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Flexible Innovation: A Conversation with Mark Miner of Nike Running

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Produced by: Dan Hwang

We showed you the Nike Free 2012 exhibition recap from a few days ago, where Senior Footwear Designer Mark Miner was on hand to disseminate the virtues of the new Free running models. We had the rare opportunity to get a one-on-one interview with the man whose reputation as a top-notch craftsman is rising in the industry. In our time together, Mark fielded questions specific to the new design features of the Free 2012, the countless hours of research that go into each groove on the sole, and even a bit of advice for an aspiring footwear designer. It's not often that designers discuss their methods, as the competition in the industry is well-documented, so click through to learn about the man who is responsible for rolling out one of Nike's most technologically-advanced models to date.

Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

I'm Mark Miner, Senior Footwear Designer for Nike Running. I have always had a passion for footwear for many years and having the opportunity to come in and design is incredible.

We know that Nike has a rich history developing shoes for runners. From the Cortez and the Waffle's origins, Nike running is where it all began. Tell our readers what kind of athlete feedback prompted the Free design?

We are always testing, from the collegiate level, the Olympic level, and even the requirements of an average runner. We want to get our shoes on the feet of as many runners as possible. From the design side, we also have a research lab—the NSRL (NIKE SPORT RESEARCH LAB) research kitchen, where we are innovating. With Free, we have to have pass the tests and protocols necessary for it to carry the Free name. That's what makes having these resources, like the kitchen or the lab, so great. We can use them to validate the design.

You've had experience designing 2011 models that honed in on fitness and exercise. How did you conceptualize the necessary flexibility needed for those models and how did they inform your design of the 2012 models?

You hit it with flexibility. A lot of times, we see flexibility by marking different versions and seeing different patterns of the shoe to see if it does what we think it will do. For us, it was trial and error and trying to prefect what we designed with those flex grooves. We need to just get the model out and try it out, and through testing, we get the right grooves.

Explain the arch siping feature on the 2012 models.

Trans-tarsal flex grooves are on this model, and for us, we want a range. For the Free Run, we wanted more structure and support, so with the enhanced barefoot experience of the 3.0, there are many more sipes. When we deal with shoes, we consider the entire foo—the whole transition from heel to forefoot. That's why these new grooves had to work with all the others on the sole.

Many of us have heard for years that running barefoot is the healthiest option for long distance runners. How has the concept of the Free 3.0 advanced closer towards that experience of uninhibited motion?

We try allow the body to do what it naturally wants to do on its own. All of our Frees try to deliver that experience, from how we construct the upper to how we build the bottom. So we offer the 3.0, the 4.0, and the 5.0 to have that spectrum for people who want to enjoy all the levels of the Frees. For someone who really wants to experience the Free, he can try the 3.0, or someone who is just getting into the Free models, he can go to the 5.0. This will be the first time we will have the whole range on the market.

What's new as far as the construction of the upper?

The first thing we are starting with is how to use the upper as minimally as possible. The fewer things on the foot will allow the foot to move better. It's about engineering the material on the foot based upon the foot and the body's needs. We got this thin material, almost like a second skin, which stretches and allows motion with how we move in different places for each model, like on the heel and forefoot on the Free Run. Also, on the Free Run, we introduced the dynamic fit, which you've seen on the Glide and the Eclipse. What we've done here on the Free Run is fine tune it with a thinner package and more stretch to move with you.

You have worked for a few other footwear companies before you arrived at Nike. What are some important lessons you've picked up along that way that have prepared you for current position?

I used to play a lot of basketball. I learned a lot about my attitude through playing sports. One of those things is hustle beats talent, and talent isn't the same as hustle. What that means to me is that you can have all the talent in the world, but if you're not working hard and striving, you're going to lose. If you're working for a company or if you have ideas, don't take for granted your skills. Always be on the grind and I think you can do really well.

What is your dream project for Nike?

With Nike, there's so much opportunity. So, as a person with a creative mind, I have to wonder how to put out more ideas and have an impact on people. Seeing people's reactions to how an artist can make a shoe gets me excited to work with other creative minds.