Air Jobs.

It’s hard to pinpoint where the debate started last Friday. Some say it was kicked off by a blog post from Ryan Sims. Naz Hamid brought it to Twitter, where it spread across the web design world, consuming Dan Mall, Trent Walton, Noah Stokes, and a host of others (including yours truly). What was it about? Flash vs. HTML? Web fonts? Responsive design? Nope.

Air Jordans.

Michael Jordan & Mars Blackmon

If you’re an American male born between (roughly) 1972 and 1982, Air Jordans were the preeminent adolescent emotional touchstone. For a period spanning the late-80s to mid-90s, they were inescapable. Demand was not limited to black or white, urban or suburban, rich or poor…demand was universal. Nothing matched the feeling of walking into school sporting a crisp new pair of Air Jordans. They were a status symbol without equal. You were king for a day. At least.

The topic sparked a debate on the Full Stop Skype line. While I was busy reliving my adolescence via Twitter, Nate just didn’t get it, and the disconnect was easy to diagnose. Combined with his admittedly fritzy cultural radar, he simply missed the window. I’m 31, he’s 25. I’m a sneakerhound, he’s not. I’ve had six pairs of Air Jordans1, he’s had none. I struggled to find an explanation that made sense to him until, grasping for analogies, I came up with this:

“Air Jordans were the iPhones of their day.”

From that point, it all fell into place.

It’s not a stretch to draw parallels between Nike and Apple, two American companies light years beyond their competition in technical innovation, product performance, industrial design, advertising, brand loyalty, and a litany of other intangible metrics too numerous to mention. But what happens when we dig a little deeper? See if any of this sounds familiar:

The flagship product inspires a frenzy, where anxious fans wait with breathless anticipation for the annual launch day, obsessively debate specs and features, then descend in hordes on their nearest retail location to snap up every available unit. The product lives at the absolute apex of tech, taste, and consumer lust, and crosses the threshold from “esoteric object of desire” to “cultural icon coveted by the teeming masses.” Its bleeding edge features are recycled back into the rest of the product line. It is always referred to by its proper name, while competitors are lumped into a single generic category.

The company’s most visible representative is the defining pitchman of his era. Brutally uncompromising, he leaves all rivals with little doubt about who won the game. He disappears for long stretches during his prime, often under curious (some might say mysterious) circumstances. After him, advertising is never the same. It’s hard to imagine a future once he retires.

The chief designer is the real star of the show. An elusive man who is anything but a household name2, he single-handedly redefines the aesthetic trajectory of an entire retail market many times over.

There’s no shortage of corporate lessons one can draw from the connections Nike and Apple share, and considerable success is to be had by studying their respective playbooks. But to bring this back to our original portrait, what does it say intrinsically about us as designers and technology enthusiasts that even as children, our visceral response to a consumer product was so strong that more than a decade after it was last relevant to us, we’re still discussing our nostalgia? And what of Apple? Could it be that our adult obsession with Apple filled the void left by our childhood obsession with Nike? I can say with utter certainty that my awareness of Nike and the Air Jordan line as a design inspiration were immeasurably influential in my later career choice, and that Apple’s march to dominance began right around the time that Michael Jordan retired. The question is, who’s next? Who will be the next company to elicit such a response from design-minded consumers? What mythical product will we be waiting in lines at the mall to buy? And what will inspire today’s children to become tomorrow’s designers?

  1. IV, VI, VII, XI, XII, and XIV. []
  2. Tinker Hatfield for Nike, Jony Ive for Apple, in case you were unfamiliar. []

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