Tinker Hatfield is the recipient of the 2019 National Design Award for Product Design. After studying architecture at the University of Oregon, where he was coached by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, Hatfield joined Nike in 1981 and currently serves as vice president of creative concepts. Known for his inventive imagination, relentless drive toward improved performance and disruptive aesthetic footwear, Hatfield has earned global recognition for his collaboration with Michael Jordan on the Air Jordan line at Nike. He has created specialized Nike performance products for champion athletes and entertainers, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Laird Hamilton, Gabrielle Reece, Renaud Lavillenie and Justin Timberlake. Hatfield lives in Portland, Oregon, and mentors young Nike designers to help build the Nike of the future.

The National Design Award recipients will be honored at a gala dinner and ceremony Thursday, Oct. 17, in the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden at Cooper Hewitt.

What three adjectives define “good design” to you?

Thoughtful, Appropriate, Courageous

Who is a designer, historic or working today, that you would invite to a dinner party?

Brad Bird, writer, designer, and voice talent for The Incredibles.

How do you relax on your day off?

Go for a bike ride around Portland with my wife Jackie, have lunch at a cool bistro along the way, and play some music in the afternoon.

Futuristic cool black sneaker with a white sole. There is a light-up blue insert in the sole. The shoe features a gray Nike

Nike HyperAdapt 1.0 (2016). Photo: Nike

What inspires you when you’re feeling stuck?

I’m constantly doing new and fun things like physical activity, traveling, meeting interesting people, going to live music events and watching sports. All of these activities and more inspire me. I can’t think of a time when I have ever been stuck. Have I been wrong? Yes. But stuck? Nope.

What do Cooper Hewitt and the National Design Awards mean to you?

I’m extremely honored to be recognized by the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards.

Since Cooper Hewitt is an arm of the Smithsonian, there is a historic component to this award that seems very permanent or lasting. I’m just a guy from small town America (Halsey, Oregon, population 900 or so) and to think that I’ve been chosen to represent the design world on a national level is pretty mind boggling. Of course, I’ve been so fortunate to work with talented people at Nike and at Jordan for all these years, so I consider the whole thing a “collective award” for all my collaborators as well.

How did you get your start in design?

I started my “design life” in college as an architectural student (I hadn’t done any preparatory work in high school). I was also a wear tester for Bill Bowerman. Mr. Bowerman was my track coach at the University of Oregon and he also co-founded Nike. His designs were revolutionary, and I was fortunate to be one of his favorite test subjects, which involved some design thinking on my part.

A gray, red, and white sneaker. What's cool about this shoe is that the stripe of red near the sole and the red Nike swoosh stand out against the grays and whites. It also looks like there's a gel insert in the heel that would provide more cushioning.

Nike Air Max 1 (1987). Photo: Nike

How has mentorship influenced your career?

I have had many mentors but three stand out.

  • My father Tinker, Sr., who taught me to work very HARD.
  • Bill Bowerman who taught me to work SMART.
  • Phil Knight who taught me to work with PASSION.

They were all innovators and quite successful as well.

  • My father was once National High School Track Coach of the Year.
  • Bill Bowerman invented Jogging in America, and coached several Olympians.
  • Phil Knight is world renowned for, well, for just about everything he’s done. From starting NIKE out of the back of his car to giving away billions of dollars to help cure cancer.

Looking over your body of work, is there one design project that holds personal significance for you?

The Air Jordan 11.  Michael Jordan had retired, and I was asked to stop designing Jordans. There was a belief that great design alone would not resonate with people without Michael wearing the product on court.  So, I designed the Air Jordan 11 partly under the radar. When it went to retail it was incredibly successful, and to this day when it’s re-released, it continues to be extremely popular. All these years later, it’s still worn by many of the best players. The Air Jordan 11 proved that sometimes the most successful designs come from trusting your gut and taking risks.

Sneakers with white uppers rimmed with black. The soles are the pale yellow of industrial plastic. The shoes have Michael Jordan's signature on the side of the heel. The silhouette of Michael Jordan soaring through the air and about to make a slam dunk are on the back of the sole

Nike Air Jordan XI (1996). Photo: Nike

How do you think design will change in the next 20 years?

Design is changing all the time, and pretty much has been since the Industrial Revolution of the early to mid-1800s. The pace is ever quickening, and 20 years into the future might equal all the innovation that has occurred before it. The limitless boundaries of invention and imagination are inspiring. Imagine if we could invent more products that adapt to the user, like we did with the Nike HyperAdapt. Or imagine if we could create products and new processes of manufacturing that are not just sustainable, but also even clean and improve our world in all ways at all times.

What are your words of advice to the next generation of designers?

Learn how to write, speak, draw, think and to be fearless. Good design is often disliked or mistrusted. Don’t be afraid to go up against the establishment in order to make design better, to make life better.

About the National Design Awards

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Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Awards is the only annual program of its kind, bringing national recognition to the ways in which design enriches everyday life. Launched at the White House in 2000 as a project of the White House Millennium Council, the National Design Awards were established to promote design as a vital humanistic tool in shaping the world. Twenty years later, the National Design Awards continue to honor and support excellence, innovation, and lasting achievement in American design. Cooper Hewitt continues to broaden access nationwide to the vision and work of the country’s design leaders through National Design Week and NDA Cities, inspiring people of all ages to engage with design and design thinking.

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the National Design Awards, Target will offer free admission to all visitors of Cooper Hewitt during National Design Week, Oct. 12–19, to make design accessible to all. Target will also sponsor a series of Cooper Hewitt programming broadening access to the vision and work of the country’s design leaders and inspiring people of all ages to engage with design and design thinking.

National Design Awards is made possible by generous support from Target. Additional support is provided by Design Within Reach, Facebook, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. National Design Award trophies are created by The Corning Museum of Glass. ndagallery.cooperhewitt.org is powered by Behance, part of Adobe, Inc. National Design Week is made possible by major support from Target. Additional funding is provided by Altman Foundation, Siegel Family Endowment, and The Richard and Jean Coyne Family Foundation.

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