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Nike Air Max - A Historical Perspective

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[column width="48%" padding="4%"]“What Nike stands for is a revolution in footwear” - Dr. Thomas Paine

During the mid 1980’s, fitness, jogging, working out and social athletics were becoming a staple of American life. Early Generation Xers were beginning to buy into consumerism, and the sporting goods market grew at an incredibly fast rate: from 1981 to 1985 the American market grew more than 70% to over $2B. In tandem with this athletically galvanized movement, the athletic footwear, apparel and sporting goods industries were converging to create a whole new industry. Each of the three industries had well-established veteran players, which when combined with the explosive growth, created a competitive environment that derived characteristics from both the Wild West and Wall Street. In many ways it was a powder keg with each company scrambling to light the fuse with their own brand of fire. Companies found themselves having to rapidly shift from establishing and legitimizing a market to battling amongst one another for market share as the various niche markets’ early adopters blossomed into the early majority.

The considerable forces generated by running require that the sole of a running shoe provide enhanced protection and shock absorption for the foot and leg. - Patent US 4817304 A

In the running market, established companies like, Adidas, Asics, Hyde Athletic Industries, New Balance, Nike, Puma and Reebok duked it out for their share of the pie, while simultaneously battling against upstarts that were fast discovering how cheap and easy it was to manufacture products overseas. Competing principally on price and technology, companies consistently played a one-upmanship game, leading to a plethora of new technologies that still exist today. There is one innovative technological breakthrough in particular however that has emerged as the unquestioned champion of the 1980s and beyond: Nike Air Max.


[column width="48%"]In the late 1970s, Nike was approached by M. Frank Rudy, an aeronautical engineer who, ironically, was more focused on bringing air to earth than objects of the earth into the air. Rudy had invented and patented a new shoe sole technology that utilized pockets of air to create an enhanced cushion. He wanted to license it out to a sneaker manufacturer, but prior to approaching Nike, several companies had already turned him down. This time however, Rudy brought along a pair of custom running shoes that he had specially fitted with his new technology. He presented them to Phil Knight, and soon Nike and Rudy struck a deal. Nike Air technology made its debut in 1978 in the sole of the Nike Tailwind running shoe. While the Tailwind met with success, the innovation of running on air was somewhat lost on the consumers.

The inner and outer members function together to form a viscoelastic unit for attenuating the shock and returning the energy of foot impact - Patent US 4817304 A

Frank Rudy’s Air technology was undoubtedly revolutionary, but the true nature of his invention was a virtual unknown to those who used it every day, as the Air unit was hidden inside the midsole. The gap between Air’s technological innovation and the consumers understanding weighed heavily on the Nike Running developers and designers in the mid 1980s, especially David Forland, Mark Parker and Tinker Hatfield. Hatfield, then a relatively new designer at Nike (he spent his first four and half years working as a corporate architect for the Swoosh), later put it plainly saying, “most people didn’t understand what Air was”. In a market where the innovation of your product was only as good as your consumers understanding of it, this discrepancy was a major issue. Thanks to a giant discovery by Forland, Hatfield’s love of innovative architecture and a trip to Paris, the world would soon discover just how revolutionary Air could be.[/column]

Produced by: Dan Hwang

[column width="48%" padding="4%"]VISIBLE AIR

The Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris stands apart from the surrounding buildings in a way that would make Howard Roark himself beam with pride. A high-tech/postmodern colossus that highlights function over form, the Pompidou Centre rises above its neighboring Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical elders, and has ignited controversy since it was first opened in 1977. With bold and incontrovertibly delineated colors as well as a translucent outer that allows the public to see the inhabitants and inner workings at all times, the Pompidou towers in crystal clear defiance against the traditional palates of French architectural taste.

The absence of foam within the gap reduces the weight of the midsole, improves flexibility, and enhances the diffusion pumping process when the membrane/gas combination disclosed in the Rudy patents is used. - Patent US 4817304 A

During the 1980s, Hatfield and the employees of Nike traveled the world, including a visit to Paris, in a constant search for inspiration, ideas and ultimately innovation. While in Paris, he made it a point to visit the Pompidou Centre, later remarking on how it “spill(ed) its guts out into the world…you could see everything…it really changed the way people looked at buildings”. Rather than call attention to the beautiful, yet functionally insignificant structural details, the Pompidou highlighted and exposed the rarely featured, yet most critical features such as the stairs and walkways.[/column][column width="48%"]The invention relates to footwear wherein a viscoelastic unit is provided in the sole member. The viscoelastic unit is comprised of a resilient gas inflated insert encapsulated within a shock absorbing foam material. The impact response characteristics of the unit are adjusted by placing one or more gaps in the foam material at predetermined locations adjacent the side of the insert. - Patent US 4817304 A

As Hatfield designed the Air Max running shoe (the original Air Max series was bundled as a trio with the AM1, Air Trainer High and Air Safari), the design elements that made the Pompidou so revolutionary, its see through walkways and bold, clearly demarcated colors, as well as emphasis on functional properties, helped to serve as his inspirations for a shoe that he wanted to, “push…as far as I could possibly push it without being fired”. The chief reason he was able to push the envelope in this manner was a discovery by Dave Forland earlier in the decade. Forland rotated the seams of the Air bag from the sides to the top and bottom, allowing for the airbag to be visible without potentially popping.[/column]

[column width="48%" padding="4%"]While we now know that Hatfield’s original design was something akin to the Air max Zero, the ultimate result back in 1987 was the Air Max 1: a streamlined, boldly assertive sneaker with the curtains drawn back on its crystal clear heart of innovation. As far as technological innovation went, the visible air unit was nothing more than an incremental innovation (albeit a large one) on the nearly decade-old Air technology. What Forland, Parker, Hatfield and the rest of Nike did that made the Air Max so revolutionary was present this innovation in a forward, sleek, unapologetically beautiful package that truly resonated with people everywhere.

Athletic shoes today are as varied in design and purpose as are the rules for the sports in which the shoes are worn - Patent US 4817304 A

Despite their initial reticence to market a shoe that had a hole in the side of it, the marketing folks at Nike took the Air Max 1 and translated its most obvious feature into the language of the everyday athlete. One ad featured a close-up of the AM1s, with the bright red parts of the shoe barely distinguishable from the rest. The visible air bubble is brilliantly lit up, with light bursting through it. Underneath a caption reads, “NIKE AIR IS NOT A SHOE”.   Another sported nearly two full pages of studies and writing explaining why the AM1 was, “A REVOLUTION THAT WORKS.” The ads effectively conveyed a message that was open, honest and unafraid. In advertising, when the message conveyed matches the visual of the actual product, fireworks are often the result.[/column]

[column width="48%"]When Nike Air was first put into the Tailwind, the only people that truly understood it were those that worked for Nike. Over the next eight years, the air capsule itself got smaller due to a shift in focus away from innovation and towards leaning up the manufacturing process. The Air Max 1 marked a shift not only in the design and technology of shoes, but also and more importantly, a shift in Nike’s approach to product development. It was a clear statement that their products to come would be driven far more by the external (i.e. the consumer) as opposed to internal (i.e. manufacturing) forces.

As the Air Max series continued to evolve over the years, David Forland summed up the one constant throughout saying, “each version held a greater volume of air than the last one, and conversely the least amount of foam. Foam breaks down; air doesn’t”. Moving from 180? to 270? to a full 360? air bubble, Nike consistently accompanied their Air expansions with an equally provocative and relevant design story.  The greatest testament to the success of the Air Max series however is that 28 years later nearly every single model continues to sell and resonate with people everywhere, as much for their beautifully functional aesthetics as their windows into the sole.[/column]