Trainer Report: Interview – Graeme McMillan – Footwear Design Director Nike Sportswear and Running

Tego Sigel talks design and innovation with one of the key creatives at Nike Running and Sportswear...

Tego Sigel

4 years ago

By Tego Sigel

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With the consistent pressure applied by Nike to the trainer market over the last three years, Tego Sigel decided it was time that RWD spoke to one of the people responsible for the designs that have crashed retail websites and drawn queues around the block. So grabbing a chat with Graeme McMillan, Footwear Design Director at Nike Sportswear and Running seemed the right place to start. Born in Scotland, Graeme spent his childhood in Ontario where he studied Industrial Design, having worked in Germany and Holland, Graeme settled in Portland, Nike’s home-base and is responsible for dreaming up new styles as well as evolving legacy trainers such as the Nike Air Max 1 and the Nike Air Max 90.

How much has the technology that surrounds the production of footwear changed the way you approach design?

That’s a good question. Nike’s an innovation company, we’ve been innovating for athletes for over 40 years and love that pursuit of trying to to improve and just get to a new place. Things like materials and upper constructions have changed. I would say one of the biggest shifts we’ve had in the actual construction of footwear has happened five or six years ago with the fuse construction. Which is basically, taking different layers of films, meshes, materials and basically bonding them together to make a composite material. This allows us to make structure where we need it, breathe-ability where we need it. We use it mostly in our performance, basketball and running shoes. We’ve adapted some of those constructions in sportswear. Basically, fuse shoes are not stitched and it’s more of an automated process. You have to understand how it’s made in order to design properly. So, it does change the way we approach design. I think it will be a long time before we move away from cut and sew shoe, but we like to take some of these newer design techniques and apply them to things like; the Air Max 1, the Air Max 90. So when new constructions come up, we have to understand and design around the limitations of that. So it allows to do things we couldn’t do with the conventional methods.

I’ve been talking to a lot of developers of football boots recently and they always want to stress how much time goes into the development of a new silo. How much from your perspective goes into coming up with something like a Free – something that really is a big step forward?

You bring up a good point. The genealogy of the Free basically shows the foundation of pivotal innovation models, silhouettes, that were building blocks to get to where we are today. Sometimes it takes…I wanna say the Free took 30/40 years. When we started out innovating shoes, no-one really envisioned Free, and natural motion wasn’t really something anybody thought about. As we make new developments and innovations we continue to build on them, it’s a journey that leads us to where we are today. I mean, the first Free came out about 10 years ago and that was supported by probably, 10 or 15 years of research and development before that the end goal wasn’t necessarily Free, the end goal was to make shoes that made runners run faster and provide them more cushioning, so it’s kind of like an unknown, and quite often we don’t know where we are gonna go, but we always want to put the athlete and the consumer at the forefront, so be able to solve a problem. The Free was an example of one of the most pivotal shifts for Nike and the way we think about running shoes. Free was great because when it came out it was one of these Nike silhouettes that crossed over from being a performance based technology to soothing that people have adapted for lifestyle use, and I think some people just like to wear it because it’s super light-weight and comfortable.

When you have something that’s a success like Free you have to evolve it, you have to update it. How much pressure comes when you know that the next one is going to be scrutinised more that the last?

I wouldn’t say there’s pressure. I mean, most of the development around Free is on the performance side of what we do at Nike with our research and development team. So we have a whole team of people who work in our bio-mechanics lab who work with athletes, work with engineers to build on what we already know and improve on and adapt the innovation in order to make things better from where we’ve been. We never want to just settle and say ‘This is the Free we released 10 years ago and it’s the best Free!’ We’re continually building on this information and learning new things about the way runners run and I think, there are shifts in the way people are training that affect the research we do and in the end affects the outcome of an innovative product.

What are the questions you’re asking athletes in the early stages of a new product?

In performance they’re definitely focused on elite Athletes, people who are running all the time, people who are racing, people that are training. In sportswear we’ve taken a similar approach and kind of put that through a lifestyle lens. So, in Sportswear we talk about how we innovate for life, which for us means taking constructions and technologies, platforms and performance and adapting it for everyday use. I know a lot of the time that if somebody is running a marathon, maybe in a pair of racing flats for like three-four hours and they take those shoes off, it’s like for lifestyle use it’s a different set of requirements that we’re trying to design around, so a lot of the time the lifestyle products that we make – you’re gonna be wearing all day, seven days a week. So although it’s not a high impact, compressed time period that you’re wearing them in, it’s more stretched out. So they need to perform the way the marathon runner’s shoes perform, it’s just it’s a different set of variables and different problems we are solving, so we want to make sure we’re still making shoes that are light-weight, flexible and comfortable to wear all day, everyday, so it’s basically innovation for life.

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And when you get a new technology at Nike say the Flyknit or the Free, how much time do you give yourself to actually get to know that innovation? Do you stay on top of it whilst it’s being developed?

Being in design we see bits and pieces of stuff that’s sort of ‘far-future’ and we need to make sure we perfect it to the performance requirements before we want to scale that out to different sports. A lot of the major innovations at Nike have been rooted in running, we started out as a running company but Flyknit was in development for three or four years, you continue to develop that and improve on what we’ve done and you’ll see, even in the the most recent release of Flyknit shoes, you’ll see a kind of a different look to it and that has to do with how we get to know a technology, we get to push the boundaries of what can be done and that allows us to do things that improve on where we’ve been. That’s what it’s about, building on a heritage of innovation. You’ll see some very interesting things over the next couple of years [from Flyknit],  they might not look the same as the Flyknits you’ve known, but they will definitely be based on the research we’ve done in that field.

What’s the difference between working on something original like the Free Hyperfeel and working on a new Air Max 90, which you know is quite an established and iconic Silo?

There are similar problems that we’re trying to solve. I think the added layer for us in sportswear or working on icons like the Max 1s or the Air Max 90s, we have a a following, those shoes are icons. Not only with the Nike family but within sneaker culture, just people who love Nike shoes. We wanna be able to find a balance between doing something different, whether it’s lightweight or something like the ’14 Breathe shoes we’re doing, but we’re also making sure we don’t pull too many levers in terms of pushing it too far forward. The Max 1 is one that still needs to look like a Max 1, but if we can create a Max 1 that is more breathable, more flexible and more lightweight than the original from the 80s, that’s something new for us and that’s kind of a different type of innovation, something like Hyperfeel that is purely performance driven and quite often the aesthetic of the shoe is defined by the technology, and the way that Flyknit has a unique look because of the way that it’s made using single strands of yarn to, kind of treating them like pixels. So in sportswear, once we have established a new platform of technology we can have a little bit of fun with it in a way that performance couldn’t do in the aesthetic view or just treat it in a different way that it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the technology and creates a different expression that is on point for our consumer at a certain point in time, it brings it to a consumer who maybe wouldn’t think about a Flynit shoe or a Free shoe. At Nike we say ‘If you have a body, you are an athlete,’ so that goes for everybody. Our consumers may not run marathons every other month, but they put their shoes through rigorous activity seven days a week 24 hours a day, so we want to be able to provide solutions that are relevant to the lifestyle of our consumer.

Do you have a favourite shoe that you’ve been involved in?

I think for me it’s working in the Running group and Nike Sportswear, it’s been an honour to work on some of the Air Max product. I know that quite often it’s a collaborative effort, myself and some other designers worked together on the Air Max 90 Lunar and I think that was a kind of a bold departure from where Air Max 90 had been before, but it also is a good example of how we innovate in Sportswear, we take an innovation like Lunar, adjust the way it looks, but kind of respect the platform we are adding it to, to make a totally new, a totally relevant Max’90, so that was one. Working with the team on some of the Breathe stuff for summer, again just thinking ‘What does a bare foot sneaker look like?’ And building a shoe that is comfortable inside out and quite honestly I think the aesthetics of those shoes; I don’t know if you’ve seem them, but it has a very breathable look, because of the material, but also because of the construction. I get really excited about the current projects we’re working on and there’s some great stuff coming up in the future that you should stay tuned for.

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You’ve obviously got a deep love of trainers. What was the key shoe growing up, the one that you obsessed about the most?

When i was a teen it was Nike Air, it was Jordans, I think trainer 1s were the first Nike shoes I had and everything about that shoe from the colour to the material was just like mind-blowing to me. I’m a fan of all of the icons we’ve done, but i would say working on the running products made me appreciate more some of the early Max stuff. I’d say Jordans and Maxs are my favourite.

You’ve mentioned that running is sort of the source of most of Nike’s innovation but outside of running, which other fields do you think are really pushing the boundaries?

I would say that all of our performance categories have their own sort of parameters. Through designing and finding different solutions to solving problems from cushioning and fit. I think the new product that the global football team has come out with The Magista has really moved the needle. I think that’s a good example. That’s a Flyknit wear that doesn’t look like Flyknit. The design of the shoe is directly related to some of the considerations that professional footballers need to think about; ball control, comfort, support. The fact that football has taken the Flyknit and totally changed the way it looks for the purposes of functionality, and then also built on that with a waterproof membrane with Nike skins, it’s a great example of how nothing really happens in a vacuum at Nike in terms of innovation. It’s building on previous innovations and adapting them to the sport they’re being developed for, so that’s a great example of how football took the Flyknit and made it more functional for a football player playing on the pitch, and we try and do the same thing in Sportswear and take Flyknit and adapt it in a way that is relevant to a consumer who is going to be wearing our shoes 24 hours a day seven days a week.

What would you say is the most bizarre influence that you’ve had that you’ve seen appear in a shoe?

I always tell people that designers are very curious by nature and we kind of get inspiration from everything. I know that Tinker Hatfield, one of the most famous designers who works at Nike, he talks about being  bespoke and just sort of being open to things. Innovation will come from the least expected place. I was telling a story a couple of months back about how there was an upper design for a shoe that i worked on that ended up having a laser peeved diamond pattern that was more of a gradation from larger diamonds to smaller diamonds, and I don’t know if it was a subconscious thing, but I have a young daughter and when I would put her to bed I’d sit on a chair and rock her to sleep and there was a lamp there that was woven and I would stare at this thing every night. Somehow the pattern that was created with that lamp either got into my head through my subconscious, or kind of infiltrated. I didn’t make the connection right away but I was like ‘Wow, this looks just like this lamp!’ I’m interested as a designer and a creative. I’m interested in things that are done differently. Part of being curious is being able to look at different cultures and different things. One of the benefits of working at Nike is we are encouraged to get out there and work with other creatives and see the world and I think, if you do that with open eyes you kind of see the other cultures. I’m always going to paper stores whenever i go to Japan because its interesting what a Japanese paper clip looks like compared to an American paperclip, they have these pretty interesting triangular paperclips that are typical in Japan and I wonder ‘Why does a paperclip have to look one way?’ It may seem a bit abstract, but that a paperclip could inspire a different thought around a shoe, it’s just about the approach to making a product and solving problems, so if you’re curious minded about things I think you can really do different things and change the perception of what a shoe can look like, and solve a problem at the same time.

Being in the department you’re working in you must see a lot of shoes coming out through Nike and be inspired and think ‘this is an amazing product!’ Have you seen anything come out and thought ‘I wish i had been involved in that’?

Yeah, I’m working on some global football products and saw the Magista and was like ‘Wow!’ It would be great if we could get our hands on some of that technology, but I’d say that if you hadn’t seen the plate and the cleats on that boot, you wouldn’t even be able to tell what type of shoe it is. I didn’t actually see the Kobe until it popped up online and that was something again that moved the needle for what a basketball shoe looked like. It was very inspirational for the designers. Nike is a very creative place, very collaborative so, you see amazing things everyday and they can spark an idea, they can help form a design, that can also help solve a problem. It’s a great place to work and I think we have some of the most inspirational people working here and it’s an honour and a privilege to work alongside them.

There’s a strong momentum behind Nike at the moment, where do you think that comes from?

There’s a reason Nike is so culturally relevant with athletes and regular consumers, because we have a history of innovating and creating things people know and love, things people could never imagine. It’s part of the reason I came to Nike, I wanted to be a part of that, things like Maxs and 1s, I just wanted to be a part of that. That’s something that I wanted for a long time, as a kid growing up in Canada, and here I am. That excitement is what gets me out of bed everyday. I’m just really happy to come here, so it’s one of the best places to work.

Head to nike.com for more.