John Hoke: Nike’s Design Leader

By Stephanie Huie


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 • After a recent visit to the Windward School, a school for children with dyslexia and language-based learning differences, Hoke spoke about the benefits and challenges of having dyslexia • Following is an excerpt from that interview

How would you describe dyslexia to those who are not dyslexic?
I believe that dyslexia is a gift. 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 backwards or upside down. At the time, dyslexia was conveyed to me as a disability in how I processed information. It wasn’t always a gift because, as a young kid, you don’t want to be different. I absolutely hated 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 the 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 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. 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.

During your visit to our Manhattan campus, what was your impression of the Windward School?
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? 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. 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.

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 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. I savor that creative spirit.

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 key words, key images, and key triggers in the speech, so I can present without having to read it word for word.

What advice would you give young people?
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.

Final Thoughts

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 made for learners who are 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 opportunity for yourself. Remember, if you show vulnerability, it will come back to you as a strength. 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.

This article was originally published in The Windward Institute’s The Beacon Spring 2019 issue. You can read the entire article at To learn more about the Windward School, see Stephanie Huie is the Associate Director of Digital Communications & Publications at the Windward School.