The Unseen Design Science in Nike's State-of-the-Art NBA Uniforms
A basketball jersey is a basketball jersey—unless you're Pinoy, in which case a basketball jersey is also everything from workout clothes to resort wear (but, you know, to paraphrase Nike: Don't do it). If you're a designer working on a billion-dollar account for the sport's greatest players, however, a basketball jersey is a chance to bring all that fancy design thinking to the fore.
Announced in June 2015, Nike’s partnership with the NBA begins with the 2017-18 season, and while the fans are talking about the cosmetic redesign of the teams' colors and the high-tech NikeConnect jerseys, there's more going on underneath the surface here. In the two years since Nike inked the deal with the National Basketball Association, their designers have been busy tinkering under the hood to make changes that aren't even immediately visible to the casual observer—but which will, they hope, help players improve their on-court performance.
"If you're a designer, this is the kind of thing you want to be working on," says Kurt Parker, Vice President in charge of Apparel Design at Nike, speaking at the global launch of the Nike-NBA partnership in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. Designers and engineers from all over the company were vying to be part of the project, he said. And they did have their work cut out for them.
"From how the athletes move to the positions they play — even their body types are completely different today than they were five to 10 years ago,” Parker adds, in a press release following the launch. "That’s why we wanted to dramatically evolve both the performance and look of the uniforms.”
"From how the athletes move to the positions they play—even their body types are completely different today than they were five to 10 years ago"
—Kurt Parker, Nike VP of Apparel Design
To overhaul the new uniforms, the Nike engineers and designers focused on three things: movement, thermoregulation, and fit. But the overall goal was simple: to minimize distractions and enable the players to completely focus on the game.
First of all, nobody moves quite like a basketball player, they found. In an average NBA game, a player could change direction every two seconds, jump up to 42 times, and cover about four miles. Based on player feedback and "atlas maps"—a technologically driven process that involves taking a digital scan of a player's body as he plays to map out critical areas—the design team created new jerseys and shorts that also took style in consideration. To get a fuller range of motion, basketball players would typically opt for bigger uniforms, they noted, and while older basketball players insisted on the oversize uniforms, while the younger players were more open to slimmer fits and shorter shorts.
The redesigned uniforms included modifications to allow unimpeded motion based on the movements seen on the maps. Among these changes are scalloping on the shoulder area, and motion vents on the shorts placed nearer the front. By making sure that the players didn't need to upsize their uniforms unnecessarily, Nike was able to create the lightest uniforms in NBA history.
Temperature regulation was another important factor. "“You’ll see guys constantly trying to pull their jerseys off of their chest — LeBron does it all the time,” explains Parker. “So, we realized that we needed to figure out a way for the jersey to wick the sweat without it being too baggy or too tight.”
The textile engineers programmed a knit structure that created "a three-dimensional zone to allow air to flow through," with nodes that would prevent the fabric from sticking to the athlete's sweaty skin.
Inside, there are other small details that the design team tweaked. The seams inside the uniforms are hidden under small flaps of additional fabric, solving what Parker said was one of the recurring pet peeves of the athletes they interviewed. They also needed to make sure that every jersey looked amazing on every athlete, despite the huge range of body types of the players in the NBA.
Nike worked together with the NBA players for about a year to create the new uniforms. "They practiced in the uniforms and immediately shared feedback with designers and product managers on things like how much coverage they wanted in the strap or around the arm hole, how long the shorts would be, and so on,” says Parker. The design team would send their uniforms to the athletes, who would then practice for about a week in the new uniforms; then Nike would take the athletes’ feedback to refine the uniform to send back for new tests on the same players, and so on and on.
The result, Nike hopes, is a uniform that will help make better players out of the men wearing them. “When they look good, they feel good and they play good,” says Parker.