Apple has lured away top Nike design director Ben Shaffer, according to a source at Nike with knowledge of the details behind Shaffer’s departure. At Nike, Shaffer was the Studio Director of the Innovation Kitchen. This is Nike’s research and development lab where new product designs are created. Under Shaffer’s lead, Nike was named the most innovative company in 2013 by Fast Company. Nike’s Innovation Kitchen has been connected to wearable products like the popular Nike Fuel Band, and most recently, the Flyknit shoe.
With Apple’s continued development of its own wearable watch-like device, Shaffer’s experience in working on the wearables with Nike will be critical. The Nike Fuel Band is a popular product amongst Apple executives, including Apple CEO (and Nike Board member) Tim Cook and former Hardware lead Bob Mansfield. Based on Apple’s experience and usage of the Fuel Band product, it seems like that Apple’s own wearable computer will have similar fitness-tracking abilities. Furthermore, we recently reported that Apple hired the top fitness-expert (and Nike consultant) for the Fuel Band, Jay Blahnik...
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Shaffer’s development process for the Flyknit shoe may even serve as a stronger indicator about how the design executive would fit right into Apple’s culture. When Jony Ive and his design team were designing Apple’s new unibody aluminum process for MacBooks (and now iMacs, iPads, and iPhones), the company realized that it needed an entirely new manufacturing process in order to create its now incredibly thin and light devices. Shaffer’s goal with the Flyknit was the create a shoe that feels much lighter on the foot, but one that is still created out of strong materials.
In an interview, Shaffer explains that Flyknit was not only about the final product, but about the processes behind the design of the product:
What makes Flyknit so truly disruptive is that it isn’t a shoe–it’s a way to make shoes. As the team members who spent four years developing the technology like to say, they’re “breaking the sewing machine.” The old Nike model involved cutting rolls of prewoven material into pieces, and then stitching and assembling them. But with Flyknit, a shoe’s upper and tongue can be knit from polyester yarns and cables, which “gets rid of all the unnecessary excesses,” says Ben Shaffer, studio director at the Innovation Kitchen, Nike’s R&D center. The Flyknit Racer, one of the first shoes in the Flyknit line, is 5.6 ounces, roughly an ounce lighter than its counterparts. Nike uses only as much thread as it needs in production, and the shoe can be micro-engineered–tightened here, stretched there–to improve durability and fit.
As Apple designers have previously explained, the company goes through hundreds of prototypes and design considerations before landing on a final product. Apple’s devices also are in design development for a number of years. Based on Shaffer’s anecdotes about his design process, it seems that he understands design on the level of Apple’s own industrial design group:
Shaffer shows me some of the 195 major iterations the Flyknit went through as we tour the Kitchen. Some appear as rudimentary as a ballerina’s slipper. The prototype that marathon runner Paula Radcliffe marked with scribbles now looks like a rejected Project Runway design. Nike’s ambitions for Flyknit can be seen in the trays full of feet that live in tall carts around the Kitchen. The disembodied wooden lumps–most generically sized and others made by scanning some of the actual feet of the thousands of professional athletes that the company sponsors–are all waiting to be fitted, like Cinderella, with the perfect prototype shoe.
Shaffer has also explained his design process in the above video. In terms of fitting into Apple’s culture, an interview with in 2013 explains his collaboration efforts with other designers:
For the past five years, Ben Shaffer has been a part of Nike’s famed Innovation Kitchen where they are encouraged to think, experiment, research, build, and question things with one ultimate goal–to help their athletes achieve their goals. As the lead designer on the Nike Flyknit Trainer+, Shaffer worked closely with Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield, and Mark Parker to produce this latest sneaker. We had a chance to speak one-on-one with Shaffer in an effort to gain a better understanding of this amazing new technology.
This would certainly match-up with Apple’s new design and engineering collaboration processes, most recently publicized in interviews with Apple design chief Jony Ive and software lead Craig Federighi.
In the video above, Shaffer explains his specific role in Nike’s design labs. With Shaffer’s design experience and high-level role at Nike, sources say his position at Apple will be in Jony Ive’s small design group. Perhaps making Shaffer feel right at home, Apple designer Christopher Stringer explained in 2012 that Apple’s design team literally sits around a ‘kitchen’ table to discuss ideas.
Additionally, it seems highly plausible, based on his specific experience in shoes and wearable gadgets, that Shaffer will be working on upcoming wearable products for Apple. Of course, Apple is working on a watch, but it seems possible that the could be working on wearables beyond those for the wrist. Former Apple executive Tony Fadell recently revealed that Apple even toyed around with wearables akin to Google Glass.
We’ve reached out to both Apple and Nike for comment. Image credit
Update: Nike has confirmed to me that Shaffer is no longer at the company.