Why The Jordan Brand's Lead Designer Left Nike

Jason Mayden quit his job as a top Nike designer after a heartbreaking conversation with his son. Today he joins the startup Mark One.

Last last year, Jason Mayden—global design director for Nike’s Jordan brand—was prepping his children for bed with an homage to the famous Chicago Bulls chant ("What time is it? Jammy time!") when his 10-year-old son’s forlorn expression grabbed his attention.

"My son got out of the shower. He was getting dressed, staring at himself in the mirror. I looked at his face, and I saw a face of defeat," Mayden says. "I asked him why . . . he said, ‘I don’t love who I am.'"

Mayden realized he’d never grasped the psychological effect that obesity could have on a child. And he felt a sudden sense of urgency. He left Nike, he says, because it was "the natural choice that any father would make," to devote himself to finding the cause for his son's rapid weight gain. He wanted to understand why, though he’d thought his family was living a healthy lifestyle, his son was having difficulty breathing and sleeping. He studied nutrition, genetics, GMO food products, and the way families were eating. The culprit Mayden points to today, diagnosed after visiting several doctors, was his son's collection of food allergies and intolerances.

Six months later, Mayden decided to return to work. Ready to accept a nearly done deal with a private equity firm, he got a text message from Nic Barnes, the vice president of marketing at a new product studio called Mark One. The company was working on a new product called the Vessyl, a cup capable of automatically tracking what someone is drinking. "I took that as a sign," Mayden says.

Today, Mayden is joining Mark One as its first vice president of design. Having performed every conceivable design function in his 13 years at Nike—from drafting logos for Nike’s roster of famous athletes, to overseeing Nike’s digital platform, Nike+, to actually designing shoes—Mayden will need all those skills now, as his goal is to turn the Vessyl into a global brand.

Designed by Yves Béhar’s Fuseproject, the Vessyl will be released some time in 2015 and already has $1 million in presales (or 10,000 cups priced at $100 apiece). Its conceit is simple: While tracking what you eat is a tedious and guilt-ridden experience, Vessyl has a borderline sci-fi ability to automatically record the calories, sugar, and protein we consume in liquid form and send the results to your iPhone—an experience that fitness and wellness platforms like the Jawbone Up, another Béhar-designed project, are attempting to automate as well.

Right now, Vessyl's design is a tough sell. The cup has LEDs and a faceted finish, a significant departure from the organic curves and smooth, inviting finish of traditional glass and ceramic food ware. It will look odd to many outside the Silicon Valley bubble. I think the Vessyl is a cool piece of technology, grounded in a user experience that's core to the way we already eat, but I can't imagine it in the pages of a Crate & Barrel catalog, and that's a problem.

Mayden alludes to the company’s "exciting pipeline and roadmap" of products—what I imagine to include plates and even utensils (pretty much anything you already eat with that could be capable of quantifying your intake). His challenge will be to establish a strong brand identity—one that makes Vessyl something we’ll all want to hold in our hands, slather with our food, and stick in our mouths. And it wouldn't hurt if it complemented our napkin rings, either.

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