How Serena Williams Design Crew Drives the Future of Design at Nike

In 2019, Nike and Serena Williams partnered to create the Serena Williams Design Crew (SWDC), an apprenticeship program to promote diversity in design. It brought together 10 talented designers from New York City, each specializing in their own discipline, and tasked them with creating a Serena-inspired women’s performance and lifestyle collection spanning footwear, apparel and accessories — which they’re now ready to unveil.

While the product is the culmination of a six-month design curriculum at Nike, the vision proposed by SWDC — that diversity fosters creativity and inclusion goes hand in hand with innovation — is just beginning. A second year of the program, this time with 11 Chicago-area apprentices, is currently underway.

Below, four Nike leaders dive into SWDC’s unique and foundational principles for the brand. They explain how SWDC was born in collaboration with Serena, why curiosity and empathy are integral to design, and how this program illustrates the ways in which Nike is advancing diversity across the industry and beyond.

Tania Flynn
Nike VP, Women’s Apparel Product Design
John Hoke
Nike Chief Design Officer
Jonathan Johnsongriffin
Nike VP, Global Creative Director
Jarvis Sam
Nike VP, Diversity and Inclusion

Sparking Design Innovation through Diversity

John Hoke: How would I describe the program? It’s another step forward that Nike is taking to make the world a better place. It’s a plan to make the composition of our company more closely reflect that of our athletes and the communities we serve.

Jonathan Johnsongriffin: I think the program is an innovation platform. Diversity creates more thoughtful solutions. It’s the catalyst to innovation in fostering creativity and inclusion for all athletes. And I think, working back with Jarvis, with Tania, with John, and specifically Serena Williams, this is an opportunity for us to be innovative in new spaces.

Jarvis Sam: Two words you said, JJG: catalyst and innovation. What SWDC has taught us is, how can we incubate game-changing ideas for the industry? From a talent-innovation perspective, it forces us, and then other companies in similarly situated industries, to rethink where talent pipelines come from. And as a catalyst for the company, it inspires us to work with great talent from all walks of life.

Jonathan Johnsongriffin: I’d echo what Jarvis said around the industry. This is industry-defining. I remember a conversation I had with Serena, and she asked, “Has anyone done this?” And I said, “Quite honestly, no.” You could feel the spirit, the energy coming from Serena in that conversation.

Tania Flynn: We tend to say that diversity creates empathy, empathy creates curiosity, curiosity leads to innovation. When you gather a diverse group — a team of creatives who bring their talent, their stories, their experiences to the table — it creates a unique experience not only for the designers, but for everyone they interact with.

Creating Authentic Collaboration

Jonathan Johnsongriffin: Serena has been so committed to the program. She wants to meet each apprentice. She wants to see their portfolios. She wants to be a part of the briefing of the product. She wants to be a part of the design reviews.

Tania Flynn: When you talk about her being involved in every part of the process — even her design vocabulary is sharp. She’s like, “We don’t have enough silhouette differentiation. Can we go back and think about something else?” That shows where her head is at, how invested she is in the success of the team and the line.

Jarvis Sam: “Authenticity” is not a buzzword here. When you think about Serena Williams as a person and a player, you think resilience, grit, perseverance. Those are the same characteristics that we see in the apprentices.

John Hoke: And those words were the principles that shaped the program. When our first cohort graduated, we told them how proud we were of their creative resilience. They proved they could do this while navigating sweeping social justice movements along with a pandemic. It reminded me how much the human spirit is capable of overcoming, only to emerge reflecting a ton of grace, a ton of resilience. I feel like that is a principle of the program that only grows sharper as we head into year two.

Building a Stronger Community

John Hoke: Sports are a conduit to attributes that make the world better. Sports fuel self-empowerment, confidence, kindness and connection. That means every program we create, whether SWDC or Women in Nike, and every product we create, like Nike GO FlyEase and Victory Swim, are all connected in their nature of empathy. That’s a way we can open the aperture up and have an even deeper impact when it comes to designing for all athletes.

Tania Flynn: In where we are as a society right now, the unrest has brought to the forefront important conversations for creatives. The power of sport can make the world a better place. When you’re driven by that hope, you start to see programs like SWDC and the products we create in the same light.

Jonathan Johnsongriffin: And you start to see the value when the spirit of programs and the spirit of design are expressed in each other. That’s why I’m excited about the SWDC capsule as a community builder — it brings us into closer community with athletes, with designers, with retailers who are passionate about this, and with the industry, period.

John Hoke: Designers have a social contract to apply their creativity to solve another human being’s problem. You have to empathically put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and understand their needs first. As we start year two of the program, we’re seeing that thoughtful application of design firsthand.
Empowering Future Designers

Tania Flynn: A few of us started at Nike around the same time. We’re talking about what building the bench looks like here at the company, bringing the next generation forward in the design space. And that challenges us to think about diversity in all forms. It’s not just across race, gender or sexual orientation. It’s important to have diversity of experience, tenure and age too. Who’s better equipped to speak to those issues of a new generation and come up with fresh solutions than that generation themselves?

Jarvis Sam: To create a program that’s authentic requires having leaders who share similar stories with the apprentices. Leaders and emerging talent need to see themselves in one another. The connections the apprentices create here are strong, not just with their cohort, but also with leaders like JJG and Tania.

Jonathan Johnsongriffin: At the same time, Tania and I are very different people. We both bring diverse perspectives from our backgrounds, influences and inspirations. And that’s kind of the point. Giving everyone a voice, especially those who have been excluded from speaking up, is what unlocks creativity, which helps us solve problems.

Jarvis Sam: One of the great things that the apprenticeship has reminded us is that the creative experiences of BIPOC groups are not a monolith. We’re challenged to think about the nuanced differences within those populations and cohorts so that we can create an opportunity that has a real infrastructure to it, one that focuses on retention and development as much as we do acquisition.

Jonathan Johnsongriffin: The Nike Design community is more than 1,000 designers strong. SWDC has been a beacon of light for our community. The health of a community is always made better when you bring diversity, when you have candid conversations about what design looks like now and what it’s going to look like in the future and how we create together.

John Hoke: Really good design requires a diversity of thought. Really good design invites more people in. That’s true now, and it will continue to be true in the future. When I think about Nike’s advantage 50 years ago and 50 years from now, that advantage is bringing new ideas and innovations to athletes everywhere. And those new ideas captivate the essence and the spirit of a time, and they captivate an ambition yet to be unfolded by an athlete. This program is lifting our creativity and helping us imagine even better, more innovative solutions. It represents a giant leap forward that is indelible and important, but it’s a pursuit we’ll never be done with.

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