Inside the Mind of Tinker Hatfield

Tinker Hatfield, BArch ’77, Nike’s vice president for design and special projects, lives in the future. To the rest of us, it is 2017. To Tinker, when he fires up his iPad and starts designing, it is 2020, 2040, 2050 even. The rest of us just need to catch up.

“In my role at Nike and the Jordan brand, I am expected to be a futurist,” Hatfield said. “You have to be willing to be a bit disruptive, because you don’t really know what the future’s going to be like, so you might as well try to affect it by doing something unique or maybe something special.

“That’s what I do on a regular basis as a designer. I’m designing futuristic, interesting products all the time, and developing language around that. So, when I was approached about designing a license plate, I didn’t think of a license plate as a common, ordinary thing. I thought of it as an opportunity to tell a story and do something a little bit different and slightly disruptive.”

Ah yes, the new University of Oregon license plate: Designed for the future, but able to be reserved now.

“My first thought was that we have this wonderful character who represents us: the Duck,” said Hatfield. “There’s no secret around the fact that there’s a lot of water in Oregon and it’s a great place for Ducks. It was obvious to me that we could place the Duck in a unique location on the license plate, but then create a ripple in the water that was like the Duck splashing in water, creating ripples that radiated across the license plate. I felt that was a bit tongue in cheek and humorous—not at all what you might get from another university—as a way to talk about ourselves.

“In order to move into the future and change the world, you have to be a little bit disruptive. We go to school to learn how to think, how to learn important information, but also there’s a subtle undercurrent of, ‘Okay, go ahead and be disruptive and change the world a little bit.’ You drop a stone into a body of water and you’re creating ripples. Really the bigger message here is that as an individual or an organization or a university you can make waves and create change. You can make a ripple in a pond that radiates out and you might change the world in some way.”

Hatfield’s own journey to change the world began in the 1970s, when the fresh-faced student from the small farming community of Halsey, Oregon, enrolled at the UO—one of the few schools that would let him study architecture while competing in track and field. The state’s Johnny Carpenter Prep Athlete of the Year in high school, Hatfield divided his UO days between Hayward Field—where he broke the university’s pole vault record in 1975 and placed sixth in the 1976 Olympic trials—and the classroom, where he earned his architecture degree from the School of Architecture and Allied Arts in 1977.

But while his career has been shaped by what he learned in the classroom, his overarching philosophy can be traced back to something that happened on his very first day on campus.

“There was a demonstration in the cafeteria against the Vietnam War,” he said. “Here I am, a freshman, first day in the cafeteria, and 100 older students came in chanting and grabbed ketchup bottles and squirted them around the room and then fell on the floor. I was in shock. That’s seared into my memory because that was a very unique expression of freedom of speech. I was against the Vietnam War anyway, and that opened my eyes that I could talk about what I wanted to talk about, and be who I was at the University of Oregon.”

Hatfield has been talking to the world through his designs ever since. Ducks get to see it every day, though they might not be immediately be aware of what they’re looking at. The shamrock, courthouse, interlocking UO, and beach sunset on the Hatfield-designed Kilkenny Floor at Matthew Knight Arena, for example, tells the story of former athletic director Pat Kilkenny, tying together his Irish heritage, his upbringing in Heppner, his education at the UO, and his later years in San Diego. The trees themselves are a nod to the 1938–39 NCAA champion Tall Firs men’s basketball team. Even the university’s iconic ‘O,’ which Hatfield designed in the late 1990s, has a story to tell.

“Being connected to the UO I wanted to do the best work I could, work that’s meaningful to me,” Hatfield said. “I really wanted to change the University of Oregon logo, the interlocking collegiate ‘UO,’ which I felt was very pedestrian, normal, and ubiquitous—it was just like any other college logo. The university should own the ‘O’ for ‘Oregon.’ The ‘O’ is actually a combination of two parts of the University of Oregon: the inside shape of the ‘O’ is the exact shape of the track at Hayward Field, and the external shape of the ‘O’ is the original shape of Autzen Stadium.

“Even though those are both related to sports, they’re parts of the university that are highly visible. It doesn’t have a lot to do with whether it’s sport oriented or academic, it’s just what you can grab onto that’s visual and you know about. When they came together it created this beautiful mark, this simple shape that is really easy to use when we apply it to stationary, or a football helmet, or anything. I’m really proud to have been involved with that and that idea; it’s a story, and that story resulted in a beautiful shape.”

Tinker Hatfield designing on his ipad
Known primarily for his work on Nike's Air Jordan brand, Tinker Hatfield has designed everything from a car in the Gran Turismo video game to a summer camp for his wife, Jackie. Some of his work is now on display in the Smithsonian.

Nike cofounder Phil Knight, BBA ’59 has said that Nike isn’t a design company; it is a marketing company that designs products that athletes help market. To that end, Hatfield sees himself as a storyteller working on the designs that Nike and the athletes then market. The creator of every Air Jordan since the Air Jordan III, he has told stories through his work about everything from Michael Jordan’s appreciation for fashion (the tumbled leather Air Jordan III, the first to include the Jumpman logo and Jordan’s personal favorite playing shoe) to the NBA legend’s on-court movement reminiscent of an agile panther (Air Jordan XIII, with a solo mimicking a panther’s paw and a hologram on the heel that looks like a cat’s eye in the dark).

“New ideas and new designs are kind of meaningless to me unless there’s a story behind them,” said the architecture alumnus, who famously used Paris’ Center Georges Pompidou as the inspiration for his Air Max I sneakers. “Whether people know the story or not is not as important as how good the work is, and the work is always better if there’s a story, and that’s the process here.”

In addition to handling Nike’s Air Jordan brand, Hatfield also invented the cross trainer shoe and designed the Nike Huaraches, the self-lacing Air Mag shoes seen in Back to the Future II—where he invented a shoe for “the future” of 2015 back in 1989 before creating it for real in 2016—a car in the Gran Turismo video game series, a summer camp for wife Jackie, and Michael Johnson’s gold track spikes. Once derided by college football purists, schools nationwide are now mimicking the Ducks’ Hatfield-designed football uniforms in an effort to stand out on Saturdays. Twice named one of Sportstyle’s 100 Most Influential People in the sports business, the futurist’s work is on display in the Smithsonian, and in 2008 he was named the recipient of A&AA’s Lawrence Medal.

Hatfield also gives back by mentoring students, happy to help the next generation of Ducks realize their own potential. Appropriately enough, he often does so simply by sharing his own story.

“It’s important for anyone who has visibility and is also perceived as having experience, I think you have a responsibility to give back to young people,” he said. “More often than not I’m not in the advice business, I’m in the storytelling business, and my story could be helpful to someone else. So I do that a bit with University of Oregon students and young people all over the world. I’m proud of having survived architecture school and being a track athlete—it was tough, but it fulfilled the mission of the University of Oregon, which was to prepare me to be successful.”

- Damian Foley, UO Communications

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