How to be a creative “SUPER POWER”! And 3 Major lessons from celebrated designer Matthew Rhoades



Creative leader Matthew Rhoades‘ celebrated 25-year career as a designer, strategist, and thought leader has taken him all over the world to discover, learn and innovate on what makes great design. A former Global Creative Director at Nike, he is now Master of Strategic Design and Innovation + Professor at DeTao School of Design in Shanghai and founder of the award-winning product design agency, MatteLab. As a seasoned designer and instructor with an M.B.A and dozens of patents to his name, Matthew is uniquely qualified to speak about the relationship between the business and creative sides of design.


Matthew Rhoades


We asked Matthew to look back on his lifelong career. He reflects on the experiences that shaped him and describes some of the important lessons he learned along the way.


Thank you, Matthew, for sharing your story with us!


Design is Art with a Purpose


Art sends you out into unique and unexpected places. Design brings you back to give it purpose and meaning. You have to orbit around an opportunity to find its potential.


Design takes you in new directions. If everybody “zigs” we are going in a circle. I like the idea of zagging it up. I like to zag to challenge people’s expectations.


I’m a bit of a pulverizer. Every industry I’ve been in, I’d like to think I’ve had a significant impact on it—from the third most influential mountain bike of all time to the baseball equipment so well-designed it is used by Olympic sharpshooters, biathlon athletes, and speed skaters.


Career Highlights

My “superpower” – I can draw creative inspiration from anywhere. I can pull inspiration from anything at anytime. I flip an idea on its head and look for ways to disrupt it. When I was coming out of design school, I went to go work on bikes in Wisconsin. My friends told me, “Don’t move to Wisconsin. There’s no design there.” They felt there were no creative opportunities there. But I just wanted to have fun and have a lasting impact on the industry.



I was the first designer at Trek, in an industry that was traditionally innovative in its creativity. I was supposed to have gone to work on technology—cellphones and computers. Instead, my sport career was always about having fun and making my mark.


The Projects

The Trek Bike: This “failure” was a success. All of the successful projects I’ve been involved in, people didn’t like originally or thought they would fail. People only know what they’ve seen. If you show them something different it takes them time to understand and ultimately accept it. If they accept it they’ll spend money on it, wear it, and talk about it. Every great project I’ve worked on didn’t start as a product brief. Just an idea: We want to do a bike that changes the industry.



Running Accessories: The design of the Nike+Apple Running Armband was a successful but short-lived venture. This was an interesting project because it was a wearable that bridged the gap between tech and sport. Some projects are for the here and now. In-line design has to happen right now. It’s not the future of design, it’s meeting the current need.


3 Major Lessons Learned


1. Be Afraid of Nothing

3 hours after high school commencement, I moved to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska for two years to camp, hike, fish, travel, and get to know myself. I wanted to get away from everything I knew and reflect. I had no interest in going to college at all, I was, in all honesty, not a very good student. I tried being a wholesale florist. I backpacked through Europe for a year on $2500.


I lived in downtown Seattle going to art school there in the late 80s after I got back from backpacking through Europe. I used to go to all the clubs and concerts around downtown Seattle in the late 80s. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees. I didn’t like it, I thought the music was horrible. I went to the very first Lollapalooza concert. I went to the first reunion Woodstock when it came back in ’94. The advent of industrial and techno music fed into who I was.


When I came out of this period of self-reflection and cultural discovery, I realized what my true calling was—design. I now had the confidence to dive right in and pursue my purpose.

Projects I stumbled onto and said “yes” to without thinking include the Napster 2.0 website (the world’s first filesharing program). I worked on the very first DVR project, designing the box for Tivo. I worked on the first generation Nike eyewear and watches.


2. Think Differently

There’s a buddy of mine that I grew up with who is a college professor and philosopher in LA. We get together and start talking about the philosophy of aesthetics. He started taking philosophy classes to understand what his art actually meant. We talk about inductive reasoning and playing with opposites. That’s where my version of a mind map, the Disruption Map, came from.


There’s a buddy of mine that I grew up with who is a college professor and philosopher in LA. We get together and start talking about the philosophy of aesthetics. He started taking philosophy classes to understand what his art actually meant. We talk about inductive reasoning and playing with opposites. That’s where my version of a mind map, the Disruption Map, came from.


I thrive on inductive reasoning. You start with a problem and solve it. No one teaches inductive reasoning, which essentially is how to fail. Start with a truth and end with a truth. Flip it over, look at the back side of something, don’t look at the same perspective you’ve always seen. It’s looking at something with fresh eyes.



3. Great Design Has a Purpose

Hands down, I’ve always loved design that had a clear purpose. A computer hard drive to me is just a beautiful object, but a bike you can jump on, ride, and go really fast. Miscellaneous technologies are just not as inspiring to me. Technology comes and goes too fast without any real solutions. I like the functionality and purpose of sport design.


At a certain point, design becomes just styling: it’s quickly forgotten. As soon as you’re doing the same thing over and over again, you lose it for me. This pushes me almost automatically into the engineering side of design.


I’ve always described myself as the world’s smartest artist and the world’s dumbest engineer. I do my own engineering but I couldn’t tell you how or why. Intuitively I just know how things work.


If I can leave your readers with one thought, it is that without new questions, there would be no new answers. You have to be willing to ask a something different to seek out a different result. People need to be willing to risk potential failure to find that new question.


Thank you to Matt for taking the time to share such great wisdom that comes from years of working in the industry. We are lucky to have Matt as a team member of IFD, advising us and partnering with us on many projects- it is a honor to work with you Matt! If you would like to connect with IFD or Matt, send us a note at: Design@insidefashiondesign.net


Matt Rhoades withe Asher Levine at our DWP 2019 event