The Propaganda of Nike

Consider this… Nike is the most successful artists collective ever.

We can argue that point in a moment, but first let me give you a little bit of context.  According to Forbes.com, at its current size and production capacity Nike generates roughly 5 billion dollars every three months.  The Swoosh consistently ranks in the top ten most recognized logos in the world (for the curious- Number 1 is Coca-Cola).  And Nike has only existed for fifty years which means that in a single generation of employees the company has grown from selling Japanese running shoes out of the trunk of a car, to a Fortune 500 company.

And all they do is sell shoes.

Shoes!  Is there anything we have more of?  There’s a million different companies that sell shoes.  You can buy them on any street corner in the developed world.  You can get them cheap.  You don’t even need that many pairs.  Check black, brown, flip flops, and running shoes off your list and you’re done shoe shopping until the next guy is in the White House.  So how on Earth are they able to generate the kinds of revenue they do?  Well, first of all… their not really selling shoes.

Yes shoes are what you walk out of the store with.  They’re what you put on your feet crossing your fingers they weren’t made by children half way around the world in a sweat shop.  But the shoes, like every other physical product Nike makes, are simply a canvas. We don’t buy Nike for the shoes, we buy it for the image of excellence and taste the company portrays.  And everything the global consumer finds appealing about that image of excellence comes from Nike’s army of corporate artists.

The company uses a combination of reverent high-art advertising and highly researched evocative graphic design to transform before our very eyes from the t-shirt and shoe company they really are, into a planet-spanning message of empowerment.  Like a bunch of sad people at a Tony Robbins seminar it is this propaganda of empowerment we are willing to hand over our dollars to.  It takes a sophisticated group of highly specialized artists to focus and amplify that message, and man alive I love to watch them work.

There are two sides to this machine.  There is the unending advertising campaign, and then there is the design of the products themselves.  The man whose been leading the charge of product design at Nike for the last 25 years is architect turned shoe designer Tinker Hatfield whose designs have translated into billions of dollars for Nike.

You have to admit it, there is something indescribably appealing about his work.  The Air Max.  Every pair of Air Jordans with the exception of the first two.  Recently he designed the University of Oregon’s basketball court.

I think this is design is absolutely amazing.  Mark my words, they are going to retire this floor to huge fan fare one day.  But it has been highly criticized as both confusing (the quotes have usually centered around some sort of “It makes the floor look dirty” complaint), or that the floor is “too shiny.”  The majority of the criticisms were made by SBNation’s Eric Stephen (seen here), whose eye for style and design, I think, speaks for itself.

The single legitimate criticism that can be made of the design is that the basketball court doesn’t have a half-court line.  Which really isn’t placed on basketball courts for aesthetic reasons.  You kinda need that one to actually play the game, and there have already been some floor violations that have gone uncalled because of it.  I can see a hundred ways that may bite them one day, but maybe the mayhem of a floor that’s difficult to officiate will become part of the personality of playing at U of O’s new $227 million dollar Matt Knight Arena, which was named in memoriam of Nike founder Phil Knight’s late son.

And Tinker I’m sure is glad to be hearing exactly these criticisms which he says are “how you know you’re on the right track.”  He has made a career out of walking a design path that can only be described as The Mainstream’s Edge.  To stay both edgy and avante guarde while trying to get every person in the world to want what you’re making is a very hard target to hit, and requires a spectacular applicable understanding of the communicative language of design.

He has the ability to be be bold and truly unconventional, but then to refine it back to something easily consumed.  The first time you see a design of his you stare, but then never find it odd again.  His work startles and then becomes instantly organic.  That skill set comes from an ability to deconstruct the world around him into consumable design parts.  The Air Max was inspired by the Centre Pompidou.  The trees on the court at U of O directly reference the Oregon license plate.  He has looked to sports cars, statues, and a hundred other things for inspiration; and then paints onto his blank canvas of a shoe.

Nike… the most successful artist collective EVER.

It’s Only A,

Modest Conspiracy

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