Sean McDowell Nike Designer Interview

We Talk Trainer Design & Tuned Air With Sean McDowell

Luke Taylor
Luke Taylor Founder

In this latest interview we caught up with Sean McDowell, the original designer of the Nike Air Max Plus, the iconic Tuned Air trainer from the late 90s.

We had the pleasure of catching up with Sean McDowell for our latest interview, the original designer of the Nike Air Max Plus trainer. First released in 1998 the “Tuned Air” style drew design inspiration from a trip to the beach & quickly became an icon in itself. A massive hit on the streets of London & Paris, a far cry from the sun-drenched beaches of Florida, we take a look at how the icon was born. Sean McDowell also originally worked on the Nike Shox trainer, another style that would have the same impact on the streets of Europe, and more recently the VaporMax.

So first of all takes us back to the mid 90s, what were you doing at the time & what design projects were you working on?

I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Industrial Design in 1993. I started working for a design agency that did very technical medical equipment. This was excellent training ground that served me well for the rest of my career. I then received a job at New Balance as an innovation footwear designer. This too was an incredible training ground, since they manufacture footwear in the same facility as the design team. I learned everything I could about footwear construction, engineering shoes, stitching them and ran in the products built in the evenings.

How did the design role at Nike originally come about?

Nike saw one of the shoes I designed at New Balance and gave me a call. The whole process was incredibly fast for me. It took about 4 weeks from start to finish. Suddenly I had my dream job in 1997.

Above: An original sketch of the Nike Air Max Plus from 1997 by Sean McDowell.

SHOP AIR MAX PLUS

The Nike Air Max Plus trainer was a massive hit on the streets of Europe in places like London & Paris, we’re talking full Lacoste tracksuits with socks tucked into your TN’s. This is a bit different to the sunny beaches of Florida, did you ever envisage how big the European street connection of the shoe would be?

It has been a big surprise for me. I designed it specifically for high school students in the I-90 corridor of the United States. So that fact that France and Australia embraced it almost right away was a pleasant surprise. The Air Max Plus 1 almost never happened. The executives at Footlocker didn’t like it very much. It was too progressive and scared the 40-50 year old white men. The first meeting was not going well, until we brought the shoe down to their store and put it on the shelf. A crowd of student had just gotten out of school. They were falling all over themselves trying to get a look at it. That moment completely change the momentum.

What were your main inspirations for the TN logo, something which is now considered like a stamp of greatness to Air Max fans?

I always loved the TN logo. The truth is I did not design it. Stanley Hainsworth gets credit for that. He created a beautiful system of Max Air, Zoom Air, Tuned Air and Encap Air. If you go back to the ’90’s you will see all of those logos. But none of them broke through and became as iconic as TN. The inspiration was from a scientific molecular chart. Each of the classifications of Air had a different shape. The red dot and swoosh was an electron orbiting the nucleus. Pretty awesome if you ask me.

Nike Air Max Plus TN Logo trainer
Above: The Tn logo has become like a badge of honour to Air Max collectors.

SHOP AIR MAX PLUS

The Air Max Plus 1 almost never happened. The executives at Footlocker didn’t like it very much. It was too progressive and scared the 40-50 year old white men.

The revival of Garage & Grime music here in the UK in the last 5 years started the next generation of ‘Tuned Air’ fans, what are your musical connections to the shoe if any?

I have become a big fan of Skepta. When he started wearing the TN, I got sucked in to the genre. When I look back on my career. I can’t believe all of the amazing and wonderful things I have been exposed to globally. I grew up in a very small town in Upstate New York. So it’s a long way from Ithaca!

What are your own personal favourite colourways of the Air Max Plus & why?

There are so many amazing and fantastic colors – especially recently. It’s a little like having kids – you love each one equally. I have to say the recent Supreme twist was pretty cool.

If you were tasked with designing another Nike Air Max trainer would you be up for it?

Absolutely. The Nike Sportswear team calls every so often and we brainstorm on new ideas and new options. I am a designer, I am always thinking of new options and new possibilities.

NIKE SHOX TL SKEPTA I0987-001
Above: Sean McDowell also worked on the Nike Shox which was recently revived courtesy of a very special Skepta collaboration in 2019.

SHOP AIR MAX PLUS

What did you work on after the Nike Air Max Plus?

I helped revive the Pegasus after it died in 2000. I designed the Total Shox, Mayfly, Bohemian, Presto Faze, Kukini. I was the creative Director for the Olympics in 2008. So I helped design the Zoom Victory track spike, the Lunar Racer and all of the 52 shoes for all 28 sports including Equestrian, Kayaking and archery. That was the most fun role ever! I then became the creative Director of Nike running. So I worked on the Vapor Max, Sub-2 effort, Nike Free Platform.

Any words of wisdom for those looking to break into the big wide world of sneaker design?

Keep following your passion. There is a huge culture around sneaker collectors that didn’t exist when I was young. So it is more competitive than ever. Sketch all the time. Look for inspiration everywhere. A sculpture at an art museum can be a midsole design. A butterflies wings could be a new welded pattern. A new memory foam on your bed can become a new cushioning technology. Train your mind to see opportunity where you live.

Finally what other projects are you currently working on?

I am a consultant now. I am working on things mostly outside the footwear space. I did a project for Philips Healthcare on a new sleep apnea device. I worked with a financial institution on a new concept for the future of banking. It’s been a blast working on products outside our industry.

 

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