American industrial designer making his mark on the world

Jason Mayden left Nike to look after his son’s dietary issues and it is now a professional passion

Most boys want to become star athletes when they grow up; rather fewer want to become star designers. But for Jason Mayden, growing up in an unforgiving inner-city environment in Chicago in the 1990s, one dream led inexorably to the other – somehow, instead of fronting an ad campaign as a star athlete with a lucrative Nike contract, Mayden ended up becoming one of Nike's leading industrial designers.

And in that unusual career path, the thoughtful Mayden traces many larger life lessons.

“Growing up on the south side of Chicago, at the height of not only the Chicago Bulls, but also the Bears and the White Sox, sport in general was a huge influence over my life,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to see grown men have structure, discipline and brotherhood, so it allowed me to look at myself through the lens of their life and accomplishments. Because at that time, it was very hard for young men to find examples of who they could possibly become, and so sport allowed me to see those possibilities.”

The lessons which Mayden took from sport, however, were much larger than merely seeing that young black men had opportunities to succeed.


“It was great because those possibilities existed for men that looked like me, in terms of race, men that didn’t look like me but still had the same mentality or attitude towards life, and many of those men came from other countries,” he says.

“It really resonated with me that sports, much like maths and music and art, is a universal language, at its core. It’s really about competition, not with someone in front of you, but with your innermost fears, your insecurities, your weaknesses, the things that make you feel fragile. I thought athletes overcame their fears every single night when they put on that uniform, and it motivated me towards being part of that industry.”

Mayden, who visits Dublin next month to address the Ibec CEO Conference, speaks often of opportunities – growing up in a disadvantaged area of Chicago, he was acutely aware that opportunities were precious and that he had to work hard to make the most of the chances that came his way.

That perception of the value of opportunities was made all the more vivid when he was 16. Excelling at American football, he had a potential scholarship to play football at university, but that was changed in an an instant when he was struck by a drunk driver.

“Thankfully I wasn’t very badly injured, but it was a wake-up call telling me that I needed to look at life in terms of how fragile it is, but also look at all the things I could potentially become, and not put all my eggs in one basket.”

It was at this stage that Mayden’s track and field coach, noticing his passion for art, guided him towards the world of design.

“Because of the accident, I had to stop playing football for a year, and it gave me time to explore career paths, which is when I found out about industrial design. I gave up my sports and academic scholarship and I went to art school in Detroit, and haven’t looked back since.”

Design internship

While studying at Detroit’s College of Creative Studies, Mayden was determined to land a position with Nike and he was tireless in pursuing his goal.

“I was rejected by Nike three times, I wrote letters, I sent my portfolio, and on the next time, I figured instead of just sending queries through the mail, I would actually send a portion of who I am, and I just told my story rather than just show them my work. I said, ‘This isn’t about Nike, this isn’t about footwear, it’s about possibilities. If I had this opportunity, it would change the possibilities not only for myself, but for people like me.’”

The narrative approach worked, and Mayden was offered the first design internship at the Jordan Brand unit, the Nike subsidiary that oversees Michael Jordan-endorsed apparel and gear.

When Mayden was told he would be placed with the Jordan Brand unit, becoming their first design intern, he says: "I literally stood up and just screamed, by the sheer failure of the first two times I applied led me to exactly to the place I wanted to be as a child, designing the Air Jordan.

"On my first day on Nike's campus in Oregon, literally when I stepped out of the elevator, the first two people I saw were Michael Jordan, who was in town that day, and Larry Miller, the president of Jordan Brand, two people I never in a million years thought I'd meet, never mind be working for. I seized the moment and just told them: 'This is where I want to be, I'm not leaving, give me a job, I'll do whatever it takes.'

“They were honest, they said just don’t screw up, take advantage of your moment, stay hungry and remain curious and you’ll be fine, and I’ve kept to that advice my entire life.”

Wide portfolio

That approach to life has paid off spectacularly: the internship led to a full-time position, when he did indeed design Air Jordans. Subsequently Nike, impressed by his drive and ability, sent Mayden to Stanford to pursue a master’s in business management. Once back in Oregon, Mayden took on a wide portfolio of responsibilities, becoming the global director of innovation at the digital sport unit.

It was in this role that he oversaw the launch of the Nike Fuelband, the well-regarded but now discontinued activity-logging wrist band. Mayden is as thoughtful about wearables as he is about sport and design in general.

“When we talk about the internet of things and this whole connected world, I feel what people are skipping over is that great technology recedes to the background.

“So as much as wearables are something that people celebrate today, for people who are digital natives like our children, they are not going to be bothered by something on their wrist, they are just going to expect that the things in their life communicate in their world and environment. Because of that, I’m excited for what happens after wearables.”

As a luminary of the Jordan Brand division, Mayden is particularly articulate about the enduring power of Michael Jordan and his instantly recognisable marque. As a piece of branding, Jordan the person and the logo became kind of inextricable, and it remains one of the most successful pieces of branding ever.

“We had the archetype of the ‘Jump man’ – literally the logo, the silhouette of Michael, became a symbol of aspiration, it became a symbol of achievement, a symbol of reaching higher, for living your dreams, all those things that come along with aspiration,” says Mayden.

“What’s interesting is what people react to when they see the Jordan brand, because it is different for different generations, because this generation of kids, they’re learning from their older brothers and fathers about Michael, and he has almost become like folklore, he has become a myth, this man who did these things, flying through the air, scoring 69 points in a game. These are now oral tales that are passed down from generation to generation, and what they all embody is this element of hope and this element of overcoming obstacles.”

Now, at 34, when athletes’ careers are winding down, Mayden is embarking on a whole new chapter. With a career spent meeting the unmet needs of athletes and fitness enthusiasts, Mayden is now tackling the other side of the coin: people struggling with diet and lifestyle. For Mayden, it is a personal quest – he left Nike to take care of his son, who was suffering health problems and weight gain.

“My son had faced a significant challenge in terms of food allergies. We didn’t know he had a host of allergies, but it was affecting his development. I quit my job, became a full-time dad, and it was the biggest blessing I ever had, because I was really able to put all of my time and energy into help finding out what was challenging my son’s development. When we found it was allergies related to foodstuffs that are in everything, it led me to wonder how do we help people to understand what they are eating.”

The research he undertook to address his son's health concerns has fuelled a passion for diet and nutrition, which dovetails with his new role as vice-president of design at new product studio Mark One.

Health goals

In Mark One, Mayden oversees everything from UX (user experience design which is concerned primarily with how a product feels) and UI (user interface design which looks at how it is laid out) to design research, industrial design and brand design. He is also overseeing the design of a particularly ambitious project, the Vessyl, a device that sounds like something out of a sci-fi film – a stylishly designed cup that identifies and tracks what you’re drinking, counting calories and nutrients along the way. In some ways, it is a logical extension of Mayden’s work on the Nike Fuelband.

“What we’re working on is something that not only is about helping people to reach their health goals, but it also helps people to understand the importance of food as fuel and food as preventive medicine, food as a mechanism for improving not just health but wellbeing.

“Liquid calories are the ones people have the hardest time estimating, people are often severely inaccurate counting calories from drinks.”

In a related endeavour, Mayden is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, focusing on “research that digs into wellbeing, health and nutrition, as well as social, emotional and cognitive development of young boys, particularly young boys of colour, to start with, and then scale out to all boys. One of the missing pieces in assessing wellbeing is the role of proper guidance and mentorship for young men”.

Just as Mayden sees sport as a universal language, he feels much the same way about design, but also sees fundamental parallels between the two fields.

“The way that design teaches you how to think is actually very similar to the way sport teaches you how to think – good design, in my humble opinion, is about anticipation of a person’s needs, and great athletes have the ability to anticipate too. They manipulate space, the space and distance between them and their opponent, and designers take advantage of gaps in the market, take advantage of unmet needs, the space between a person and their need is where designers are able to find better problems to solve.”

It’s an unlikely analogy, but speaks to Mayden’s approach to life. As he puts it himself: “By always asking questions and never having the answers, it led me down a very unique career path.” Jason Mayden will address Ibec’s CEO Conference on March 4th, which looks at the importance of design in addressing the challenges facing business. In the year that Ireland celebrates Irish Design, the conference is being held in association with Irish Design 2015.

CV Name: Jason Mayden Job title: Vice-president of design at Mark One

Age: 34

Family: Married to Sonrisa with two children, son Khalil and daughter Viviana

Nationality: American

What you might expect: Discussing how wearables might potentially change our lives: “It’s an exciting time, because at this moment of time in design, we haven’t had this moment since probably the industrial revolution. We can redefine what the world looks like through design, it’s extremely exciting.”

What you might not expect: “I was about to take a job in private equity, take a job that paid a really decent salary, and the salary was going to fund this research into my son’s allergies, but when I sat at the table in New York, and as I was getting ready to sign the paperwork, I said a prayer to myself and realised this isn’t for me. And then my phone rings, and it was a vice-president at Mark One.”