Fast on his Feet
Interview with Gordon Thompson III [October 22, 1996]
by Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss
@ IBM atrium garden

The NIKE swoosh is, perhaps, the most recognizable corporate logo in the world. Since the 1970's, NIKE invented or reinvented almost every aspect of the athletic shoe and sporting apparel market. At last count, NIKE held 37% of the US athletic shoe market--it's closest competitor is Reebok with a 20% share. It's founder and largest stockholder, Phil Knight, is the sixth richest man in America--he also delivered one of our favorite quotes, "There is no value in making things any more. The value is added by careful research, by innovation and by marketing."

We wanted to talk to a NIKE designer about the shoes and the corporation, and were led to Gordon Thompson III. From a press release: "Gordon Thompson came to NIKE in 1989 from a multi-disciplined background that included hotel and restaurant design, corporate interiors, graphic and product design and motion picture set and production design. In August 1993, Gordon was promoted to NIKE's Vice President of Research Design and Development which includes Footwear and Apparel Design and Product Development and the Image Division (Film and Video, Graphic Design and Environmental design)."

NIKE's flagship retail store, NT NYC, opened Nov. of 1996--one week after we conducted the following interview with Gordon Thompson who, it turned out, was the co-designer (with John R. Hoke III) of the building (see sidebar). Thompson struck us as energetic, talented, quick and insightful--a fast on his feet spokesperson for NIKE. We sensed we ran into a wall of corporate image when we tried to suggest that NIKE may consider the non-athletic, streetwear uses of their product when designing and selling. We also bumped into the NIKE denial policy when it came to labor relations in SE Asia. It was clear that Thompson is partly responsible not only for NIKE's amazing footwear but also their beautifully crafted image.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: How long does it take to design a shoe?

Gordon Thompson III: It depends on the athlete who's going to wear it-who it's designed for. It takes more time if there is a lot of new technology and it depends on how the shoe's going to be manufactured and put together. We've had shoes take all of 3 years--from concept to shelf. On average the design time of a shoe is about 6 months--that's design development to the sales meeting. Average design time, itself, is about 3 months. Then, it takes a year to commercialize the product.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What about ideas research and development?

Gordon Thompson III: In footwear design there's advanced product engineering that begins 1-3 years prior to the delivery date. We look at running, for example, in the future and decide what we need in terms of new fabrics, materials, cushioning systems and other new ideas. And then there's a group that works 3-7 years ahead of delivery date. It's made up 12 people who get really abstract about the way things are going and how we're going to progress. Foot dimensions, smart product, customization--they consider all those things.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Do you have any plans for computer chips in the shoes?

Gordon Thompson III: We've knocked that idea around a lot. I think someone will get there first--I don't know if it will be us. What a chip does for you, and what it tells you, is something of debatable value when you talk to an athlete. For the average runner, it would be great to know how far you ran, then you could get your average split time, your timing per mile or 1/2 mile--chips could do all these things. It can get pretty complex. We think the technology is there to connect something you'd wear on your wrist to something you'd wear on your feet--it's just how to implement that idea that's the problem. We've worked with Apple, Microsoft and the Media Lab at M.I.T.--we have an alliance with them and they're a great source of inspiration to us.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What are other ideas for future product?

Gordon Thompson III: A lot of the concepts have to do with injury prevention and with customization--my left foot's larger than my right foot, so how do I accommodate for that when I'm buying a size 9 pair of shoes--how do I make the fit better?

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What happened to the Pump?

Gordon Thompson III: That was Reebok.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: OOPS.

Gordon Thompson III: That's all right. I don't know what happened to it--I think it died.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: You make a certain amount of decisions that have nothing to do with comfort or injury prevention but with style. Do these style decisions masquerade as technological innovations?

Gordon Thompson III: I think that's a matter of how you define innovation. We don't make gratuitous design decisions. If we're going to do an interesting lacing system on a shoe, we'll make sure it works. It may be aesthetically pleasing, but it better work. When I discuss this fashion question I always say that when you're designing for Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Jordan, they're not going to take crap and stick it on their foot. They wear the exact same product, so we're dealing with a pretty high level of product integrity.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Are there collectors that have all the shoes?

Gordon Thompson III: There's one store in Tokyo that has all the old Nike products. I went there with the Head of Apparel Design and the Head of Footwear Design--we were on a kind of junket. We laughed so hard, it was like the Nike Hall of Shame. Horrible product and they were charging thousands of dollars for this stuff that I designed 5 years ago. I remember thinking, "I can't believe someone would pay this much for this shit"--but they did and they are.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: We'd love to have a pair of Air Maxes.

Gordon Thompson III: The original Air Forces are actually more valuable than the Air Maxes, that was Nike's first basketball shoe, they're worth thousands now.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What number of shoes do you produce of a given model?

Gordon Thompson III: That depends on the shoe. A highly successful shoe like Air Max will be about 200,000 pairs in the US and about 350,000 worldwide. That would be the initial run and then there would be color updates throughout the season. Often there are 2 or 3 colors one shoe.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: How many models are there at the moment.

Gordon Thompson III: Too many (laughter). We design about 300 shoes a year. And, even worse, with in worldwide footwear, apparel and equipment there are between 10,000 and 11,000 projects a year. We're putting a lot out there.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Don't you make models specifically for the Japanese?

Gordon Thompson III: We do make specific shoes in Japan--but only running shoes. The Japanese criteria is different from that of the US. They really prize light-weight shoes and, of course, there is a size difference.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Is there a design star at Nike?

Gordon Thompson III: We're not much on the "Gordon Thompson for Nike" sort of thing--it's not our style. People have said we should do that, but so far we haven't gone down that road.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: May we ask the salary of a creative director?

Gordon Thompson III: Well--it ranges. . .I'm not going to tell you (laughter). It's good, it's competitive, based on a $6.5 billion company.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Between $100.000 and $200,000?

Gordon Thompson III: Bingo.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Did David Carson do advertisements for you?

Gordon Thompson III: I don't think so. I know he spoke at Design Camp one year.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What's Design Camp?

Gordon Thompson III: Design Camp is given every year and I run it. It's up in the Northwest, in the San Juan Islands. It is where all the designers, worldwide, come together for a week--we have speakers, we execute a project, a creative solution. A lot of it's about communication--getting designers to talk to one another, getting them out of their categories. We have our world-famous costume party, that's really over the top, and great speakers and a special group project.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Do you pay attention to fashion designers--like Comme des Garçon and Yojhi Yamamoto?

Gordon Thompson III: Of course. The best designers always know what's going on in the world. We know what's going on in film, in sports, in fashion--where all the trends are going. Do we sit and ponder what Yojhi's going to come up with this season? No. I'll think of someone like Issey Miyake, partly because I think his product is amazingly engineered. I'll look at how he seams something together and what kind of materials he used. You can definitely take inspiration from something like that. But about what Ralph Lauren is sticking on Kate Moss--I don't give a shit.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Can an employee wear Reebok to work?

Gordon Thompson III: You can not wear Reebok--that would not be a strategic move. However, I do try out a lot of different brands just to see what the competition's up to--what we can learn from them. Different brands fit differently. New Balance has a great fit--it's a wider fit than our shoe. It's healthy to know what's going on with the competition--it's stupid to dwell on it.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Are there corporate spies?

Gordon Thompson III: Yes. We've been broken into a number of times--we've had stuff stolen from dumpsters. Now our design building has double security--you have to have a pass to get in. It's not a huge problem but it's something we're aware of because of the proximity of other companies. Adidas is located in Portland and Fila just opened a design studio in Portland. I'm sure it's no secret why Adidas stuck their headquarters in Portland when it used to be back East. It wasn't because of the weather.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Do you have an exciting new shoe coming out?

Gordon Thompson III: We're going to be coming out with in-line, roller and ice hockey skates that will redefine that equipment.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Any new colors or shapes? Is the wavy black and white over?

Gordon Thompson III: As far as black and white is concerned, I think that youth culture is accepting color more than they ever have before. I think individualism is more important than it used to be and color can be a great way to express that. You'll see a lot more color--from Nike at least.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Can you improve upon the shoe lace?

Gordon Thompson III: The shoe lace is very difficult. Getting the right length, getting one that doesn't untie when you're running or playing hoop. We've had a lot of ideas about combining shoe laces with customization fit--like two different sets of laces to enable you to open up the shoe--we've tried lacing on the side of the shoe--we're continually looking at the laces' location and how it can make the shoe fit better. And also how to stop it from untying when you're running.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: We really love that spat-like strap on the new shoes and hear it really works for support.

Gordon Thompson III: Oh yeah, the customized strapping system. I holds your foot in the shoe unbelievably well. Kids have really taken off on it. We're also making more designs out of the straps themselves. We're putting college names on the straps. It's not only functional, it's customization and aesthetic. We do our best work when all those elements come together as they did in this case.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Do you look at what kids do to your shoes--do you get inspiration from street-wear, like lacing variations?

Gordon Thompson III: Not really. I get this question a lot. We're a pretty focused company--we make products for sports. People can take the product and do what they want with it, but we need to make a basketball shoe that's good to play basketball in. All the other stuff is the byproduct of having a brand that people are excited about.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Isn't the percentage of non-athletic people wearing Nike increasing?

Gordon Thompson III: That percentage may be increasing but I think that young people are increasingly athletic.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Yes, but rock bands are wearing the shoes. You don't design for the non-athlete?

Gordon Thompson III: Like rock bands (laughter)? No. Then we'd totally lose our focus. If we go down that road and an athlete puts on a pair of tennis shoes and severely injures themselves--we're hosed. We've totally blown the idea of our product.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Even the design of the non-performance aspects of the shoe?

Gordon Thompson III: I don't think we need to pull in some young punk who's customized his laces and suggest that we copy it. We should be leading--Nike is not about following. I wouldn't work for Nike if they began following.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What is the base cost of a pair of shoes?

Gordon Thompson III: It's a typical double-double-double. I think the average price of a pair of Nikes is $75-$80. Our profit margins are pretty much in line with most everyone who is building product off-shore or even in the US.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Most of the shoes are made in China?

Gordon Thompson III: No, made in Asia. Thailand, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Korea.

{We then asked about Nike's policies toward labor. NIKE employees are well treated by the corporation. But at the time of this interview there was a rash of publicity surrounding working conditions in the Southeast Asian assembly plants that subcontract work for NIKE and other athletic shoe makers. We asked Gordon Thompson some questions around these issues and he deferred to NIKE public relations--who declined to answer our questions. Among other things, there were reports and accusations of actual physical abuse by management in Viet Nam, militaristic labor factories in Southern China and substandard wages in more than a few instances. Publicly NIKE has pretty much responded to criticism by denial. They did join in creating a "No Sweat" label that will certify the garment hasn't been made under sub-minimum wage, sweat shop conditions. The practice of subcontracting work to factories who pay extremely low wages is standard practice by many corporations and rarely raises a stink. The problem for NIKE is one of a perceived hypocrisy between their egalitarian, inspirational marketing message and the reality of factory workers who can't afford to buy the shoes they make. ed.}

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What about planned obsolescence? We hear of basketball players going through shoes like crazy.

Gordon Thompson III: Tennis is even worse. We designed a Kevlar toe for a tennis shoe and even that gets beat to hell. I don't think that's so much built-in obsolescence as it just works out that way within the limits of what we can charge for a pair of shoes. I think we could use materials that would last longer and charge $300-$400 a pair, but I don't know how many people would be interested in that. The other end of that is that there's a whole culture out there that gets sick of our product very fast. And we're designing product at a really rapid pace.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Do you make more concessions to non-design departments than you would like?

Gordon Thompson III: I'm a designer, so of course I think the answer is yes (laughter). Nike's a matrix organization--we're one of the few companies that are actually like that. Since we're set up in matrix there's lot's of dialogue and lot's of communication. Any concessions are not made solely by design. Instead of saying, "Design has to take $10 off the price of a shoe." it's more like, "let's take $5 off the design and $5 off the advertising." I think in general people in the company have a good sense of design and realize that design is what makes the product exciting, new and innovative.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Who designed the Nike logo.

Gordon Thompson III: The Swoosh? That was designed by a woman in Eugene Oregon in 1972. Carol something (Caroline Davidson, ed.). She was an art student--Phil, the head of Nike, needed something that fit on a shoe and asked her to come up with something. She was paid $35.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What does she do now?

Gordon Thompson III: I think she's a housewife in Oregon.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: Is she now on welfare?

Gordon Thompson III: No, I think Phil has taken quite good care of her.

Dike Blair and Elein Fleiss: What do you think of the malling of America and the globe?

Gordon Thompson III: I think that for a long time retail was in a funk and I think that department stores were responsible for that--mass marketing overtook creative merchandising. Really, where I think retailing really got going was in bringing brand names to life. In this city, Bergdorf's, Macy's and Bloomingdales became their own brand. The one thing those stores had in common was that they used creative presentation--but somewhere along the way that got lost. Now people want a product that says what it stands for and what the company stands for. We started Nike Town in 1990 in Portland and it created this whole new entertainment retailing--which kind of makes me gag--but I think it convinced retailers that they had to do something about the state of retail and about giving consumers more than, "Here's a hanger with something on it." What do you think?

Dike Blair: We imagine that once the world is a homogeneous mall--when entertainment retail is everywhere--some interesting design will start to grow between the cracks.

Gordon Thompson III: We call that Zip code design.

Dike Blair: Do Nike Towns have to make money?

Gordon Thompson III: They have to break even. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. We have stockholders we have to satisfy.

Dike Blair: Will this Nike Town make money?

Gordon Thompson III: The object is to make money. That's not the only objective. We wouldn't have torn down a building and built a new one if profit was our only motive. We want to give consumers more information about Nike than they can get in 30 seconds on the box in their living room.