Design Theory Interview with Jason Mayden (Jordan Brand)

Just posted up a new “Design Theory” interview I did with Jason Mayden last week. Lots of great stuff in this one. Jason gives advice to aspiring designers looking to break into the industry…


Design Theory with Jason Mayden

In our latest “Design Theory” segment, we talk with Jason Mayden, Senior Footwear Designer at Jordan Brand. Jason tells us how he got hired at Jordan Brand, talks about one of the best selling Nike shoes to date which he designed, gives us a glimpse into his daily work schedule, and finally gives plenty of advice to aspiring designers looking to break into the industry as well.

Project Bluefoot: What led you into footwear design growing up? Talk about your path to becoming a Jordan Brand designer.

Jason Mayden
: I always loved shoes in general, primarily because a lot of the shoes that I fell in love with I never actually had – my older brother had em. He would make me lust after them even more because he worked at Footlocker so he had access to the shoes. So, I grew up just being a huge fan of the object. Then I figured out that there were people that actually designed that object. I never really thought it could be my career path. I was actually headed to Georgia Tech to pursue a career in engineering. And it was right at that moment, right before I decided what I needed to do in my life, like, “Should I go to Georgia Tech?” “Should I try and pursue this art thing?”

And then my actual high school track & field coach and my mom saw this article about automotive design and they said: “Hey, there’s this school in Detroit, and there’s a school in California, and they said that these people also design shoes so you might want to check that out.” So actually, I was pushed in that direction by my parents and by my coach. You know, I had been sending letters to Nike my entire life. Nike was sending back posters and brochures and pamphlets but no information about design because I don’t think that they really had a lot of information at that time around on how to become a designer. It was just kind of up in the air.

So, I got to school. I went to CCS (College for Creative Studies) in Detroit. And literally the first day I moved in, my next door neighbor – I won’t mention his name – but he had interned with Nike and he was an automotive guy. And he had no clue that my dream and my goal was to get to Nike so I just picked his brain. I just basically did, you know, college espionage and hung out with this kid to pull some information about who the recruiter was because I really wanted to get an internship.

I got the recruiters name and started sending portfolio sketches. I sent in ideas and concepts and they always would return my work with a nice note saying: “Thank you for applying”, “We lost your work”, “We found your work again, here it is…” It went on from Freshman year all the way ‘til Junior year, and when I sent in my portfolio for the last time, when you’re actually supposed to be eligible for internship, I finally received the internship.

Initially I was supposed to be in Nike Basketball. I got a phone call while I was sitting in Detroit, in a movie theater. They said: “Hey, Nike Basketball lost the budget for an intern. But how would you like to be in Jordan?” Coming from Chicago, always wanting to work for Jordan, I stood up in the middle of the movie theater – I was actually watching, I want say something like “Saw 2” – I stood up and started screaming and me being 6-foot-3, 212-pounds, in Detroit, in the middle of a movie theater watching Saw and screaming, you can imagine how fast the crowd left. You know, I got down and sat back in my seat. I had to collect my thoughts. I called my mom, I called my dad, and I just told them I finally did it, I finally got an internship.

My first day here [at Jordan Brand], I’m walking down the hallway and in one of the halls, Larry Miller, the former President of Jordan Brand, was walking side-by-side with Michael himself. I stopped in my tracks. I tried to hide because I didn’t know what to say but they obviously spotted me on the floor. And all I kept saying was, “I’m from Chicago, I’m from Chicago, I always wanted to design Jordan’s, I’m from Chicago…” So, Larry and MJ both told me if I did what I had to do, that I could eventually work here. They kept to their word. I did what I had to do as an intern. I asked a lot of questions. I busted my butt to make sure I was available and open to helping anywhere I could.

I started off doing shoelaces as an intern. I went from there to actually working on a project, the Air Jordan XVII Mule, which was just a take on a comfortable slip-on. Some people liked it, some people didn’t, but for me being an intern and having it come to market I was just ecstatic.

From that point, after I graduated, I back came into Nike Cross-Training. I was on what was called “The Bench”, which was a rotational program. It was a pilot program at the time where you bounced around from category to category to learn the business in general. But I was fortunate enough to be placed directly in Cross-Training to work on Football which is what my passion was coming out of high school and college. My first couple of weeks there, I came back and reconnected with the Jordan group and just always stayed in the loop with the Jordan Brand on where I wanted to be.

So, when I was in Cross-Training, I worked on a shoe called the “Monarch”. Most consumers who follow Jordan’s don’t follow the Monarch – it’s the shoe that their coaches wear, it’s the sideline shoe, it’s the $45 dollar shoe at Sears that you see plastered all over the ads on Father’s Day. But that was the shoe that I worked on. It’s actually one of the shoes I’m most proud of because it was a totally different consumer and is actually one of the best selling Nike shoes to date, which is a blessing. I finally learned how to really craft a design, being able to understand how to move lines, and add embellishments to make the shoe more valuable.

But ultimately, I wanted to be in Jordan, so I would come over and bug everybody, every single day. I asked questions, sat in people’s desks, and was just figuring out what they were doing. Eventually, I think they gave me a job because they didn’t want me to keep bugging them.

PBF: What does an average work day look like for you?

JM: Average work day, I get up at 5AM. I go to the gym first, I try to get my “me” time in before I start work so I can come in with a fresh mind, fresh spirit, and just be re-energized and ready to get after everything I have to tackle.

First thing I do is sit down and fish through tons of emails. You know, Asia is awake when we’re asleep so we get a bunch of development emails and factory concerns and issues. Then from that, I usually get up and go and speak to everybody on my team just to say good morning and see how everybody is doing, just to kind of keep the morale high and build the family dynamic. Because we do function as a family, so when you ask somebody how their day is going you genuinely mean it. So, I see the team, get a recap on how their day was and the day before, and ask if I can help out in any way.

Being a Senior Designer, part of my job is to make sure that I’m available to help my team, and then filling in gaps that D’Wayne [Edwards, Design Director at Jordan Brand] may have from the previous day, so I assist him as well. From that point on, I’m full speed up until about 6PM bouncing around the company, gathering information about projects we’re working on, speaking with development, talking about pricing, doing trend stuff, material stuff, color stuff. So for me, I still have to function with the mindset and schedule of an intern while constantly meeting with people from different parts of the company trying to connect dots on how we can make Jordan different. Even though I’m a Senior Designer, I still have that same hunger as if it were my first day here. I always try to utilize my nine to ten hours to the fullest by learning something new everyday.

PBF: What’s the best way for an amateur designer to try to get on the path to becoming a footwear designer? What tips or skill sets would you tell them to get?

JM: I’m glad you said “designer” and not just “footwear designer”. The first thing that any up and coming designer should realize is that they should really learn about the craft of design, and the craft of art, and the craft of manufacturing. And then decide if they want to be specific about designing footwear because you do limit your perspective and you limit your opportunities by saying you just want to do footwear. Because there’s not really a market for people who just want to do footwear. There’s a market for people who can design, who happen to be able to design footwear, but if you limit your path and there’s no jobs available, then you’re pretty much stuck.

So, I would say learn about the craft of design. Learn art history. Learn about global design. Learn about global manufacturing. Learn about trends. Learn about psychology, because a big part of design is psychology and how the consumer is going to react. Everybody that puts pen to paper that makes a product, they’re not making it for themselves – they’re making it to sell it to someone, or to inspire someone, or to evoke a certain emotion in someone, so you have to understand the psychology behind that. And I would say diversify your experience. If you love footwear, do something completely out of the norm so you can channel that story and that different experience to give you inspiration.

Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to fail. Everybody always wants to put up the prettiest sketch possible. Put up the napkin sketch. Get feedback on that. Get feedback on your process. Because in this industry, the way that you remain successful is by being consistent. It’s not about doing one good shoe, and then boom, your career takes off. It’s about consistency and in order to have that consistency you need to have an established process.

The process that I personally use is I always try to figure out what is the reason of the shoe’s existence. So, I create my story first and then I take that story and I contrast it and compare it to what the problem is that I’m trying to solve with the shoe. Bring those two together and then the visual languages come to life on its own. So, develop a process for yourself. Get into the routine because that will help you when you need to turn projects out in 48 hours like we have to do most of the times.

PBF: Are there any particular websites or resources that you look at for design inspiration?

JM: To be honest, no. A lot of times if it’s on the Internet, it’s already old. I like to go places that people necessarily haven’t discovered yet. The Internet has, in a lot of ways, taken people out of the book. Simply the act of picking up a book and reading, to me, that’s the easiest form of inspiration. And the Internet doesn’t really capture that, because there’s a lot of pictures and flashing lights and pretty things and nice, shiny buttons, but when you pick up a book or you pick up a magazine or you go and you start to really talk to people face-to-face, that’s when you find your inspiration because those human factors and those human elements aren’t captured on the Internet.

So for me, I find inspiration in just everyday life. The things that are unpredictable and the things that, on the surface, don’t look like they could be inspiration points but underneath when you dig deeper and figure out what’s making them tick, it actually is a lot of inspiration there. For example, I’m really big into the 3D renderings of creatures that live like 15,000 miles underneath the sea level. It’s crazy, and you see how they maneuver with no sunlight, and how their skin has a bioluminescence and all that stuff. That to me is crazy and inspirational and interesting. Now, I can go online and find all that stuff but to physically sit down with someone who studies it or to call a museum or to call the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and ask questions out of the blue, that to me tells me about inspiration.

PBF: What’s the most difficult part of the design process for you?

JM: I would say there’s really no part that’s difficult for me personally, but I would say in general for designers, some of us have a hard time letting go of a project. Sometimes it’s hard to move on because you know that you could do so much more. So it’s finding that closure, and as you mature in your design career you find closure quicker. You know how to do your best job and then move on from it.

When you’re first starting out, you want to do everything at 10,000 percent, and every shoe needs to be a home run. But as you progress in your career you understand the needs of the business and the needs of the consumer. And sometimes getting on base is just as good as a home run, so you have to learn how to prioritize your efforts, and you also have to learn how to close out a shoe.

A lot of people can start a shoe and make it look pretty from the sketch, but finishing a shoe is probably the most difficult, challenging part of the process because that’s when you have to let go, that’s when you have to make tough calls without compromising the overall integrity of your design.

PBF: How important is the storytelling process in design for you?

JM: Personally, it means a lot because a shoe is just an inanimate object until someone puts it on, so when we design or draw the products we have to create lines that are, I would say, attractive enough to jump off the shelf. But what’s going to pull the consumer in deeper is what those lines mean.

So it’s almost like you have two languages – your visual language, and your emotional language. The visual is going to definitely be the first thing that a person sees, but when they find out why the lines are shaped a certain way and why the materials are placed in certain areas, I think it just makes people feel like there’s a sense of familiarity and a sense of the human element inside of it.

If it’s just a piece of leather with some rubber, that’s not really providing the most for what the consumer is going to spend on our shoes. For me, being at Jordan Brand, being from Chicago and loving shoes so much, I always try to provide an interesting story because you never know. The kid who buys that shoe may turn out to be a movie director and he may remember your story and then say, “Wow, I’m going to create a character based on inspiration from a Chris Paul shoe.” You never know what those stories can do for people.

My biggest influences in life have been storytellers. My favorite book that I still read to this day to my children and to myself is “Where The Wild Things Are”. That story seriously put me on my path to being who I am today because it allowed me to feel like wherever I was within the world I always could find somebody that will accept me for me. So, you never know how far a story can push someone.

PBF: What’s your favorite shoe of all time?

JM: Man, there’s so many. I always say the Air Jordan IV because it was the first one I had, and it was the first one I lost. But yeah, Air Jordan IV definitely for me.

PBF: Someone from the Project Bluefoot Forums wanted to know: How do you get your design from a paper sketch into the computer? Do you freehand it or scan it in? What do you do?

JM: You know, it’s different. Sometimes I’ll draw it real fast on a piece of paper and then I’ll just freehand it in Illustrator. Others times I’ll scan it into Photoshop and clean the lines up with Illustrator. Or sometimes I’ll just create it directly in 3D. I just get onto what’s called “Shoemaker” which is a low-end 3D package software where you can pretty much just create directly on the lines, so it depends on what the shoe is, what the project is, and how far do I need to push it.

I rarely do full-on, crazy, photo-realistic renderings anymore. I used to when I first got here. I would do the rendering all the way down to the pores in the leather. I would make it look so photo-realistic that people would assume it was a sample sitting on a shelf, but to me, the essence of my design was lost because it looked real and no one would get beyond the sketch. They didn’t want to know more – they got caught up in the drawing, so I really shot myself in the foot by not allowing the sketch to come to life as I told the story. It just depends on the project.

PBF: What advice would you give to the aspiring designers on Project Bluefoot or elsewhere looking to break into the industry?

JM: I would say don’t assume that you know everything. Just because you go on boards like Project Bluefoot and read what we say, because we’re learning as we go, you know?

This industry is still relatively young, so no one is deemed an expert. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as professional or amateur, the only difference is I’m getting paid to do this. I would still be doing this if I was a defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears. I would still be sketching shoes and sending in ideas. I think the thing is that people get this misconception that once you become a professional, then that’s it, you’re in a position to dictate where the industry goes.

Actually, all of us are in a position to dictate where the industry goes because we are fans of the craft just as much as we are purveyors and protectors of the craft. So I would say no, there’s no difference between me and anyone else trying to get this job, and to know that it’s my job to someday groom the person that’s going to replace me.

So, don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to reach out, don’t be afraid of feedback, don’t get offended when someone tells you they don’t like your shoe because not everybody is going to like your work all the time. And just be willing to do the grunt work. Be willing to spend the time doing the research prior to sketching. And if it feels right, trust your gut. A lot of times, specifically in the design competitions that we see, the kids are specifically designing for whoever the judges are. Like if it’s a shoe in the Jordan group, then they’ll design a shoe that they think that we will like.

Design something that you want to see. When you’re an amateur you can set the vision. You don’t answer to marketing, you don’t answer to retail, you answer to yourself. So take advantage of that now. Push the industry forward. And just have fun.

Also, the sketches and rendering above are of the Jordan CP3.II that Jason designed…

im looking forward to reading all this, but i had to drop this quote because thats exactly what happened to me, only it was my sister that saw the article about automotive design at art center and CCS and showed it to me. i was a few years behind Jason at CCS but i remember my sophomore year him coming to CCS and talking to some of us, i think it was right after he got his position at nike. Crazy.

Ha, funny story man. You never know how your life can change by little things like that! CCS has been churning out a number of designers recently.

I just posted up higher-res images of the CP3.II sketches, which some people asked me about privately. They are posted here: