The power of compassionate design: A look inside Nike Freestyle

Michael Doherty, Nike’s senior creative director of brand presentation (left) with Nike Freestyle teams at Design Week Portland

Since the first Nike swoosh entered the world in 1972, the sportswear company has written a large book with many chapters.

One of those chapters has been of great benefit to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon. For 14 years, Nike, in association with the hospital, has recruited a select number of patients to help design shoes (and, more recently, apparel) that are auctioned off as a benefit for programs at the hospital.

The program, Nike Freestyle, pairs patients with design teams at Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon to design and build the product in a highly-compressed timeline. Usually, from design to retail, the design process is 18 months. With Freestyle products, that timeline is trimmed to less than a year, with a limited number of shoes and apparel hitting the retail market in November, after an annual gala and auction in Portland.

To date, 82 kids have participated and over $17m has been raised, with 100% of it going to the hospital.

Cracking the fundraising code by design

Speaking to an audience at Design Week Portland in the Ziba Design auditorium, Michael Doherty, Nike’s senior creative director of brand presentation, shared how the program started.

After joining the Doernbecher board of directors, Doherty was tasked with coming up with some fresh ideas on fundraising and family events. After mulling a few predictable options — that wouldn’t necessarily do the trick to raise substantial funds — Doherty’s then 14-year-old son, a rabid shoe collector, suggested that his father could get the brand’s designers involved to come up with designs to sell online.

From there, Doherty took a design colleague to the hospital and, after seeing the possibilities, Doherty recalled he said, “I think we can do this.” Sandy Bodecker, from Nike Skate, provided six platforms for shoes, and the hospital provided six kids. Dan Wieden, founder of longtime Nike agency Wieden+Kennedy, offered up their space for the auction.

In that first year, $120,000 was raised. The following years continued an upward arc in giving and interest. The retail side of Nike got involved, getting product in many Nike retail stores. The crowds in Portland got bigger – much bigger – to the point that it was moved to the more expansive Portland Art Museum. Fast-forward to the last gala and, according to Doherty, $1.2m was raised for the event itself and $1.8m came from retail sales.

“Listen to your kids because they might have a 17 million-dollar idea,” Doherty implied the crowd, to much laughter.

It’s charity, but it’s more about design and a huge team effort

At the Design Week Portland event, two participants in the program, and their design teams, shared their stories with Lee Banks, Nike footwear product director who helps lead the Freestyle program with Doernbecher.

Andy Grass, an 11-year old who was treated at Doernbecher after sustaining life-threatening injuries after a log rolled on him on the beach at the Oregon Coast, was joined by Raleigh Willard, a footwear developer, and Anum Malik, a footwear material designer.

Kira Smith, who participated in the 2013 program as a 17-year old after being treated at the hospital for a debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder — and is now a fashion design student at Drexel University in Philadelphia — shared the stage with Brooke Rapf, a footwear developer and Jen Scholes, a senior footwear color design manager.

The program is intended to raise money for Doernbecher, but the process — the means to the end — is involved, intensive and extremely hands-on. This isn’t just a few sketches with the pros taking over. It’s a highly collaborative process that involves the patient every step of the way, including digging into materials with their teams.

Effectively, the kids who participate are the ‘clients’ and the weight of Nike’s design prowess is put to the test — and the teams collaborate deep and wide within the Nike ecosystem to see the authentic vision through.

Grass, a baseball player and huge basketball fan, took on the palette of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving’s signature Kyrie 2 shoe. Among the considered touches in the design, which was auctioned off for $99,000, was getting Irving’s actual handwriting on the shoe. The challenge was that Irving was deep in the NBA playoffs, traditionally a time when athletes are on communication “blackouts” to focus on the task at hand on the court.

“We wanted to add this personal touch of Kyrie writing some phrases: ‘never give up’, ‘grass strong’, ‘number zero’, which was Andy's [baseball] number. We wanted to use those elements on the shoe that were specific from Kyrie,” said Willard.

Willard connected with Irving’s Nike sports marketing rep and, when Irving’s team learned it was for Grass’s project, they gladly, at halftime of a playoff game, got pen and paper in front of the star, without reservation.

“Everybody is willing to help when it comes to Doernbecher,” said Willard. “If an email has ‘Help Doernbecher project’ in the subject line, people are willing.”

To Grass, the end result made all the difference in the world.

“I knew it was perfect because it had everything I wanted on it — and it just looked really good,” said Grass.

Smith, who participated in the project with her twin sister, took overt and pronounced inspiration from Victorian fashion and Alice in Wonderland.

“Those were the two grounding factors in how I designed my shoe,” said Smith. “I pretty much knew right away what I was going to do with my shoe. I had a lot of sketches, but I was really kind of hard set on this idea I had.”

Peeling back a bit from a complex design, Rapf and Scholes tapped into Smith’s innate design sense and created a playground to create Smith’s unique story.

“We had to start editing, because there was so much,” notes Scholes. “She had a lot of ideas and we had a lot of ideas. [But] it wasn’t about anything else but Kira — that’s the only thing I wanted to keep focused on and that’s what drove and inspired me.”

Getting outside the normal product cycle was a sort of creative oxygen for Rapf and Scholes.

“It was probably the best experience I've ever had at Nike in 15 years,” said Scholes. “I think with this, it all came down to the storytelling. Great stories come from inspiration, and inspiration creates great stories and Kira had one.”

Additionally, dreaming big and getting into the nuance and detail of the narrative playing out on the shoe, which was auctioned off for $14,000 at the 2013 auction, was evident — especially in the form of a metal key attached to the shoe, representing Alice in Wonderland, not the usual accessory for athletic footwear, and a challenge that the team took seriously.

“I was just amazed to see that my idea came to life,” said Smith, who advocates for mental health. “It was the first time, as a designer, I ever got to see something that I had drawn on paper come in to be an actual product, an actual reality. That was so cool to see that.”

Not saying no

Though there is an evolving process with highly-willing participants, each patient chosen and their story is unique. This blank slate creates an element of surprise and challenges. Grass’s and Smith’s shoes are an example of that, but in the past, some participants in the program have requested other brand icons, such as Superman, on their shoes.

“You just don't know what's coming. Because you don't know what the designs are going to require,” said Doherty. “Sometimes, you might need to reach out to the Warner Brothers or the Disneys and ask them for their permission.”

Doherty and Banks don’t see those moments as bumps in the road, but rather just another challenge that is always met.

“We don’t say ‘no’ in this program,” said Doherty.

“It makes me appreciate Nike that much more every time around,” said Banks. “My job every day at Nike is to work with an amazing team of people that create product. That's what I do every day. But then you get to work with the teams that create this product, and it's like a whole other level.”

A huge future, but with restraint

Though the Freestyle program has ample room to expand and grow, the inclination to bring in other brands or a huge number of partners is not necessarily something in the cards. Freestyle is a well-oiled machine and further development of the program sits on the campus of the footwear and apparel giant.

“In reality, we haven't even touched a whole landscape of design and development at Nike yet,” noted Doherty.

Expansion, however, continues in the retail channel, with some of Nike’s specialty retail partners in “sneakerhead" meccas such as California, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC taking on the product line once it’s launched — with 100% of the profits going directly back to Doernbecher.

It remains to be seen where the next step is in the Freestyle journey, with Banks hinting at a fairly substantial announcement coming up in the near future. But for now it’s all about savoring the moment and the unique opportunity design presents for children.

“Not everybody at Nike gets this experience,” said Banks. “So I treasure it. It’s truly special and one of a kind.”

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