How motion and emotion fuel Jordan Brand’s basketball design for the next generation

What to know

  • Jordan Brand designs its basketball products to encourage movement on the court and evoke excitement on and off the court.
  • Jordan Brand approaches each signature design through the distinct lenses of “flight” and “speed,” with the signature Air Jordan shoe representing the brand’s ultimate expression.
  • The brand’s multifaceted design team fuses the latest cutting-edge technologies with materials, fabrics, and colors that reference the brand’s namesake.

Jordan Brand’s approach to basketball shoe design is much like the image of Michael Jordan flying through the air during the ’85 dunk contest with a sleek pair of gold chains.

Michael Jordan’s movement made the game beautiful. His stance evoked an emotion that transcended basketball and broke down the barriers between sport and culture. The dichotomy between movement and emotion is at the heart of how the Jordan brand creates its performance basketball footwear: designing to encourage movement and create emotion both on and off the court.

“When we design shoes, we don’t stop at just a performance shoe, because MJ always had a touch or an idea to make the game his own,” says David Cin, Global Senior Design Director of Performance Footwear. “Sometimes when you try to design something different, the reason might not be crystal clear, but it’s something you feel. It’s not something you wait and expect. You create it.”

A new game structure

With the introduction of Jayson Tatum’s signature shoe in February 2023, the Tatum 1, the brand’s game structure has taken its latest direction into the future. In the past, the Team Jordan line followed the most important game shoe, just as the Jumpman Pro was the team model of the Air Jordan XII in 1997. Today, the structure lends itself to a new design approach based on the attributes and playing styles of its three latest signature athletes, organized by flight and speed: Tatum, Luka Dončić, and Zion Williamson.

Topping the list is Air Jordan’s signature shoe. The Air Jordan XXXVIII is the pinnacle of the combination of flight and speed. The design process begins with a detailed analysis of the player’s style, studying the way he moves on the parquet, the way he jumps, the way he dribbles, his attitude and more.

“When we talk about movement, we’re referring to real insights from the athlete,” says Jarrett Mann, Jordan Brand Global Product Director for Performance Footwear. “We watch tons of footage of players, analyze tape and footwork, and use specific movements we’ve identified or noticed to create solutions for their game. When it comes to emotion, it’s about identifying the soul or the narrative we want to tell.”

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Such a detailed examination of a player’s movement is useful for his or her game and, consequently, for the broader customer base that is inspired by it. For example, Luka Dončić’s signature line-who has an elite ability to decelerate and create separation-was created using this knowledge and developing technologies such as the IsoPlate, which helps create space between him and defenders. As players emulate Luka’s style of play, the Luka signature line creates a more responsive shoe for anyone who approaches this style.

A team effort

Jordan Brand boasts one of the most competitive footwear teams in the industry, working collaboratively to balance the athlete’s artistry with the functionality needed to serve them.

“What is unique about Jordan Brand is that the entire team-from design to color, materials, development and testing-is so interconnected throughout the entire process that we are able to work together effortlessly. We believe that good ideas can come from anywhere,” says Kelsey Amy, Expert Color Designer at Performance Footwear.

The Air Jordan XXXVIII has a new design base after the jump design of the XXXIV, XXXV and XXXVI. The Air Jordan XXXVIII is designed for the ground game, inspired specifically by Michael Jordan’s intricate turnaround jumper footwork. For Jacqueline Lefferts, an experienced designer of performance footwear materials, working side-by-side with many teammates in different disciplines adds value in all directions. Just as Lefferts can suggest solutions to questions about material composition, other colleagues can help her understand whether a particular fabric pattern will structurally hold up to the rigors of an entire quarter, game, or season.

One example is given by the creation of the Air Jordan XXXVIII. The forefoot features backless embroidery, which required a new production technique for the team in developing a basketball shoe. The geometry of the weave greatly changes the way the material moves, which is important because the forefoot area has to act as a safety belt, containing the player above the footbed. It took a bit of trial and error before Lefferts and his team were able to find a version that provided the right degree of containment.

“If the current version of the product is not up to snuff, we have an extraordinary group of people with a collective expertise,” Lefferts says. “If I don’t have the answer, I’m always sure a teammate will know what to do, and then we keep testing until it works.”

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The teamwork of the footwear creation team initiates new ways of making products. In creating the Zion 3, the team wanted to create a new way to describe one of Zion Williamson’s most important inspirational sayings, “Out of the Mud,” a phrase that refers to his humble beginnings from Marion, South Carolina. Joël Greenspan, Senior Footwear Designer at Jordan Brand, turned to the computational design team, which included Adam Hiler, 3D Designer at Jordan Brand. Greenspan had a scan of Williamson’s foot and an image of children jumping in the mud. Could they get anything out of it? Not only was the 3D team able to create a custom model, but the model was designed to retain stress in the high-wear areas of the upper.

“It’s exciting to create something that represents the athlete and is both strong, reductive and modern,” says Greenspan. “To achieve such a layered idea requires the commitment of all of us.”

A standard of excellence that inspires the next generation

While under the umbrella of NIKE, Inc. the Jordan brand has one main figure of approval for the play shoe and other signature family shoes-Jordan himself. He sets the same level of excellence for revisions that he set for his playing career.

Lefferts recalls a time when Jordan was examining the toe box of the Air Jordan XXXVIII. Jordan was convinced that the materials used for the upper would damage a player’s forefoot because of its medial-to-lateral construction. When the production team fine-tuned the upper and tested the updated version of the shoe against the old one, everything Jordan had said was right. The new version was more comfortable.

With Michael Jordan, the design team has an inspirational leader and expert who can-and will-share his opinions about the product. The current team is more or less like that. Their expert insights help shape the future of the brand.

“Our athletes help take our products and innovations to a new level,” says Chad Troyer, Global Senior Product Line Manager for Performance Footwear. “Their feedback helps inspire the next generation to pursue their dreams and think without limits, just like MJ did.”

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