With his accomplished career, one suspects Matt Holmes has already achieved a kind of design nirvana upon top of which the Black Pin for Career Achievement is, perhaps, a cherry – albeit a sweet one – on top.

Holmes, a Nelson boy, has, through design, ended up quite a way from the top of the South Island. Since May ’97 he’s been based in Portland, Oregon, working his way through the ranks to the position he holds today: creative director of innovation at Nike Global Footwear. There, on a campus of around 10,000 staff, including 800 designers, Holmes works out the future product directions of the footwear and apparel giant.

Talking with Holmes, one thing is obvious. He loves his work; however, importantly, he’s found a way to maintain delight and curiosity, two qualities he exhibited as a sports-mad Nelson youngster extending the life of his weekday tennis shoes ($9.95 Bata Bullets) with metal plates, Shoe Goo, tape and deodorant roller balls (toe-dragger) so his number ones (Nike Resistance, yes, presciently on brand) were preserved for Saturday mornings. He’d literally rip through a pair of Bata Bullets in a fortnight, he says. Modifications were essential.

Born in the UK to creative parents (Mum: sculpture and piano; Dad, “everything”), Holmes was five when he arrived in Nelson, a town that was perfectly suited to his parents’ arts and crafts inclinations. At home, he learnt woodworking, welding, metal casting – aluminium, bronze – air brushing and sculpting. A few years later, the school guidance counsellor, finger perhaps not on pulse, suggested he enrol in nursing school – which he duly did, before being saved from a life of saving lives by a ‘Delorean moment’. That is, he saw a Delorean (you know, Back to the Future’s time machine, if you have to ask you’re too young) on the streets of sleepy Nelson. He saw it when he was answering a classifed ad placed in the Nelson Evening Mail for a pair of Nikes, believe it or not. “It stunned me,” he recalls. “Wow! Somebody is making these things?”

The following day he went to his art teacher on a quest to find out “who does cars, shoes and equipment?” “An industrial designer.” “Why have you never told us about industrial design!?”

One viewing later, of a video showing Phillips designers at work on radios, and he knew; “This was it.”

“It stunned me,” he recalls. “Wow! Somebody is making these things?”

Wellington Design School beckoned. Leon Yap, Noel Benner, Mark Pennington, Tony Wincart and Helen Mitchell were lecturers. Workshop tutor Eric Bond is fondly remembered: “He was just brutal but you learnt so much about perfection; you’ve got to keep doing it until you get it right”. Tony Parker, he recalls, was the only professional industrial designer. “He was our role model…great at rendering and finishing skills. He was super talented.”

After graduating, Holmes’ career followed what has become an almost typical New Zealand design trajectory. He went to Mosgiel, to Fisher & Paykel, to work on ovens and cooktops before joining the DishDrawer design team. Them that achievement squared away, and after seven years in Dunedin, it was time to head offshore. Portfolio in hand he hit San Francisco and was interviewed at Ideo, Sony and Apple. Job offers followed, including, memorably, a position at Apple. “I was sitting with Jonathon Ive,” he recalls. “He said, ‘We’d love you to join our team but it seems like you’re really into sports and fitness. Do you really want to work on computers? Do you think it’s something you’d love to do?’”

Actually, it wasn’t. I've, admiring his honesty, put in a call to a friend at Nike. “They flew me up the next day and I got the job. It was pretty crazy.”

At Nike, Holmes’ first role in cross training gear was aided by his wide interest in sports. It was, he says, initially challenging because there was not one clear consumer, but it was an opportunity to learn about “how to get products to connect with consumers without a lot of help from the brand”.

Nike Running – the company’s biggest category – was next. After a four-year stint as design manager he became design director for the next three. It was hard work. Long hours, a huge amount of travel. “Sixty-five hours a week travelling to Korea and Taiwan nine or ten times a year. It just about knocked me over. In the end of that they just said where do you want to go? I said tennis or innovation. So I got a short time in tennis, it was supposed to be a year and half, but ended being nine months. I got to work with Roger Federer and Nadal, and that was just amazing. Because of the nature of the tennis tour, you just follow the sun.”

Today, as Creative Director of Innovation Footwear, Holmes role is to set a vision for his team, recruit the right people, find the right mix of problem solvers, those aesthetically strong and maintain an all important “positive vibe”. At the moment, there are 23 in his direct team, which includes sector design directors each with a team underneath them. “I’m setting the future direction for those guys, challenging them, trying to show them things on the horizon from science that are coming along and are going to affect athletes – and us – across the next 10, 20 and 30 years.

So, what sorts of things are Homes’ priorities right now. What are the things to look out for. “Design starts with insights,” he says. “You’re always trying to make it better for athletes, so you’re constantly searching for insights, whether it’s in the Nike sports research lab, by looking at high speed video, watching games and analysing data around a game. You might be watching Rafa [Rafael Nadal] serving and see his shirt twisting and pulling; we can eliminate that and then, when we do, we want the solution to be as bold and iconic as it can. It’s also got to be intuitive, so people get it immediately…make it clear and make it bold.”

“I’m setting the future direction for those guys, challenging them, trying to show them things on the horizon from science that are coming along and are going to affect athletes – and us – across the next 10, 20 and 30 years.”

Innovation also comes in the form of manufacturing. A good example is Nike’s Flyknit shoes. Knitted, as the name suggests, rather than traditionally assembled, the shoes offers benefits to users – they are light and strong – and production efficiencies. For every two shoes that are produced in a more traditional manner there’s one of waste, explains Holmes. “So a third of our materials are basically getting thrown away”. One of the first attempts at more efficent manufacturing involved taking the waste and turning it into shoes, “which is kind of a half-arse way to do things”.

“It was looking at the problem but not in the right way.”

Direct manufacturing, which means being able to send a programme to a machine and have it knit exactly what you want with no left over waste, has “made a massive change”.

As a designer that is near the apex of the professional, it is always interesting to hear about the chracteristics of the best designers. For Holmes, it’s curiosity, “an attitude; you’ve just got to be a problem solver, an entrepreneur, you’re looking for that mindset, that person that would probably go and do it out by themselves.”

“They’d find a way to do it by themselves, but when they join our team and we give them the resources they need they just catch on fire and start thriving on the collaboration.”

-Michael Barret