Interview: Tobin Dorn
What do the X-Men, 2004 Olympics, Derek Jeter, and mixed martial arts (MMA) have in common? Tobin Dorn. To say the least, Tobin is a pretty interesting guy. He has worked with some of the biggest brands in the industry and picked up some crazy projects along the way.... Find out more and take a look at his story below!
CK: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am an American sport designer living and working in Curitiba, Brazil. I am originally from Miami, Florida and was granted a full scholarship to the New World School of the Arts in 1987. I was later accepted on a partial scholarship to Pratt Institute of Design in Brooklyn, NY where I began to get into illustration, story telling, and sport design. My first real job designing for a major sportswear brand was Fila, where I created the first xtrainers for Derek Jeter. In 1997 I was invited by the Puma heads to lead a creative team in Soho and create innovative concepts for both footwear and apparel collections. In 2000, I was featured on ’60 Minutes’ in a spot about Puma designers’ vision of the new millennium, with principal investor, Arnon Milcham. Milcham invited me to design boot concepts for his film, ‘XMEN 1’, where I created boots for Cyclops, Wolverine and Storm.
In 2001, I visited Brazil to compete in a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournament and met a young Brazilian girl who I fell in love with. I decided to move to Brazil and give it a try as a designer. Things worked out great and I eventually closed several big contracts and opened my sport design studio, New Level Design, in 2003. My first exclusive contracts were for the Umbro, Fila, Kappa and Tryon Brazil. I created performance footwear stories for the Brazilian world champion soccer player, Falcão and more than 48 footwear models in the categories of running, adventure, tennis and soccer. I have also worked for Mizuno, Topper and Rainha Brazil in the areas of creation, innovation and product story telling. In 2003, I was invited to come back to Puma and work in Germany designing track suit concepts for the Jamaican Olympic relay team that were worn at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. In 2011, I worked on advanced concepts for Puma again in the areas of performance running that will hit the market at the end of next year. Currently I am designing for Fila Brazil on future running and soccer concept lines.
CK: On your website it says you 'have two great passions: design and mixed martial arts-MMA'. Do you find yourself using the same approach for both or having to switch into a different mentality to design?
I have been involved in martial arts since 1997. I have trained in the USA and Brazil and was awarded my black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at the world famous Chuteboxe academy in Curitiba, Brazil, in 2008. I trained daily with MMA champions like Wanderlei Silva, Anderson Silva, Mauricio Shogun, Murilo Ninja, Cyborg, Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos, Rafael Cordeiro, among others. I have created logos for Anderson Silva and Mauricio Shogun and treat all my projects the same. I first get to know the subject whether it is an MMA fighter or a sportswear brand and then create a captivating story to sell the project. Usually I look first to nature and find similarities that can be visualized and then commercialized.
CK: What inspires you to design?
I find inspiration from everything around me all the time like movies, books, TV shows, people and trips. I cannot work without music so I would have to say that music plays a big part in the creation process for me to be able to get into that mode I call truth. Without truth I cannot connect and find that platform I like to call the story.
CK: What is one of your favorite designs you have put out and why?
I really liked the Muhammad Ali inspired killer bee that I created for Anderson Silva. I also created some cool soccer boots for Falcão and Umbro called Octopax. These soccer shoes had a focus on grip and control, so I looked at the octopus for inspiration and was inspired by the tentacles. I also like working on the Jamaican Olympic track suits for Puma. Those were inspired from the ancient toga but were updated with futuristic moisture wicking and multi directional stretch fabrics.
CK: Having worked on everything from bags and logos to football kits, what is it about footwear design that keeps you coming back?
I am by nature an illustrator and was offered a position at Disney to work on animated films. I use my abilities as an illustrator and tell my product stories both with my visuals, presentations and my speech. I incorporate industrial design, graphic design, animation, character design, and marketing to deliver a desirable and sexy solution for a product that everyone needs and needs to constantly update to communicate their identity to the rest of the world.
CK: With so many different clients (Puma, Fila, Umbro, Topper, Mizuno- just to name a few) can you tell us what it is like coming in and working with these brands?
These brands are considered to be industry leaders. First it is always an honor to work with serious brands that treat designers and creative with respect and give value to our designs. They contract competent and accomplished professionals that understand the business side of sportswear. So critiques are never personal, they just want to improve their product offerings. There are tight deadlines and lots of brain storming meetings that always leave a designer with a lot to take home and reflect on. It is non stop learning and collaborating with people who really want to change the game.
CK: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages you've faced working as a freelance consultant?
I think the biggest challenge is to understand that your designs are only one part of a process. The success of your projects don’t only depend on you or your design team, but depend on marketing and sales support. If all three areas are in synergy then the chance for success is greater. Trying to convince clients of this sometimes at the beginning of a presentation is difficult.
CK: What advice/portfolio tips would you give to anybody looking to break into the industry?
I would always suggest to be true to yourself. You need to understand the project briefing and the consumer who will eventually buy your design. Then you need to create what you honestly feel is the best solution. Fight for your designs but also know when to compromise.
CK: Having gone to Pratt, what advice would you give the younger crowd for choosing a college?
Colleges like Pratt are amazing if you have the opportunity to attend them. The people who you will be designing next too gave me a lot of inspiration throughout the years. But honestly, it doesn’t matter what college you go to. It is all about the designer and explorer inside that matters. That is who is going to take you where you want to go. I had several friends who dropped out of Pratt after the first year and became footwear designers at Fila. These guys helped me get my foot in the door when I graduated. They were super talented and shared their experience with me. I think that college is really important for most to evolve but not totally necessary. Props to my boy Joe Joe Davis for showing me the game.
CK: Any last thoughts you would like to add?
Story telling is the DNA of any great project.