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Emotion By Design
Creative Leadership Lessons from a Life at Nike
By Greg Hoffman
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In EMOTION BY DESIGN, Hoffman shares lessons and stories on the power of creativity drawn from almost three decades of experience within Nike. A celebration of ingenuity and a call-to-arms for brand-builders to rediscover the human element in forming consumer bonds, EMOTION BY DESIGN is an insider’s guide to unlocking inspiration within a brand and building stronger emotional connections with consumers, using Hoffman’s three favorite guiding principles:
- Creativity is a Team Sport
- Dare to be Remembered
- Leave a Legacy, Not Just a Memory
With fascinating stories about Nike’s most famous campaigns, EMOTION BY DESIGN shares Hoffman’s philosophy and principles on how to create an empowering brand that resonates deeply with people by unlocking the creativity within your organization and unleashing it out into the world.
MY JOURNEY INTO THE ARENA
My friend saw that I was struggling and handed me a glass of water. It was true my mouth was dry, but that was nothing compared to my nerves. The extrovert who loves sports, competition, and hip-hop just wasn’t showing up that day; today, it was the introvert artist. The art, my art, wasn’t the problem. The problem was telling the story of my art—more accurate, my designs—to the audience in front of me. The dozen or so sets of eyes that belonged to my professors, my classmates, and other designers whose work and craft I respected and which had guided and informed my own, were turned on me, waiting to be impressed, to be amazed, to decide if I was truly one of them. One set of eyes in particular I felt boring into me, judging and weighing whether I had what it takes to enter this elite world of design. On the line was nothing less than the dream I had four years earlier, when I entered the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
I was in the middle of presenting my senior thesis, an exploration between the visual arts and the liberal arts through the medium of design: a story of the contrasts and parallels between those worlds as told through my imagery. This was highbrow stuff, a journey in design meant to be taken in by the creative community. But if the journey is to be taken, then it must first be accepted as worthwhile, as meeting the highest standards, not by following the rules, but by pushing beyond everything that had come before. And the set of eyes I most needed to take this journey with me belonged to Laurie Haycock Makela, head of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which is one of the most respected and most visited contemporary art museums in the world.
A month or so earlier, I had applied for one of the highly coveted Walker internships in the design department. Despite my heightened anxiety the day of my senior thesis presentation, I didn’t lack confidence in my talent. I knew I was tracking toward being one of the top designers in my class, and so I wasn’t surprised when Laurie called to let me know I was one of the finalists for the spot. She also suggested that I invite her to my presentation. Of course when the head of the Walker “suggests” you do something, it’s not really a suggestion at all. My senior thesis wasn’t only a presentation of the talent I had honed while at MCAD; it was now an interview.
Joining the Walker, even as an intern, would have been the culmination of many dreams and efforts since I was a child. Born of a Black father and white mother, I was adopted by my white parents and grew up in a nearly all-white suburb of Minneapolis called Minnetonka. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the land, and feeling more than a little like an outsider with my mixed heritage, I turned inward and mined my imagination. By the time I was five, I was accustomed to hearing from my parents and teachers: “You are a great artist!” My parents invested in summer drawing classes—having the middle school art teacher over to the house for dinner—new drawing and drafting tables, and even creating a drawing wall in the small bedroom I shared with my two brothers. The wall became the mural of my imagination.
In grade school, I began to experience a lot of direct racism. I wasn’t equipped to deal with it, as I didn’t have anyone to learn from and look to who had similar experiences—so I turned to my art. Drawing allowed me to put my daydreams on paper and escape from reality. By the time I reached high school, I was immersed in different dimensions of the art and design world, which weren’t exactly normal interests for a Black kid in the early 1980s. But I found comfort in this passion, which allowed me to make sense of the world by reimagining what was possible. I also found my identity (though not all of it) in this confluence of art and design and I wanted more.
These were lofty ambitions for a kid from Minnesota, even if I had access to one of the best institutions for my talents in the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. During orientation, I heard a not-uncommon statement by one of our advisors: “Look around,” he said, indicating my fellow freshmen. “Only ten percent of you will be practicing design as a career.” He was right, of course, but I heard those words as a challenge. This elite world of design was my calling, and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to join its ranks. Ten percent was still stiff competition, and I was determined to outwork and outhustle them. By the end of my time at MCAD, I could say I did both, and my eyes were now set on the future, specifically the Walker, which offered one of the most coveted yearlong internships for young designers. The Walker Art Center was the embodiment of what I adored: cutting-edge design that broke boundaries and pushed the definition of what was possible. Tasked with visually communicating the latest art exhibitions, Walker designers got as much latitude for self-expression as the artists themselves. It’s the kind of design that doesn’t really exist anymore in today’s digitally driven world. Back then, designers at the Walker made trends, just as much as the artists whose work was housed within its walls. To showcase that art, through posters, catalogs, and exhibitions, required a level of design that was as equally revolutionary. To enter that world was to be on the verge of entering the elite arena of design.
Now, all that stood between me and the attainment of my dream was a senior thesis that brought in such esoteric thinkers as Carl Jung and Laurie Haycock Makela. I gulped the glass of water given to me by my concerned friend and forged ahead…
“I think you should do it,” my friend told me. It was the spring of my senior year at MCAD, a month or so before I was set to present my senior thesis, and “it” referred to a minority internship program being offered by Nike. “I’m going to go for it, and you should, too,” he said.
“No, man, that’s your thing,” I replied. I wasn’t just being nice either. My friend was what today we would call a “sneaker head,” the type of person who dreams about sneakers and designs shoes in his notebook in his spare time. While my mind was focused on bringing esoteric psychology into my design work, he loved thinking up cool new shoe designs. We were both at MCAD but were obviously on different tracks. Nike most certainly was his thing; mine was the Walker, which I had already applied to.
But it wasn’t like his suggestion to apply to Nike came out of nowhere. Since I was a child, I had loved sports and competition. As a kid, I didn’t turn only to art to find my identity, I also drew inspiration from the performances and personalities of Black athletes of the ’70s and ’80s. Immersing myself in sport became a daily ritual. Collecting football and baseball cards was beyond an obsession. I had a large paper route so I could make some spending money, but more important, I could pore over the sports section and memorize the Major League baseball batting averages and home run leaders, who back then were dominated by African-American ballplayers.
The culture these athletes helped create—which was really a reflection of the urban Black culture that I had very little experience with—had started to infiltrate the mass market. The days of Bill Russell and Converse All-Stars were slowly but surely giving way to Michael Jordan and Nike. I mention Nike specifically because much of how I consumed these new superstars was through the medium of marketing. Away from the court or field, athletes were swiftly becoming aspirational icons of cool—and the marketing images and ads had become generators of the same exhilaration and emulation that one would get watching these athletes perform. I was taken in by these artistic displays, not realizing at the time that the emotions they gave me were the emotions they had been designed to give me. It was design on a wholly different level from what I would learn when I entered college.
Now, let’s turn the clock to 1992. Everywhere you looked, you saw it—that unmistakable rebellious Nike spirit. You could pop on the television, and there would be tennis star Andre Agassi, clad in neon green apparel, smashing the ball while the Red Hot Chili Peppers played in Nike’s Rock ’n’ Roll Tennis commercial. Turn the channel again, and you’d hear the lyrics “and we all shine on” from John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” serving as the anthem for Nike’s latest Just Do It commercial.
That spring of 1992, Nike was on fire. It was the twentieth anniversary of the company, and with ambassadors of the brand like Jordan, Charles Barkley, Jerry Rice, and Ken Griffey Jr., Nike was everywhere, as was its iconic trademark, the Swoosh. With more than $3 billion in annual revenue, Nike might no longer have been a small Oregon upstart; however, its rebellious attitude and revolutionary spirit were still intact and spreading rapidly across the world. To own a pair of Nikes wasn’t just the height of cool; it said something about how you looked at sport and life: You played to win, but you did it with style.
Time and again, Nike was at the intersection of sports and culture. They weren’t just responding to it, they were creating and leading it. As Jordan was in hot pursuit of his second NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls, Nike released the coveted Air Jordan VII sneaker and the commercial hit of the Super Bowl, “Hare Jordan.” In the ad, Michael teamed up with Bugs Bunny to defeat a team of bullies on the basketball court. On top of that, the brand opened its second Niketown retail store in Jordan’s backyard of Chicago. They had revolutionized sneakers, and now the Niketown concept was redefining the shopping experience.
Nike’s innovation was fueling its dominance across basketball, running, tennis, and cross-training. The launch of the all-new Air Huarache line of footwear was in full bloom. Flipping through any magazine at the time, you would undoubtedly come across its ad that asked in big, bold type, “Have You Hugged Your Foot Today?”—a promise about how comfortable this innovation was on your feet. Turn a few more pages, and you would see another ad showcasing Nike’s new outdoor sports line called All Conditions Gear, led by the Air Deschutz sport sandal, with its tagline, “Air Cushioning Meets Air Conditioning.” Nike’s voice was as innovative as the products themselves.
Like every other competitive, sports-loving kid of the era, I was fully immersed in this new culture created by Nike, without entirely realizing why. What’s odd is that I never really saw what Nike did with its marketing—it’s mastery of images and emotions—as design. Design was what I did; it was what I was in school for, it was what I would go to the Walker to do. In other words, design was more than some commercial selling shoes. And then that spring my world turned upside down: In the 1980s and 1990s, Print magazine was the number one graphic design publication in the country, and of course I eagerly awaited each new issue. Its Spring 1992 issue had a story on the Nike Image Design team, with a picture showing the team waist-deep in the man-made lake that was at the center of the new Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The man in the center of the photo, flanked by twenty other designers, was Ron Dumas, head of the Image Design team and creator of the Jordan “Wings” poster—which showed a life-size Jordan in his Bulls uniform with outstretched arms, one hand palming a basketball, above a quote from William Blake: “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.”
I knew the poster well, since I had it in my college apartment. In that moment, after reading the article, I suddenly realized something that I’m almost embarrassed to admit to today: There were designers behind these images and ads that had had (and continued to have) such a profound effect on me. It sounds absurd for the designer I was then, but I had never given much thought to the people behind Nike’s marketing. Now, here they were, staring me in the face, waist-deep in water. The feeling I had in that moment was a bit, I imagine, like an astronomer discovering a new planet in space: It’s been there the whole time, but you’re only now seeing it.
Now, my friend has told me there’s an opportunity to work in this mysterious world that I just now knew existed. I went home and sat in my sparsely appointed college apartment, staring at the Jordan “Wings” poster on my wall, Michael staring back, with the Blake quote calling to me. Michael’s intense gaze, coupled with this quote about striving for greatness, convinced me: I would apply for the internship.
In early April, I learned that my senior thesis presentation had gone over well with those who mattered most, especially with Laurie. Soon after, I heard that I had been accepted to the Walker Art Center internship, which would start on September 1. The Nike internship was over the summer, which meant I could do both—if I was accepted to both. But despite my excitement for the Nike opportunity, my vision and dreams remained with the world of the Walker. It represented the pinnacle of everything I had learned and honed while at MCAD, whereas Nike seemed to me like a fun way to spend the summer.
Then I get the call from Nike, offering me the spot. As it happened, my classmate, the sneaker head who had also applied for the internship, was in the room at the time Nike called. He was happy for me, even if I could feel his disappointment. The call came from Chris Aveni, then one of the heads of the Nike Image Design team. It was a quick, almost curt call: The internship began in the first week in June, where there would be a day and a half of orientation. If I couldn’t make the start date, which was a week after my graduation, then the internship would go to someone else. There was no question that I would accept the offer then and there.
Looking at my friend, and overcoming the guilt I felt, I said I could make it. How, I didn’t know. After graduation I was broke and had no way of getting to Oregon. Thankfully, my parents decided to loan me their Ford Econoline van, the kind with the fold-out bed, poker tables, blinds in the windows, and airbrushed color gradients on the sides. I wasn’t about to complain about these garish design features and the bumper stickers, even if it went against what I stood for as an aspiring designer. For a family of seven on a teacher’s salary, loaning me the van for the summer was a huge sacrifice for my parents.
I drove the van twenty-seven hours across the country from Minneapolis, over the Badlands of South Dakota, between the Rocky Mountains, and onto Highway 84 through the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge. I finally arrived in Beaverton, and drove straight to the Nike office parking lot. All I knew about Oregon was this address. The problem was that this was a Thursday; the internship didn’t start until the following Monday, and I didn’t know another soul in the area. So I slept in the van in the parking lot for the next three nights while looking for an apartment that wouldn’t charge me first month’s rent up front, because I had only $300 to my name and a maxed-out credit card.
The days allowed me to get a good look at my new workplace, my brand-new workplace. The new Nike campus had been a work in progress for more than a year, with new buildings opening on a rolling schedule. Each building was named after an iconic athlete who’d had an impact on the brand, from Michael Jordan and John McEnroe to Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first women’s Olympic marathon champion. It was a combination of museum, park, and office, all in one. To a sports-obsessed kid like me, it was like my mecca. I was never going to be a professional athlete, but this was pretty darn close. More important, Nike recognized that creating an inspiring, physical work environment would yield greater collaboration, productivity, and innovation. While many companies follow this model today, Nike’s unique insight was that to ignite creativity, it helped to work in creative spaces. It was as if Nike’s ethos was reflected in the architecture and environment, a place where creatives could thrive in a domain dedicated toward inspiring their talents. To feel inspired by your surroundings, and to use that emotion to inform your work, set a new standard in corporate culture. As any pair of Nikes is more than a pair of shoes, so too was the Nike headquarters more than a collection of buildings to house employees. The buildings themselves were part of the story, generating an immersive experience that to my twenty-two-year-old eyes and heart was beyond anything I had imagined.
The beating heart of the campus was the state-of-the-art Bo Jackson Fitness Center. Three years earlier, my emotional connection with the brand had deepened with the launch of the memorable Bo Knows campaign and the introduction of cross-training to the world. This commercial had a profound effect on me. My parents had bought me a sand-filled weight lifting set when I was thirteen, so by the time the campaign came around, I was years into a daily ritual that combined cardio and weights. The Bo Jackson Fitness Center would become my home away from home that summer.
On Monday I joined seventeen other interns of color from across the company for a brand orientation, and I quickly realized I was the only one from out of state. The rest were all local kids, straight from Oregon. The orientation was hosted by Jeff Hollister, the third employee at Nike and a close friend and teammate of Steve Prefontaine, the legendary University of Oregon and Olympic distance runner and the first athlete Nike ever sponsored. Jeff talked about the history of the company in vivid detail, the brand’s values, and the maxims that defined the Nike team culture. We learned what it meant to lead from the front, Prefontaine’s approach to running races. When Jeff translated that to the brand and business world, it meant if you want to be an innovator, you need to defy the conventional tactics, and take the lead from the start and let the competition react. It was only the beginning of what would become a steady stream of leadership principles born from sports and applied to brand building. That day we left with the voice of Pre through his famous quote, “To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”
From the very beginning, Nike was subverting my expectations. True, I would likely receive a slightly less… motivational talk when I joined the Walker in September, but the concepts that Jeff mentioned—and which Pre personified—could have been ripped from the Walker itself: defying convention, pushing boundaries, going beyond what was possible. There was a culture here, I remembered thinking, a culture of excellence.
And what a culture it was. This was the early 1990s, and this was Oregon, the focal point for so many countercultural trends then just picking up speed. On the radio, bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden had introduced a new style of music known as grunge—a kind of rebellion against the glam metal and hair bands of the 1980s (whose power ballads were a constant presence in the halls of my high school). This new wave of music defined a generation with its biting irreverence and sense of irony—which also fairly accurately defined the people and ethos I met in the Image Design office. There was almost a conscious determination in the office to reject the traditional trappings of corporate life: While I came from a world where “business casual” was owned by brands like Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren (a style I most heartily embraced) this office was dominated by shorts and sandals, at times even bare feet and open, half-buttoned shirts. On my first day of work, in a Ralph Lauren button-up, I was told: “We need to teach you how to dress.” Yes, it was a culture all its own—brashness with a wink. Almost the entire design office was homegrown: born and raised in Oregon with a strong affinity for outdoor adventure sports. The department had a formidable intramural softball team called the Short Order Cooks—so named because of the last-minute requests that always ended up on the design team’s desk. Some of the guys in my office even belonged to a band called the Bookhouse Boys.
In tone, if not in spirit, I realized I was very far away from the world of MCAD and the Walker. At twenty-two, I was the youngest member of the Nike Image Design team and the only intern in the design office, and I walked in there absolutely unprepared for what I was about to experience. These were people who took the whole “work-life balance” part of the job seriously. They were great designers but that wasn’t all they were; some were outdoor enthusiasts, most loved music, and they brought all these hobbies, interests, and passions into the office with them, like someone bringing in a picture of their family. I quickly learned that an inordinate amount of time was spent planning and executing practical jokes on others in the office. To pull just one example, some of the guys designed a wall clock for a specific person in the office who left at 5:00 p.m. every day. Literally, every day. So, naturally, the pranksters took an old clock, replaced every numeral with a 5, and hung it in the office, leaving zero uncertainly about whom the clock was intended to lampoon. To be blunt, this wasn’t the world I imagined I would join when I set my heart on a career in design.
These were like the friends you had in high school, not the peers you chose in your profession. Yes, they had passion, but their passion wasn’t only their job—a difference I wasn’t used to. I was quiet, serious, but curious—and eager to make friends. I quickly joined the office softball team because I saw how seriously the other guys took it. But my real breakthrough came when some of the guys in the office asked me to lunch. They had heard about “the van,” and they wanted to take it for a spin. (Man, that van—there are so many reasons I am thankful for it.) The lunch proved to be the moment when I finally was accepted by my new coworkers. I was able to open up and show them who I was, not who I thought I had to be as an intern. I learned that they wanted to meet the real me, the guy behind the designer brands I had admired; they wanted the guy who rolled into Beaverton in his parents’ van; not just the designer, but Greg from Minnetonka. So that was the guy I showed them, and they became my friends.
This was a culture unlike anything I could’ve imagined, but it worked. Ron Dumas, the chief of the Image Design team, had instilled an ethos among his team that basically followed Nike’s slogan: Just do it. If you had an idea, just do it. Some symphonies are highly orchestrated, where the conductor is an omnipresent force, willing the other musicians to follow their cue. But there are also symphonies where the conductor is less present but no less felt. Ron’s influence was palpable, even if he ran a highly decentralized operation. His expectations guided the work ethic of the office, and his team delivered time and again. Only on those rare occasions when the pranks would go too far—and they often did—would Ron step out of his office to wrangle the teenagers.
There was one exception to the laid-back, THC-laced esprit de corps that summer, and his name was John Norman. John made my own anal-retentiveness look almost lazy. This guy obsessed about every single detail in his projects, down to the exact placement of a letter in a headline: “Not a quarter of a millimeter, Greg; one thirty-second of a millimeter!” John also scorned computers, a tool I had been using in my creative endeavors throughout college. But in John I found a kindred spirit, a man who took design as seriously as I did. John in turn saw the same in me, and took me under his wing. I learned through John the importance of exactness, a thing that wasn’t necessarily highly touted in the school of design I had attended. But when you have one second to capture a consumer’s attention, the difference between 1/4 of a millimeter and 1/32 of a millimeter matters.
It proved to be an extraordinary summer for Nike and sports. Early in the season, Agassi won Wimbledon—his first Grand Slam—by defeating Goran Ivanišević. He didn’t just win with superior performance, he did it with a unique style that bucked the stuffy, all-white dress codes, wearing colorful new Air Tech Challenge Huarache tennis shoes and bold apparel to match. Of course, in previous years, Agassi had worn Nike denim shorts on the court.
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were a dominant force, and the Bulls were playing the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals that June. MJ and the Bulls would win, of course, and go on to dominate basketball and the entire sports world for the following decade. Once the NBA Finals were over, it was time for the Tournament of the Americas, and Portland was the host city. This was the first-ever assembled Dream Team of NBA players. Up until that point, the USA team had always been composed of college players. All these superstars in Portland were playing other teams in the Americas as a prelude to the Olympics in Barcelona.
My love of basketball and its superstars was fed all summer, hitting a peak at the Barcelona Summer Olympics, where the Dream Team would go on to win gold. Nike won too, considering they sponsored most of the players on the court. The brand, always with perfect timing, had a commercial ready featuring the Dream Team as dynamic animated characters. These Olympics would be historic for other reasons. This would be the first time South Africa would be competing since 1960 after having the ban lifted for ending apartheid.
We were also witness to what in my opinion was the greatest Just Do It moment in history to that point. Derek Redmond, a sprinter from Great Britain, was running in the 400 meters semifinal heat when he fell to the ground with a torn hamstring. As he got up and began limping, his father came out of the crowd, shoved past security and onto the track, and helped carry Derek across the finish line. Making the moment even more poignant—for Nike, at least—was the fact that Derek’s father was wearing a hat with the Just Do It slogan across the front. At the time, it didn’t feel like marketing, just fate.
Being a member of the team, I shared these moments of fulfillment and pride with everyone else in the office. While I didn’t personally design any of the logos, events, or commercials that had such an effect on that summer of sports, I was able to feel something that I hadn’t as a designer: this sense that our work had meaning, that we were part of the national conversation, not speaking to ourselves, as designers sometimes do, but moving with world events and even shaping them. This wasn’t the sort of “popular” design I had dismissed as a student at MCAD, with my eyes set on the elite world of the Walker; this was different. In the same way that one gets an emotional response to an athlete’s performance, others responded to Nike’s marketing with joy and a sense of purpose. It was visceral.
"The branding lessons in Greg Hoffman’s EMOTION BY DESIGN are invaluable for any business, big or small, and it gives you a blueprint for how Nike has created such strong emotional bonds with its consumers. Essential knowledge here.”
—Daymond John, New York Times bestselling author and co-star of "Shark Tank"
“A brand isn't a logo, it's a story. In this guidebook plus memoir, Greg helps us see how a commitment to our creative practice can make any story better.”
—Seth Godin, author of THE PRACTICE
“EMOTION BY DESIGN is Greg Hoffman's transformative and intensely personal journey building one of the world's most important, groundbreaking brands. It's a must-read if you work with creatives, and if you want to unlock their unique genius to build authentic brands and waves of support across your entire company.”
—Laszlo Bock, author of WORK RULES!
- "Over his long career at Nike, Greg has implemented the art of design, simplicity, and creative collaboration, to connect to Nike’s millions of loyal consumers ... This inspirational approach, brought to life in the book, has been Greg’s legacy, and it’s given Nike a tremendous edge over its global competition.”—Bob Greenberg, Founder and Executive Chairman of R/GA
- "Filled with remarkable stories from Greg Hoffman’s time at Nike, EMOTION BY DESIGN offers a distinctive framework that will help marketers and creatives connect with their audiences like never before. Highly recommended."—Jonah Berger, author of CONTAGIOUS
- On Sale
- Apr 5, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages