John Hoke, Chief Design Officer at Nike

John Hoke, Chief Design Officer at Nike
Stephanie Dunn

As chief design officer of Nike, John Hoke leads an international team of designers in conceiving, creating, and advancing the design ethos of the popular athletic brand. Mr. Hoke joined Nike in 1993, and he has served in several leadership capacities at the company, including his previous roles of vice president of global design, vice president of global footwear design, creative director of environmental design, and global creative director of image design. Mr. Hoke holds a BS in architecture from Penn State University, a MArch in design from the University of Pennsylvania, and a SEP MBA from Stanford University. He and his wife reside in Oregon with their three children.

To begin, how would you describe dyslexia to those who are not dyslexic?
Well, I believe that dyslexia is a gift itself. It’s a different filter. Dyslexics have a different way of seeing, perceiving, and experiencing language, mathematics, and learning. Dyslexia provides a lens for deeper perception, which I think is a strength. It’s just a way of viewing the world that is slightly different than how individuals who are not dyslexic might.

Did you always view being dyslexic as a gift, even when you were first diagnosed?
I was diagnosed in first or second grade. I was a slow reader, and my writing was either backward or upside down. At the time, dyslexia was conveyed to me as a disability in how I could process information. It wasn’t always a gift because, as a young kid, you don’t want to be different. I absolutely hated with a passion when I had to read out loud in class. It was anxiety-inducing because I was in a public setting, trying to quickly absorb the material in front of me, then trying to have my brain process it into words that I’m using with my speech. I would think, “What is wrong with me?” I felt stupid because I couldn’t do what everybody else could do quite naturally.

Did your diagnosis have any effect on you?
I grew up outside of Providence, RI, and my parents were able to quickly get me to see a specialist from Brown University, where they were doing cutting-edge work with young kids who were dyslexic. Right from the beginning, the people there were saying dyslexia wasn’t going to be a burden. With the support around me, with my parents and the people that helped me, I quickly realized this could give me an advantage. My advantage was through art, design, and creativity, which is lucky because that’s where I landed.

Once you knew you were dyslexic, how did you navigate beginning to learn how to read and write?
I spent a lot of time with penmanship. I had blank sheets of paper and repeated drawing the alphabet letters over and over again. That was one of the gateways for me to drawing because I was fastidious on exactly how the letters were drawn, remembering exactly what they looked like graphically. I was able to begin to look beyond just what the letter was and see the graphic, compositional beauty of the letter itself. That’s how I got started with art and design.

Do you have other memories from your schooling experience in which you faced challenges? 
One fond memory I have is from ninth grade when I had to read Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities. We were reading at a pace of 20 pages a night with comprehension reviews the next morning, and I just could not do the reading and then comprehend it. My mother, in great spirits, ended up reading it aloud to me. As it was being read to me, it would be like watching a movie, and I could comprehend every single nuance. I was lucky; I had parents who would do anything to help me learn the material. Any time I faced challenges, the adversity was tough, but I learned that it makes you more resilient and stronger.

You extended your schooling by enrolling in the Stanford Executive Program. While you were in the graduate program, did you recognize that your dyslexia made you think differently than others?
No doubt. I just offered a slightly different perspective— let’s call it a diversity lens of the material— which was always viewed as positive. I could look at things and find subtleties that others may have missed or overlooked. I would contribute less of the empirical data and more of an emotional narrative about the marketplace, such as a consumer idea or a market opportunity. My study group’s willingness to work with me— by analyzing our case studies by talking out loud rather than referencing the reading material–helped us land together in a better place. I find this attitude to be true at my job at Nike, too. We are a company that loves to put diverse people around the table because that creates curiosity, and curiosity is the mother’s milk of innovation, which is our advantage. Bringing different opinions to the table and honoring all those perspectives helps make you better.

Have you found technology helpful in facing challenges due to your dyslexia?
Working at Nike, I’ve had wonderful opportunities to get to know lots of business leaders. I came to know Steve Jobs pretty well. We were talking on the phone one day, and I was telling him that I would have never graduated if it weren’t for his Apple IIc personal computer. I used it for graphics, but there was a word processing product that had the spell-check feature. If I spell-checked anything I wrote, it was almost all red! The automation removed the burden of having to sit and look up everything in the dictionary. So, on the phone, I thanked him for building an amazing tool that helped me graduate from college.

How did you first learn about The Windward School? During your visit to the Manhattan campus with Head of School Dr. Russell last April, what was your impression of Windward?
Dr. Russell reached out to me not too long after I was featured in a New York Times article in which I shared how my dyslexia was helping me become a better leader at Nike. I met Dr. Russell uptown and had a thoroughly enjoyable visit. It was wonderful because there was a certain familiarity with these kids and their struggles, but they have the right faculty and the right discourse to help them meet their full potential as students and as kids. I think the Windward program is an incredible unlocking of learning for the students because the burden of anxiety and shame of being dyslexic fades into the background. Instead, the kids focus on: What can I do? How high can I go?  What’s possible with my experiences, my brain, my desire, and my ambition? That’s definitely what I saw at The Windward School. It’s not about what the kids can’t do; it’s about what they will do, how they will contribute, and how they will have an impact. It’s not a lesser-than education; it’s just completely tailored to what their needs are. Lastly, I was struck by how many smiles I saw on the kids’ faces at Windward. They were genuinely happy, and I left the school with a big smile on my face too.

After The New York Times article was published, did other members of the dyslexia community reach out to you?
Remarkably, I had hundreds of people contacting me saying, “Thank you for being so vulnerable to tell people in a public forum that you’re dyslexic.” I didn’t really think anything of it because it is who I am, but it did draw my attention to the fact that maybe there’s not a lot of knowledge out there around dyslexia. Since then, I’ve also visited a couple of local schools in Portland, OR that deal with dyslexia, and I’ve done fundraisers. It’s great because I get to contribute and talk to students, faculty, and parents about what it’s like to be dyslexic and what I believe that experience can be.

I think the Windward program is an incredible unlocking of learning for the students because the burden of anxiety and shame of being dyslexic fades into the background. 

You have said that being dyslexic has helped you be a better chief design officer at Nike. Can you describe what your work entails and how you lead a thousand designers?
My job is to set a standard for all our creatives because we have 30 different disciplines of design, from footwear to apparel to graphics to architecture and on and on. As a leader, I motivate and inspire the group to continuously find new problems to solve and then to solve those in ways that are unique and distinctive to Nike. Another big part of my job is to help communicate the overall vision of our company from a creative perspective and to have that be an inspiration and motivation, not just for our employees but for our athletes and consumers around the world. After having been here nearly 30 years, I still get speeding tickets driving to the office because I’m excited by the creative ideas and restless curiosity that our designers possess about every season and every year. I savor that creative spirit that our company has.

Is there something surprising about your position that most people would not expect?
I still spend a lot of my time drawing in my sketchbooks. I’m a doodler. It’s one of the ways I work out things still. I like to draw my ideas because, as I draw them, it forces me to think about the relationships of how things are built–the compositional relationships or the aesthetic. In those quiet moments, my brain is really firing because I’m synthesizing my intuition, the problem in front of me, the context of the problem, and the consumer narrative, and I’m pulling all those levers with my pen.

Can you talk about any hurdles you have encountered in the workplace due to your dyslexia?
The main challenge for me has always been trying not to hide my own dyslexia but instead find workarounds in ways that can help me. I lead a thousand designers at Nike, and I am frequently in a public setting in front of many of them. I cannot read a speech because my brain doesn’t work that way. So, I’ve had to figure out how to be a personality on a public stage to deliver big messages, without reading. My workaround is finding keywords, key images, and key triggers in the speech, so I can present without having to read it word for word.

For any young people who would like to be designers or follow a career path like yours, is there any advice that you would give them?
The advice I give all young people is this: The future is unwritten, unknown, and unpredictable. The things that you can predict are your own persistence and your own dedication to yourself, such as through your education. There is no endgame to education; the endgame is having a hunger to question and to always be curious. I’m 54 years old, and I wake up with a sense of wonder about what’s coming and what’s next. Staying agile and adaptable is important too because the world will continue to change. The sheer willpower of wanting to have an impact and make a difference is key for any young person, dyslexic or not. Career-wise, it’s hard to know exactly what you want to do as a kid, but I encourage kids to challenge themselves and look at adversity as a gift, not a burden.

For dyslexic children, what is a message you would wish to share with them?
Dyslexia is something that we are continuing to discover as a unique gift in the world. It’s critically important for dyslexic kids to know that they must be resilient because the world is aggregated for a learner who is not dyslexic. So, you must be an advocate for yourself. Do not accept things as they are presented to you, but create change and create an opportunity for yourself. Remember, if you show vulnerability, it will come back to you as a strength. The world is not The Windward School,  so be resilient and self-advocate to acquire the tools you need to navigate your future and to make the greatest impact as a kid and as an adult.