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How Nike Uses Modularity

To Design God-Tier Ads and Divine Art in the Form of Shoes
Brett Friedman

The Company

With 75,400 employees and over $37 billion in annual revenue, Nike is one of the largest companies in the world. By most, they are considered the premier athletics apparel company, providing innovations in clothing, footwear, and especially, marketing.

The Experiment(s)

Nike has a culture of experimentation, much like Booking.com and Netflix, but rather than focus on website appearances, they test human appearances. One notable commonality among all of them is their use of modular design - Netflix with movie artwork arrangements & Booking.com with a/b tests serving as modules themselves.

Nike applies modularity to their ads, their designs, and more generally, their brand.

Nike's latest ad earned them wide-ranging media coverage for the sheer amount of effort put into it: 4000 hours of sports video cut down to 90 seconds, connecting all types of athletes through one common goal: victory through failure. Like with experimentation, you need to lose 9 times to win once.

                                                                                                                 System: Ad. Modules: Sports Clips.

The Experiment(s) Pt. 2

While this ad has non-traditional modularity, their line of NikeID, (rebranded as Nike By You) has modularity in the same sense as a multivariate test: infinite possibilities tailored to the customer. No matter what your favorite shape, color, or material is, you can make it with Nike.

By splitting each shoe into its atomic components, customers can change sections of their product until the full look is exactly what they want most. To give you an idea of how incredible this is, I went through the process myself creating the below monstrosities. Note, color selections were to illustrate just how many variations are possible. With 20 color & material options for the Uppers, Eyestays, Tips, Foxings, Tongues, and Swooshes, 2 Silhouette styles, 12 Laces, 9 linings, 4 sidewalls, and 4 outsoles, there are 442 quadrillion (million billion) possible combinations.

And that's just the one model. Nike offers customization for 134 shoes and cleats across 8 sports (including everyday life). Not to mention, you can add 14-28 character text in two sizes. Put simply, there are infinite options with Nike.

Modularity is powerful. Exponentially powerful.

System: Shoes. Modules: Colors & Materials.


The Experiment(s) Pt. 3

Ads and shoes aside, what makes Nike so, well, Nike, is their branding. And even there, they apply modular design principles, offering creative-audience fit through well-selected makers.

Nike has produced shoes made by fashion icons like Virgil Abloh (Off-White, Louis Vuitton) and Riccardo Tisci (Burberry), music geniuses like Drake and the Grateful Dead, brands like Supreme and Sharpie, and of course, sports legends like Nyjah Huston and Michael Jordan.

The latter of which launched an entire shoe collecting subculture known to most as the Sneakerheads.

But that's not all; Nike frequently hires artists in their target demographic to build branding for new products. For example, in 2017 they hired seven female artists to design their feminine workout pants.

Whether it's a local artist or a cultural idol, Nike has fit each consumer to a particular emotional connection fueled by the immense creativity of celebrities and self-actualizing creatives everywhere.

System: Brand. Modules: Artists.


The Results

Nike's latest branding effort is titled ISPA (Improvise, Scavenge, Protect, Adapt): "a set of design principles that represents a pinnacle, experimental expression of Nike design across all categories, including the latest innovations and established creations. It is product-agnostic, driven by experimentation and targeted toward solving problems for unique athletes."

Summed up perfectly. Nike experiments on design by creating modular systems that allow the world's highest achievers to plug their genius directly into a product. This modular approach, this ability to match creatives with audiences, is what gave them the power to scale from nothing to $3 Billion+ in annual net profits.

But I don't need to tell you about their results. Nike's branding is so powerful that I could write a whole piece about it and not mention their iconic slogan even once. Because you already know what it is. In fact, I'd gamble that 100% of you reading this right now have at the very least heard of Nike. That's success.

The Application

There's a lot you can learn from Nike's experimental design:

  1. Build a modular product, capable of re-creation in any form, by anyone
  2. Collect geniuses from all categories to design for you
  3. Believe in branding

The Team

Website: https://purpose.nike.com/
ISPA: https://ispa.live/
Insta: https://www.instagram.com/nike/

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