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Technology with a Human Touch: The Future of Innovation for Women

This is a very exciting time to be at Nike. We’re leading apparel innovation a little differently — with female athletes at the center of our work. You’ll begin to see the results of some of our efforts with new products we’re releasing this summer, including football kits and a collection of high-performing sports bras. 

Janett Nichol

Janett Nichol, VP of Apparel Innovation at Nike. Illustration by Caroline Andrieu.

I work in the group responsible for ideas that shift how Nike makes garments. You’ve probably heard of DriFIT, which was one of our notable breakthroughs. My team and I are now focused on discovering new ways to create advanced products that give athletes an edge. A large part of accomplishing that requires interpreting a breadth of information to solve for ever-changing problems. 

Our process always starts by listening to the voice of the athlete. We also observe movement and interpret data with new tools at our disposal. We succeed thanks to encouraging a dialogue between athletes, data, designers, engineers and so on. To truly elevate an athlete’s performance and state of mind, we know we need to remain human and crack the emotional connection.

In the past, our products included a tag that read, “Nike engineered to the exact specifications of championship athletes.” Now, we’re enthralled by the opportunity to widen the vision for that declaration: We want to engineer for all.

To truly elevate an athlete’s performance and state of mind, we know we need to remain human and crack the emotional connection.

And we know we can do that because we have tremendous insights, and we find out every single thing we can about our athletes in partnership with our Nike Sport Research Lab. One of those exercises is body mapping, where we create digital body scans to show areas of high heat, sweat, cooling, movement and soreness. These maps help devise precisely where to place specific performance attributes within a garment. 

Because no athlete performs standing still, we also rely on 3D and 4D modeling. This helps us capture the body moving at 250 frames per second, with each frame having three-dimensional coordinates from an athlete’s movements. The technology allows us to create a digital product sample — rather than a paper sketch — and visualize in real time how a garment will perform in motion on an athlete. 

Then there’s an ever-evolving suite of digital design tools, including computational design, which enable us to use athlete data and computer-driven algorithms to create new aesthetics and features for performance benefits. 

What’s especially amazing is that we can layer the data to create truly innovative designs that take us to a new place. For example, when we were designing the FE/NOM Flyknit Bra, body maps and motion capture lead to a new software that enabled us to literally knit a performance benefit into every single stitch. We work in the details, which aren’t always visible to the naked eye. As with many of our designs, you don’t always need to see those details to know they’re working.  

But data doesn’t capture emotion, nor does an algorithm solve for the spirit of an athlete. We’re always conscious of that truth, and we keep it top of mind as we are designing, because we know our goal is to create that “I feel like a superhero when I wear this” effect. That’s why we’re emphasizing a more scientific approach to our athletes’ perceptions by determining the best ways to quantify and qualify their more subjective feedback. Because in the end, function and feel truly define form.

Good design demands our attention, and it impacts all of our senses. It blends art with science and technology with soul. With this in mind, and our commitment to capture all women who want to be fit and healthy, we will relentlessly ask, “How can we open up the aperture?” Through this lens, I believe our possibilities are endless.