The Art of Design: Tinker Hatfield

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netflix documentary about tinker hatfield

Mad scientist. Pole vaulter. Architect. Husband. Father. Shoe designer. If you know Tinker Hatfield’s name it’s probably because of his status as that last one in the list — he’s Nike’s gift of shoe design to the world. But there’s more to his story, and it’s wonderfully captured in Netflix’s new Art of Design documentary series.

If people don’t either love or hate your work, you just haven’t done all that much.

Tinker is perhaps the world’s most celebrated shoe designer, respected by professional athletes because he patiently attends to their ills and works with them to come up with innovative, foot-saving ideas. His dope-ass kicks are worshipped by sneaker culture aficionados worldwide — even if some of them probably couldn’t win a dunkathon at their local elementary school. His designs are never boring, sometimes controversial. They’re also worn by millions of people who probably never think twice about how those things strapped to the bottoms of their feet came to be.

tinker hatfield sneaker culture god
Netflix’s documentary does a good job of balancing design history with personal biography. Here’s hoping for a season two.

If you, dear reader, care about the details of design and enjoy peeking into the back story behind trend-setting design, you will probably enjoy this documentary very much. I know I did, and I don’t even own a pair of Nikes. I especially loved seeing him in the act of drawing and brainstorming, whether sharpening a pencil inside the VW Van parked inside his studio or doodling a new design using SketchBook Pro outdoors on a sunny day.

The film highlights some of Tinker’s unconventional ideas that were initially dismissed but that went on to be huge sellers for Nike. The Nike Air Max, with its exposed air sacs, was lampooned inside the company during development, but it took off like a rocket with consumers. The Nike Air Trainer, with its curious velcro straps, secured its place with amateur athletes thanks to the the endorsement of celebrity bad boy and mullet revivalist Andre Agassi. Tinker’s made-for-the-movies Back to the Future self-lacing sneakers, which seemed the height of silliness in 1986, ended up actually being produced 30 years later. That one person could dream up these unlikely successes again and again is a testament to both Tinker’s skill and his eye for trends.

back to the future self lacing shoes
Self-lacing shoes seemed like a silly sci-fi idea, but in 10 years will you be surprised if most of your shoes have lacing buttons like the one at the top right, which is currently available for sale?

The story of Tinker Hatfield told in this film is interlaced with the ups and downs of the Air Jordan shoe itself, and the film does a great job of showing how collaborative the marriage between art and commerce must be before a single shoe drops off the assembly line. It’s enlightening to see how Tinker develops his ideas by going deep in conversation while brainstorming with Michael Jordan, even though Jordan at times rejects his creative digging. The continual reimagining of Air Jordans year after year doesn’t always work out, and the film does a spectacular job of spotlighting both the successes and failures that inevitably happen to ideas that demand to be reinvigorated for new markets again and again.

It’s a great story that’s more about art than commerce, more about collaboration than individual fame, and all about taking risks instead of simply making minor improvements to your art. As Tinker notes, with surfboard in hand as he goes out to meet the waves, “If people don’t either love or hate your work, you just haven’t done all that much.”