed with winning.
When Yellow is More Than a Color
Despite testing the waters with their eventual name and “swoosh” branding in the early 70’s, compared to other global sportswear companies, Nike is a young player in the world of soccer. But their fresh perspective on the sport would eventually disrupt the industry. The brand’s early experimentation with synthetic leathers and bright color schemes was controversial — but both would soon become the norm. 1994 marked Nike Soccer’s first breakthrough, as the sponsor of several of Brazil’s most prominent players, who would go on to win the world cup that same year. In 1995, they signed the entire Brazilian national team, followed by the US men’s and women’s national teams.
Since those early successes, the company has aggressively invested in the sport, from the marketing and R&D side. While bold colors and striking graphics certainly leave an impression on the eyes of fans and players, Dr. Alan Reichow’s presentation revealed that the distinctive looks of Nike’s soccer boots and balls were actually determined by hard science. Nike’s mission to make the most visible ball in the game, a.k.a. the Total 90 Aerow “Hi-Viz” ball released in 2004, epitomized this technical approach.
The visual contrast of an object is a relative benchmark entirely dependent on its surroundings. So when Dr. Reichow’s group set out to make the most visible ball ever, they first needed a deeper understanding of the match environment. Alan and his team visited 14 of the world’s most popular stadiums and collected detailed photographs from virtually every angle to create a visual database. The database was then leveraged to understand what players saw during critical game moments. Though it seems obvious, hard data proved that grass was the typical backdrop to the ball, so what color contrasted the most with the exact average shade of green compiled from the pitches?
Yellow is the most visible color to the human eye, largely because of its position in the middle of the visible light spectrum. That’s the reason for yellow safety vests, road signs, and increasingly, emergency vehicles like fire trucks. It turns out the color had a similar effect on ball visibility out on the pitch, and a specific shade of Hi-Viz yellow was formulated to maximize this contrast. But a distinctive base layer wasn’t enough to achieve ideal visibility in the air.
Just like the pulsing and flickering employed by emergency sirens, Alan’s team knew that the addition of meticulously placed contrasting graphics would give the new ball a “flickering” visual effect as it rotated at high speeds. The million dollar question was, exactly how fast does a ball rotate in professional play?
Anyone who has seen a propeller spin knows that at certain speeds, distinguishing marks can blend together, forming what appears to be a solid band of color. The sensory performance team avoided this threshold with their graphic design by studying average ball RPMs during matches, which they soon found ranged between 400 – 600. Based on this data, they adjusted the contrasting graphic’s size, spacing and placement to mitigate banding at match speed. Navy rings on top of the yellow base layer, designed to create a pulsing effect as the ball spun, were the result.
While the team’s first attempt was definitely a success, they soon realized that the concentric placement of the navy rings provided less flicker in certain rotational patterns. Subsequently, later versions of the ball were modified with more abstract purple shapes to enhance the flickering effect of the ball from any rotational angle.
Andy Caine, Nike’s creative Director of Global Football provided a similar level of insight behind the company’s newest boot, the CTR360 Maestri III. Just like its predecessors, the CTR360 Maestri III was built to maximize performance from the game’s key midfield ball distributors including FC Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, and Brazil’s rising star Paulo Henrique Ganso. Before kicking off the project, Caine’s team worked with Iniesta in particular to understand his current game pain points, with the hopes of addressing each issue through better design.
A “3D Control Pad” (essentially separate plastic strips with fins of varying sizes & textures) was the first significant change added to the inner exterior of the boot, to enhance contact, passing, and ball receiving accuracy. Similarly, dimples on the exterior midfoot, combined with a new generation of Kanga-lite synthetic leather, were added to create a nearly identical co-efficient of friction for the boot in both dry or wet conditions, reducing the effect of poor weather on player ball control.
The boot’s studs were also modified from a traditional symmetrical placement to a new, 360 design. Afterall, player movement on the field was rarely ever symmetrical. So a mixture of round studs were added to the medial side with sharper blade studs on the opposite lateral side to enhance turning and cutting while minimizing stud pressure on the foot. Even the juxtaposition of black and yellow on the toe and heel of the shoe was considered. Like the dark graphics placed on the High Vis ball, the shoe’s divided color patterned was developed to produce a flickering visual cue as a player runs, making CTR360 Maestri III wearers more noticeable in the peripheral vision of other ball carriers on the field.
All of this meticulous attention to detail falls under the broad umbrella of “considered design” — which Nike’s product team embraces as a mantra in everything that they do. In their quest to improve performance, every element must serve a purpose.
While we’re not foolish enough to ignore the influence Nike wields over the minds of players through fat sponsorship checks and endorsements, it’s easy to imagine how this ruthless attention to the game must resonate with the world’s most competitive individuals. Nike is a company that searches for an edge in every nook and cranny — no matter how small. They think like an athlete. They they like someone obsessed with winning.
Steve Prefontaine once said “success isn’t how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started.” A lot has changed since “The Nike” launched in 1971, and yet, the American sportswear company is still an underdog in the beautiful game. If we learned anything from our visit to Beaverton, though, it’s that Nike considers plenty of things — but losing isn’t one of them.