interview by CARLO ANTONELLI
photography GUS VAN SANT
How do you become the number one man at Nike? MARK PARKER joined the company as a designer in 1979, doing everything a person can do in design and marketing, and eventually became president and chief executive officer. Recognized as the visionary creator of Nike Air, he is now enlarging Nike’s vision and direction beyond product lines into the complexities of culture at large, from nature to street trends, from popular culture to high art. He does this while enjoying non-competitive sports, art, collecting art toys, and being a family man. What does MARK PARKER see for the future of Nike and for us?
CARLO ANTONELLI — What’s the future of shoes?
MARK PARKER — One important direction is customization… products that consumers can customize or adapt to fit personal needs… both aesthetic and functional needs.
CARLO ANTONELLI — What are you working on now?
MARK PARKER — Many things. For example we have Advanced Research & Development groups working on what we call “NIKE Plus” or smart technology… shoes that will communicate with other devices to tell you how far and fast you’re running or walking. This technology will also evolve to give you very specific and useful feedback on your physiological condition while you are working out, such as heart rate and body temperature.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Like interacting with medical institutions?
MARK PARKER — I can’t tell you right now [laughs]. But, yes, at some point soon footwear and apparel will be able to relay more information that will be useful feedback to the athlete and possibly to those who can help the athlete such as coaches, trainers, and medical institutions.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Shoes that can forecast the weather?
MARK PARKER — More like feedback about you, your movement, speed and distance. Body movement may also create sounds that relate to your motion, motivate, or help improve skills.
CARLO ANTONELLI — They tell you to run faster?
MARK PARKER — [Laughs] Yes, if that’s what you want. Some people are motivated by music. Some people need a tough coach. We’re trying to create things that are relevant and really useful as tools to help improve performance or the experience of being active.
CARLO ANTONELLI — What besides shoes?
MARK PARKER — Apparel, equipment, eyewear, timing devices, tools.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Tools?
MARK PARKER — Technology or tools to help you understand how your body moves; tools to help you improve your skills or physical conditioning; tools to make sports or being active more fun; tools to motivate people—interactive audio and video, using your body movement to control images on screen. Using your whole body, not just your hands.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Like virtual reality games?
MARK PARKER — Yes. As you know, technology is advancing very quickly now. Biomechanics, physiology and physical chemistry. We work with chemists, advanced material experts, universities, research programs, free-lance designers and engineers. We’re researching new processes, very technical components and intelligent fabrics. Nike also has close to 400 in-house designers. But we also work with independent designers, artists, engineers, techicians. There’s alot of intense R&D that goes into the products we create.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Is 3-D printing a reality for you?
MARK PARKER — Yes.
CARLO ANTONELLI — In distribution?
MARK PARKER — No. It’s used in the creation of prototypes and models. At some point it may be used to create actual products for consumers.
CARLO ANTONELLI — That means the consumer will receive shoes or garments very quickly after the confirmation of the mail order?
MARK PARKER — Many shoes have been made in the same complicated and time-consuming way for decades. Simple designs can be made more quickly. Other, more complex products take more time. It now takes an average of about two weeks to have a pair of custom shoes delivered after an order is placed. We are working hard to reduce that time. New designs and manufacturing processes will help reduce time. Modular constructions that are less labor intensive are an example of this.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Are you working on invisible shoes or spray-on clothes?
MARK PARKER — No.
CARLO ANTONELLI — What other products?
MARK PARKER — Imagine eyewear with lenses that enable you to see specific objects more clearly in unique conditions, or train your eyes and brain to improve your reaction time. These are tools that may soon be a reality.
CARLO ANTONELLI — How long does it take to design a shoe?
MARK PARKER — It depends on the complexity of the shoe. Anywhere from three weeks to three years or more.
CARLO ANTONELLI — How many models of the same shoe do you produce?
MARK PARKER — Anywhere from one to millions. We make one-off custom shoes to very popular styles that are produced over many years and many millions of pairs.
CARLO ANTONELLI — How many products aren’t produced? And do you have a name for such products?
MARK PARKER — “The ones that don’t make it” is what we call them. We do alot of advanced work to try new things. About a third of our product concepts become reality. We also learn alot from our failures.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Are you influenced by fashion designers?
MARK PARKER — We’re inspired by nature music, art, technology, and, yes, fashion design. Many interesting designs are created by intersecting or blending different influences. Fashion design and industrial design. Mixtures of different cultural influences. The world is moving so fast, accelerated by internet connectivity where different little worlds and subcultures connect and morph, mutate and evolve rapidly, everything influencing everything. We are very interested in the process of cross-pollenization and hybridization, and the creative energy and opportunity that results from making those connections.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Are you trying to approach biological manufacturing?
MARK PARKER — Nature is one of the inspirational and informative sources of design, helping us solve real problems and improve performance. Performance design often creates compelling aesthetics through the pursuit of solving problems. The function-based performance aesthetic often inspires fashion design.
CARLO ANTONELLI — What were the things that influenced you as a kid that you bring to your work now?
MARK PARKER — When I was very young my grandmother would take me on nature walks and she taught me to observe things in great detail. I was conditioned to look closely at things in my environment and learn about it and from it. When I travel I try to view the world in the same way—to be curious and observant to look straight ahead but also peripherally, all around. I’m very interested in the intersection of different worlds, cultures, influences coming together to create eclectic mixes and, sometimes, real compelling innovation. I’m more comfortable being in the middle of many different things. I don’t like being stuck in one dimension, whether it’s food, music, architecture, art or design. My tastes or interests cover a broad spectrum.
CARLO ANTONELLI — What’s your personal connection to nature?
MARK PARKER — Before I hurt my knees I was an obsessive runner—runnning long distances every day for over ten years. Much of my running was through the country and on forest trails. After a while, when you’re body is well conditioned, running can give you a feeling of exhilaration, like being in a surreal state—a very energizing altered state—and, along with it, a deeper physical connection to your environment.
CARLO ANTONELLI — When did you start to be interested in shoes?
MARK PARKER — When I was running alot, I would alter my shoes to make them work better. This was in the 70s. Shoes were very basic. They worked but had a very primitive design. I thought they could work better so it was natural for me to make adjustments or changes.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Like a teenager customizing a scooter?
MARK PARKER — Yes, I guess you could say that.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Do you consider yourself as a creator of organisms?
MARK PARKER — I find creating and the creative process very stimulating but, sometimes, also very relaxing.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Do you have a political bias towards science?
MARK PARKER — I’m not very political. But political organisms are a form of life. I studied biology as well as the liberal arts. I wanted to be exposed to everything. If you look at my class schedule from college, there is a very broad spectrum of courses. While many people focused on one thing, say, law or medicine, I had an appetite for learning that didn’t necessarily focus on one particular area. I was interested in too many things, and I still am.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Did people tell you to get focused?
MARK PARKER — Yeah, but I didn’t care. I wanted to experience different things. When you’re young, or old for that matter, and not sure what to do, you should be free to explore your interests. That’s what I did. I wanted to expose myself to everything.
CARLO ANTONELLI — You were customizing your own shoes?
MARK PARKER — The same could apply to companies. Nike was co-founded by a passionate inventor, who helped set the tone and culture for the company, Bill Bowerman. Nike has always been very protective about creative people designers and others. Bill helped to bring out and nurture my own creativity. What attracted me to Nike was the pure sense of purpose in helping athletes perform better and realize their potential. It wasn’t superficial aesthetics or fashion. It was more about problem-solving and not compromising.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Compromising for profit?
MARK PARKER — Companies lose their way when they don’t understand the importance of design, like a boat adrift.
CARLO ANTONELLI — What do you foresee in the upcoming 10 years?
MARK PARKER — I can’t figure out the next six months [laughs]. The world is getting smaller and faster. Convergence is creating tension and opportunity. Interesting times!
CARLO ANTONELLI — How do you avoid anxiety?
MARK PARKER — I don’t feel much anxiety. Maybe I should feel more but I don’t. I try not to waste time or energy worrying too much about things I can’t control. Although some anxiety can be a good thing, especially if it’s channeled in productive ways.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Are you working on communities, as many are doing now?
MARK PARKER — We are always striving to dive deep, to be connected and insightful and use deep insights to drive meaningful innovation. Connecting with, and understanding, communities and subcultures is essential to being relevant. You must get out and connect; not just observe, but participate.
CARLO ANTONELLI — Like your grandmother taught you, but instead of flowers you study street.
MARK PARKER — Street life, art, music, everything.
CARLO ANTONELLI — How can you describe the corporate cultural environment and connect with it?
MARK PARKER — As I said, it’s important to be connected. You can’t just read magazines or watch TV. You have to go outside to really get inside. We all spend alot of time trying to understand reality and from our insights create something important. It’s important for an organization to promote and nurture this openness. It’s hard to be relevant when you’re a large, one-dimensional organization. Many large companies are structured in a very Newtonion way, hierarcachal and rigid. That’s not how the world or nature is. The power or energy of an organization is created through the relationships of individuals in a way that relates more to the chaos theory of physics. In other words, it has less to do with the logical organizational chart and more to do with the individuals in the organization and how well they relate to or connect with each other. That’s where the energy and magic happens.
CARLO ANTONELLI — You have an enormous toy collection as well.
MARK PARKER — Tin toys from the past 75 years. I started many years ago and the collection has grown quite a bit. I like the visual repetition of form, especially different interpretations of the same form.
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