Nike FREE 5.0, 2004

NIKE, Inc.

Location: Portland, Oregon
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Over the last several years, there has been considerable attention paid to “smart” design as it relates to integrating electronics into apparel. In the sports arena, it has been especially rampant, with companies designing, for example, motion-control running shoes embedded with microprocessors to analyze foot impact and adjust the cushioning with each stride. But some companies like Nike, embracing a “less is more” attitude, are producing shoes that do not inhibit or restrict the foot’s own movement, thus allowing the foot to function more naturally. The Nike Free 5.0 is a shoe that behaves like you are not wearing a shoe at all.

Nike’s years of testing and observation have shown that as shoes become more protective, feet end up more restricted and, ultimately, weaker. When Nike researchers observed athletes running barefoot, they found that “during propulsion and landing, athletes have more range of motion in the foot and engage more of their toes. Their feet flex, spread, splay, and grip the surface, meaning less pronation and more distribution of pressure.” At the start, Nike used a zero-to-ten scale to analyze prototypes, with zero being barefoot and ten being the most structured and protective shoe it makes. The goal was to achieve a five—hence the 5.0—which offered enough cushioning and protection, but put the foot in control. After eleven prototypes had been fully tested at the Nike Sport Research Lab, including workouts with athletes, the Nike Free was launched in 2004.1

Innovation Kitchen, Nike’s think tank for shoes and other athletic wear, is the heart and soul of the company, and reflects the mission to innovate that has guided the company since it was founded over thirty years ago. The designers and engineers find inspiration in everything from Mexican embroidery and Dutch design to nature. They collect these artifacts and ideas, translate the essentials into their own language, and process them for future application.

Apparel designers of the Advanced Innovation Team at Nike followed a similar approach in creating Nike Sphere React, a line of “electronic-free” smart apparel which responds to changes in the body or environment. The designers of the textiles in Sphere React were inspired by biomimetics—the study of the formation, structure, or function of biologically produced substances, materials, and processes, with the goal of reproducing them artificially— and wanted to “create a personal atmosphere for the wearer,” much like feathers allow a bird to be insulated from variable weather conditions.2 The new materials react to changes in the wearer’s environment, such as reducing cling to help keep athletes dry, promoting increased airflow to keep athletes cool, and making a more breathable garment while protecting the athlete from outside weather. Together with Nike Free 5.0, it makes for one smart athlete.

1 Interview with Tobie Hatfield, Senior Engineer for Advanced Products, Innovation Kitchen, on January 17, 2006.

2 Interview with Jordan Wand, Global Director, Advanced Innovation Team, on January 23, 2006.