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Behind the Design: The Nike Dunk's 30-year history of embracing color

When the Nike Dunk hit stores in 1985, perhaps it was Nike's way of being fashion-forward with its large color-blocking abilities, or maybe it was merely a marketing move for the company looking to cement themselves in the highly competitive sneaker industry. Either way, when the Dunk hit the basketball sneaker scene 30 years ago, it provided an aesthetic shift while melding existing technologies.

The Dunk was originally sketched by Nike designer Peter Moore and dubbed the College Color High as a way to introduce team colors into footwear. As common in the 1980s, the design’s technology was a combination of four other basketball lines already created.


​The overall inspiration for the look of the newly named Dunk derived from the then 3-year-old Air Force 1. The outsole borrowed the same traction from the Air Jordan I, which had launched just months prior. The upper was a mash-up of the AJI and the Nike Terminator. Even the last—the mechanical form a shoe molds around—was borrowed, the same form used to make the Nike Legend.

With the Air Force 1, Air Jordan I, Terminator and Legend all playing a role in creating the design of the Dunk, it was the college game that gave it a persona.

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The College Color High concept showed the marketing mind behind the new creation. With college basketball gaining traction in the 1980s and the game finding a larger home on television, Nike created a campaign around its Nike College Colors program and added 12 schools to the mix, including UNLV, Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, Syracuse, Georgetown and Kentucky. The program hyped color-coordinated apparel, bags and, you guessed it, footwear. The Nike Dunk, specifically.


​The bold colors of the campaign included the new sneaker, helping the shoe gain a base of users in college basketball that then helped it cross into street culture with its color-heavy design. From there, the low version of the Dunk moved into skateboarding—the special Air Jordan I traction system was popular for skaters— and eventually the Nike Dunk SB version launched in 2002 with added skating features.

Well-known in the sneaker world for its crossover appeal and powerful color blocking, the Nike Dunk was born 30 years ago on the backs of other sneaker lines. But giving the Dunk its own aesthetic helped give the shoe enough personality to stand on its own.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.