Design Director at Nike, Daniel Whiteneck, on Breaking into the Sports Design Industry
Daniel Whiteneck is a multi-faceted creative with expertise in branding, art direction, graphic design, and architectural/retail design. He's currently located in Amsterdam where he works as Design Director at Nike. When he's not being a stellar creative for one of the world's leading sports brands, you'll find him rocking out on the bass guitar with his band. We caught up with Daniel to discover where it all began for him and get his perspective on what it takes for aspiring sports designers to get a foot in the door of the competitive industry.
So Daniel, you seem to be a man of many talents… from branding, to graphic design, retail/spacial design, to motion. What came first and what made you want to use your skills specifically for producing content for sports brands?
I always loved drawing when I was a kid. This was mostly just comic book stuff and I had no idea that it was even an option to carve a creative career... perhaps a pretty typical story for any kid growing up in rural Oklahoma, USA. But even when I went to college, I didn’t really have a career plan in mind. I knew I wanted to do something creative, but really didn’t have a clue as to what that thing was.
So I majored in sculpture… which was definitely the more hardcore fine arts path to take. Back then I thought graphic design was wayyyy to corporate. With my sculpture degree, I worked at a bronze foundry for a few years. This wasn’t all that fulfilling, but I was playing in a band at that time which is where I focused creative energy. So the foundry was just a day job. Of course the band eventually cooled off and broke up, which just left me with a somewhat shitty day job, even though there were some very cool aspects to it. I will say that I learned a great deal about craft from this job and the focus, dedication, and detail it takes for a team of people to achieve something with great results. It's still cool to go back occasionally and see a few public sculptures I worked on in weird places like the airport.
"In the end, hard work and true commitment to a goal will get you anywhere you want to be."
Anyways, by this point I decided to go back to school to get a more career focused degree. I'd realised that I wanted to be a designer, situated within the built environment. So I moved to Chicago to earn my Master’s of Architecture. This was a really great experience, which exposed me to a lot of killer designers and ideas. I'd say it was a pivotal experience in shaping my design worldview.
After I wrapped up school in Chicago, I decided to move to Portland (where my soon-to-be wife was located), and spent a month or so putting a portfolio together and researching where I wanted to work. I guess when I was at school, I hadn't thought too much about the future and just really focused on the task at hand. Anyway, I think I just got super lucky and was in the right place at the right time. I managed to land a job with Nike. They took a chance on me with a freelance gig in their Global Retail Design team and I've never looked back since.
Not sure that I ever thought about working at Nike or in the sports world much beforehand, but it has turned out to be a pretty good fit for me!
What stage of the creative process, when working on major projects for the likes of Nike and Jordan, do you enjoy most? What aspects do you find most challenging?
Generally, when I get a brief I like to start putting things on paper straight away. In the creative process, some things stick, some don’t. But I think it’s always good to try to visualise the ideas early on so that you can really hone in, and have the time to properly develop different aspects throughout the process.
Once I have a tangible idea that others can generally agree is the right direction, I start crafting it. This part is always super fun. Whether it’s working with super talented partners to help bring my vision to life or just doing it all myself, the craft part is where something can really become a ~thing~. I also like the delivery aspect of projects too. I think I’m a bit OCD, so it’s therapeutic for me to make sure all my t’s are crossed and lower case j’s dotted.
I'd say all parts have equal opportunity to be challenging. But that’s just part of the process. I’m generally pretty low-stress about setbacks in a project as I know they're bound to happen so I just keep pushing forward. The trick is to try to let the feedback make a project better and not just a watered down version of the original idea.
What's been the stand-out project of your career so far?
Hmm, I’m not sure that I have just one. I hope a true stand-out project is still in front of me! But to name a few memorable ones...
- Renovating the basketball floor of Niketown, NY!
- The Air Jordan 32 campaign
- The Space Jam campaign
- Jordan B/W product launch party
- Derek Jeter pop up shop across from Yankee Stadium!
- Sole DXB sneaker-head thing in Dubai
What does a typical day look like for you?
Jeezzzzz that really depends…
I’m not really a morning person. I'm generally in the office by 9 or 10am. Then I’m basically in meetings all day, or in conversations with my team giving feedback on projects, and making bad jokes. As the Design Director, I don’t really do all that much sitting at the computer and designing anymore. Although I still try to squeeze in an hour here or there where I can. I must say, communication takes up a lot of my time with emailing and calls. I think when I'm old and washed up I'll ditch my phone and do everything totally unplugged. I’m typically in the office until 7 or 8pm and then I go home, have dinner, and usually watch a basketball game. Then I do it all over again the next day!
"The trick is to try to let the feedback make a project better and not just a watered down version of the original idea."
For anyone trying to get a foot in the sports design industry, what’s the best piece of advice you can give?
Hmm, great question. I think if you keep your head down and focus on doing truly great work, regardless of who the client is, then something good will happen for you. Persistence, tenacity, and hard work beat pure talent every time. I think, oddly enough, that some of the most interesting voices in sports design come from people who don’t know anything about sports. Of course, the opposite is also true…people who have a deep understanding of a sport are often able to find insights that really give a project depth. In the end, hard work and true commitment to a goal will get you anywhere you want to be.
How much value do you believe personal projects have in a designer’s portfolio? Did they play a significant role in getting you where you are today?
I think personal projects are totally relevant! There is nothing better than seeing something creative that somebody has made purely for the love and joy of the process. I think it really offers an insight into an individual's personality and work ethic. My side project has always been music. I’m not sure that anybody’s ever cared about it, in terms of getting a promotion or anything like that, but it does help shape who I am. So in that regard, I suppose it’s been instrumental in getting me where I am today.
Finally, as our name suggests, here at Mantra we’re curious about what keeps our favourite creatives driven and pushing forward. What’s your personal mantra, Daniel?
Show up everyday, work you ass off, and ride the lightning!
Check out more of Daniel's work here.