Tinker Hatfield: Architect turned Shoe Designer

Most people wouldn’t consider shoes to be anything more than protection for their feet. In the past few years, we have seen the rise of the sneakerhead movement.  These “sneakerheads” will line up outside of a Foot Locker or boutique store for days or even weeks just for the chance to buy a limited edition pair of sneakers. Lately, there has been a heavy interest in “retro” basketball shoes – shoe connoisseurs place a high value on old school Nikes and the especially the Michael Jordan’s signature line. These shoes were praised for their revolutionary aesthetics and cutting edge technology. Now, they can be seen on the feet of rappers such as Kanye West and A$AP Rocky.  Nike has earned their place as a leader in athletic shoe thanks to the help of Tinker Hatfield – the brain behind Nike’s Innovation Kitchen and Vice President for Design and Special Projects.

Tinker Hatfield was born in Hillsboro, Oregon on April 30, 1952. Growing up, Tinker was an all-American athlete, playing basketball, football and competing in track & field events. He attended the University of Oregon on a sports scholarship to continue his track & field career while studying architecture. In 1976, he suffered a career ending injury which inspired him to focus on his academics. Shortly after graduating, he obtained his architecture’s license, but did not know what to do with it. Luckily for him, his track & field coach, Bill Bowerman was a co-founder of Nike and recruited him to design storefronts, office spaces and buildings in 1981. Tinker knew it was not the end of the line for him just yet, rather his position at Nike was just a way to get his foot in the door. By 1985, he started to design athletic sneakers.

Tinker saw a parallel with architecture and sneaker design. His approach to sneaker design required working with the athlete to maximize usability. Tinker found inspiration everywhere he traveled – from the badlands of Utah, to buildings in Paris, to cars and even fighter planes.
In 1987, Tinker unleashed his first designs for public consumption. The Air Max 1, a shoe created specifically for runners, was the first to incorporate a visible air unit.


Tinker and his first design, the Air Max 1

Tinker was inspired by the Centre Pompidou in Paris – a building that houses an enormous public library as well as a museum. He praised the building for its exposed guts – from the outside, one could see the inner workings of the Centre Pompidou such as escalators and even the ventilation and air conditioning systems.

centre pomidou

The Centre Pompidou in Paris, France

That same year, Tinker observed gym rats often carried two pairs of shoes while working out. One lightweight pair of sneakers for running and another more stable pair for lifting. He answered by designing the Air Trainer 1, the first cross-training shoe to simplify the workout experience.

The following year, Tinker collaborated with his Airness, Michael Jordan to develop one of the most iconic basketball shoes ever, the Air Jordan III. Carrying over from the Air Max 1, the shoe incorporated a visible air unit, the first of its kind on a basketball shoe. Michael also requested for an animal print, and so Tinker used a grey print which mimicked the look of elephant skin.  Tinker also wanted to add an element of luxury and used high quality leathers for the uppers of the sneaker to add durability. The Air Jordan III was also the first shoe to use the trademark Jumpman logo (which contrary to popular thought, is actually inspired the silhouette of a ballerina). This shoe solidified Tinker’s position as the lead designer for Jordan’s signature line of sneakers.

Tinker’s drafts for the Air Jordan III

Here is the Air Jordan III as worn by Michael in the 1988 All Star Game.

His follow-up designs would continue to reinvent the way consumers looked at basketball shoes. He elevated sneaker design into works of art through incorporating various elements to make each Air Jordan stand out on its own.

The Air Jordan V

For example, the Air Jordan V (above) drew inspiration from World War II fighter planes. Tinker used “teeth” on the midsole to give the AJ V an aggressive look, drawing parallels between Jordan’s playing style and the way fighter planes attacked on the battlefield. The shoe also used a reflective material on the tongue to make the shoes pop for camera flashes as Jordan drove to the basket.


Although a designer by trade, Tinker Hatfield also thought of himself as a story teller. This is evident in his concept for the Air Jordan X, which was designed when Michael first retired. The outsole of the shoe listed Jordan’s NBA accomplishments such Rookie of the Year, Dunk Contest Champion, MVPs and championships.

Air Jordan X


Tinker’s sketches for the Air Jordan XI

His next project, the Air Jordan XI is arguably the most distinctive basketball sneaker of all time. By the time he finished sketches for the shoe, Michael decided he was ready for a comeback. Tinker wanted a shoe that would look good both on and off the court.  To give the shoe a classy look, Tinker used patent leather on the upper (the same kind of shiny leather you’d see on formal wear). He also used a translucent sole coupled with a carbon fiber shank to give added support to the arch of the foot. The shoe also found mainstream popularity after being featured in Space Jam, where Jordan played himself along with other NBA stars like Charles Barkley and opposite Looney Tune characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

This colorway of the Air Jordan XI was created specifically for the movie and features the patent leather and translucent soles.

The AJ XI was not the only shoe that found its way into a major motion picture. In 1989, Tinker came up the Nike Mag, a self-lacing high top shoe worn by Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly for Back to the Future II. In the movie, Marty travels to the year 2015 and dons the shoes, while he riding a hoverboard to run away from the bad guys. Although it has yet to be made for mass consumption, Nike did produce the Mag (sans self-lacing) in extremely limited numbers in 2011. Although it lacked the self-lacing features of the movie prop, the shoe did feature a clear outsole with electroluminescent lights. The shoes were only available through an eBay auction, in which the proceeds were donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research. The bidding started at $10,000 and reached up to $90,000.

The Nike Mag as seen in Back to the Future II

The Nike Mag as produced in 2011.

In an interview with SneakerNews, he said, “Don’t just draw shoes. Learn the intricacies of other design disciplines like architecture, car design, toy design, environmental engineering, whatever. I’ve not seen truly ‘unique’ new sneaker work from anybody who just knows shoes.”

Tinker’s design philosophy and creations have elevated sneaker design into high art. The “OG” Jordans can run upwards of hundreds of dollars even for a worn pair. Nike as we know it today could not have existed without the innovation that Tinker brought to the table. Now all eyes are on Nike, as they have one year left before (fingers crossed) they begin production on the Nike Mag with Power Laces!

5 thoughts on “Tinker Hatfield: Architect turned Shoe Designer”

  1. Jeff Olympia says:

    I love this article! I am a huge fan of Tinker and Jordan. I am a collector of autographed sneakers and two of my favorites in my collections are a pair of 2001 Air Jordan 3 black cements signed by Michael Jordan the same ones he is wearing in your article. The second is a pair of 2010 Air Jordan 3 white cement’s autographed by Tinker Hatfield. If you want to feature them as a follow up let me know. I can send you pics.


    1. Cooper Carrasco says:

      Awesome! Thanks for your feedback. I’ll let you know if we do a follow up, that would be great.

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