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Industrial Design School Alumnus Tom Luedecke Designs for Top Athletes at Nike's 'Innovation Kitchen'

Everybody knows that famous athletes don't actually design the apparel that they agree to put their names on. But, did you wonder exactly how involved these athletes get in the design process? Alum Tom Luedecke has been with Nike since 2003, working as a designer for Kobe Bryant's line, among other high-profile projects. Listening to Tom talk about his work, you learn that athletes are more involved than you'd think.

As Tom explains, the athlete's input is always central to the design process. "We listen to what each athlete has to say. If an athlete wants something lighter, or something more stable, that's what we do." Tom also feels that it is important to work with athletes on form as well as function. "Athletes will say, I've seen this great thing on the Discovery Channel, or do you know this Batman movie, or have you ever seen how a snake moves in the desert – stuff like that.' We want to know what they think is really cool, because we get just as excited about the things they've seen. It may seem far-fetched to some, but we treat these insights seriously and we really look into these things."
People at Nike call Tom's department "Innovation Kitchen": the name comes from the legend of Nike's co-founder, Bill Bowerman, who used his wife's waffle iron to not make food, but to make the world's first waffle shoes. As the name suggests, it is a place reserved for the development of Nike's newest, most cutting-edge performance innovations.
Tom works as part of a small team of two designers and two developers. Nike never has too many cooks in its kitchen, preferring to keep its design teams lean and nimble. The reasoning behind this approach goes back to the athletes. When you work in a bigger environment, there are a lot of things that can influence your design, such as marketing, sales, etc. That's not how it works in Nike's Kitchen. "We pretty much take a stance and say, we're listening to the athlete. That's what's going to guide us and nothing else," explains Tom.

Tom has worked on a number of notable projects for Nike, including custom designs for Lance Armstrong and Carlos Santana. He played a crucial role in Nike's designs for the 2008 Olympics, working on the designs for every water sport event. He also lent a hand on Nike's infamous Hyperdunk shoes that premiered at the Olympics – a shoe that was worn by almost every basketball player at the Olympic games, and then became one of the most popular shoes of the NCAA in 2009.

Among the many projects he's working on right now, Tom is deeply involved with the Kobe Bryant line. "Every few months we meet with Kobe," says Tom. "He challenges us, tells us what he likes, and what he doesn't like. His products are extremely innovative." Tom's team sees the line all the way through, from design to production. Most of Tom's energy is focused on the Kobe Bryant shoe design. The shoes, of course, are the heart of the product line. Tom and his team develop ideas for branding, and then they help bring the collection together, all the way to production.

When working on major product lines such as this, Tom allows only two things to guide his work: input from the athlete, and the insight he gets from the Nike Sports Research Lab. He meets with the Lab regularly, learning all about biomechanics and anatomy. Tom's job is to marry the input he gets from athletes with this scientific knowledge. As Tom puts it, "Continued education is definitely a part of every designer's job - you want to learn as much about tendons as you do about injection plastics. The more you know about the products you work on, the better you'll be. And there's always more to learn."


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