Where Are Snowboard Graphics Going?

For the past few seasons, the construction of snowboard product has been largely driven by the predictable laws of physics. Shapes and materials have been studied to such a degree that we can tell how a board is going to ride before it’s even built. We can blast fabrics with measured quantities of steam and determine how much moisture they will repel.The visual world is a far less exact arena. We attempt to predict the designs that will appeal to both retailers and consumers many months before anyone is required to actually make a purchase. We use the opinions of focus groups, gut intuition, or the whims of team riders to create board graphics, apparel, and even retail environments. These manage to satisfy our consumers more or less, but why does visual design work or not work? Are there specific rules that govern the design process for the entire industry and provide a common identifiable thread?SNOWboarding Business asked four of the snowboarding industry’s deep thinkers—Liam Maher, marketing manager for Burton; Michael Jager, president of design studio Jager Di Paola Kemp; Andy Laats, president of Nixon watches; and Mike Styskal, creative director for Ride—to sit down and attempt to analytically discuss aspects of visual design as it currently relates to the snowboard world. (Maher, Jager, and Laats all have a past or present connection to Burton, but from our point of view this has no particular significance.)

SNOWboarding Business: Is there a distinct set of design elements—an aesthetic, if you like—common to the entire snowboard world covering graphics, apparel, even retail?

Michael Jager: Only to the extent the aesthetic is in a constant state of evolutionary and incremental progress. But this means there is nothing you can specifically point to.

Liam Maher: Or what serves as an overall aesthetic is an ongoing timeline, where outside cultural influences ebb and flow and come into the sport. It may seem random or organized, but constant change is the key. As far as you can describe the protocols of change and diversity as an aesthetic, then that’s it.

Andy Laats: This change comes via the tiny number of people for whom snowboarding is their fundamental priority. They are primarily pros. The few that spend their time on the podiums have earned the right, obviously from a technical perspective, but also less obviously but equally from a visual design perspective. They are, in effect, paid globe-trotters. They are network hubs of an information system working in two directions. They travel endlessly sourcing influences, while at the same time they are visual statements determining what is cool for others.

Maher: But it isn’t just outside influences. It’s the sum of the best riders’ riding skills, personal style, and individual tastes that determines what comes next in both on-snow performance and visual elements.The visual is reflected in the outside interests of riders—typically music, art, maybe political causes. There’s a strong parallel between these influences and what’s going on on-snow. Individuals who push progress to new levels should always reach for an archetype, never a stereotype. Snowboard aesthetics should always aspire the highest uncommon denominator.

Jager: But there’s not much you can say for sure about the source of individual style. Boundaries between lifestyle groups everywhere are blunting. You have a symbol of individualism like Terje, who is also publicly committed to something as team-oriented as soccer. Everything can be bridged.The persuasiveness of travel and technology means the range of possible influences is endless. Cultural consensus has reached a point where we pick and choose numerous elements to create widely diverse, non-specific lifestyles. People morph from morning to night by simply changing their watch. Which also means the range of design imagery used in the snowboard world can come from virtually any source.

Maher: As soon as they design influences are woven through the snow by riders, they become completely unique and uniquely relevant to riding.Laats: Take the image of the ’94 Brushie pro model with a trout on it—that had nothing to do with snowboarding, but everything to do with the way it was borrowed from the Vermont background he grew up in and the redneck bumper stickers he saw everywhere. The process of recontextualization from redneck to cool—the filter—is Brushie adopting it.

Jager: And if a range of unrelated images are borrowed, they are bound together by their new context. Although, of course, snowboard design is driven primarily by function, we are also passing through a threshold where any idea can be given new meaning through its combination with other images in its new context.

Michael Styskal: I’m not sure I buy it. Images clearly come from outside sources, but say Burton hires a guy from Bally pinball to do the same style graphics on a snowboard—then they are expropriated, yes, but not necessarily recontextualized simply by being put on a snowboard. It’s just a straight copy. Referencing it directly doesn’t change it.To recontextualize you have to put a genuine new spin on it—or pick and choose only certain elements. I don’t believe snowboarding itself necessarily confers a “new layer of meaning.”

Jager: No, but the combination of the diverse and unrelated images can. Non-snowboard brands like Bathing Ape and Sussi are creating cultural collisions that not only remove geography as an element by fusing Tokyo, London, and New York, but also create something new by their combination. Of course, some sources can’t make it through the design filter onto this new level of visual “meaning.” We tried using elements of Japanimation in board graphics, but in Japan consumers couldn’t get past their existing cultural value, so they couldn’t comprehend them on a new level.

Styskal: But that just demonstrates creating new design platforms doesn’t mean anything if the product doesn’t sell. The snowboard industry simply can’t afford to be irreverent or put anyone off, and we have the example of 250 companies that are now defunct to show us why. And I don’t think snowboarding is so creative in terms of forging new design environments. I haven’t seen anything really new in snowboard graphics or general design in the past five years, just improvements on the same designs. And that’s ultimately because the mainstream buyer dictates how things can be done. You have to focus-group or face the consequences.

SNOWboarding Business: Focus groups are more important than listening to pros?

Styskal: Pro-riders never pay for a board. If you set them up as your “filters” of visual you’ll have a tough time. Instead, consider where most boards are actually sold. You can’t put a Star of David or a goat’s skull on a snowboard product and sell it to middle America because the vast majority of boards are bought by Mom and Dad. It’s not that the mainstream dictates our visual direction, but if there aren’t parameters, you’re designing to the wrong market—unless you’re Peter Line and you can squeeze just about anything you want onto a board.And honestly I think the mainstream is often more progressive. They are more ready for something like fluorescents. Cargo pants were mainstream long before they moved into the snowboard world. If you go to a color consultant, what they say will be introduced first by Tommy or Ralph Lauren and take a couple of seasons to reach snowboard apparel.

Jager: You are downplaying the impact of assisted discovery. A new level of excitement around a new design idea probably won’t happen spontaneously. It requires advertising, PR, and opinion leaders to drive it. But once it takes off there is a very rapid breeding that starts as a notion of “insiderness.” But assisted discovery requires a constant engagement with the riders and being constantly marinated in the culture, not sitting in a vacuum planning the next manipulation of the marketplace. It’s about being out there hunting and gathering, even if t
he designer then becomes the chef who cooks up and adds a whole new flavor.

Laats: But that PR and advertising, which drives a design concept into the market, often must detach from the performance aspect of snowboarding. For a major manufacturer, product credibility is already a basic assumption. I’m seeing an increase in non-snowboard related imagery that conveys personality and emotion. You mention insiderness, but that’s an emotional appeal. If the snowboard market is broadening, as we know it is, there must be a more universal emotional card to play. Humor or camaraderie is easier to relate to and conveys more about a product than jumping a 30-foot cliff.

Maher: True, and the same emotional values of the original culture are still held by the newly emerging demographic.Designers must treat diversification honestly and credibly. At Burton, growth has been reflected in a broader line, and that broader line demonstrates an even broader set of performance parameters and design references than ever before.But young riders coming into the sport are attempting to push past the existing standards on snow. They are focused far more on what to do with snowboarding rather than “lifestyle” implications. Snow and the sport are the primary payoff from which all else derives. Advertising is a business-to-business thing. It has almost nothing to do with riding.

Laats: But diversification impacts the culture. Snowboarding culture spoke loudest when it was a strong unified voice in opposition to a common enemy—the ski establishment. So on the one hand we have lost our ability to be a culture maker as those we used to scream at become part of us. It’s not negative because snowboarding will always be connected at the hip to youth, so by definition it’s anti-old. And of course as your group gets larger it’s given a louder voice through increased numbers.

Jager: But anything that starts as counterculture is always inevitably on the path to conformity the minute you spend time in marketing meetings. But we also talk about “‘cores, whores, and the hungry.” It all starts with the ‘cores, but the whores then imitate the ‘cores and try to sell their version of it to the hungry. If you give too much power to the whores through mainstream advertising, the hungry will want it but they’ll ultimately be misinformed.We want to invite the hungry in, but the dilemma is how to do it without letting the whores take control or the ‘cores become resentful.

Styskal: Snowboarding can still resist being whored out by insisting it retains control of how the sport is portrayed. It must promote the sport itself as well as the emotional appeal of fun and camaraderie. The worst situation is when snowboarding is used as a vehicle to glamorize product that has nothing to do with snowboarding, for example that Victoria’s Secret catalogue. But if it works it’s positive—for example the Sprite ad where the rider hits the drink machine, or the Jake Burton AmEx TV ad.

SNOWboarding Business: The 90s have been faulted as a decade of consumerism. Snowboarding is obviously part of that. But does consumerism lessen the aspect of individuality of the sport or does it allow greater individualism?

Maher: Consumerism founded in some other value-set would create uniformity. For example, consuming product in a communist bread line is pretty unifying. But as long as snowboarding remains in pursuit of new boundaries and new levels of expression in both riding and through new connections to cultural references that resonate with a particular rider or group of riders, then it remains imbued with individualism.

Laats: Consumerism allows individualism. We all need a car, but the one you pick says something about you. Shoot me, but I’m in favor of it. The problem comes when we all want to signal the same thing, so we aren’t saying anything. And once The Gap picks up on the signal they drown it out, and we need to find another wavelength to communicate our individualism on.

Styskal: A fifteen year old will see snowboarding as more mainstream than the 35 year old, who takes it more as an expression of individualism, because the fifteen year old is now constantly exposed to it through consumer images. But the same fifteen year old ultimately shows the reality of the relationship between consumerism and individualism. Teenage influencers are influencers because of what they buy and own.

Laats: That puts the retailer in a position of responsibility as one of the primary conduits of purchasable excitement and personal identity. Products like our watches are sold on the sales floor by people actively involved in the snow and skate sports. But as retailers and retail groups get larger, these guys are increasingly hired by a second level—people who aren’t so connected. The retailer can then get more conservative and lose their connection to their market (in which case they are always vulnerable to the next independent retailer who comes along), or they can really encourage that connection between their sales staff and customer.

Maher: We’re all starting to feel like we know what snowboard retail ought to be. But a fixed idea works in conflict with the notion of change and diversity—which are snowboarding’s primary values. Retailers need to change the foundation of operational and merchandising strategies. The off-season should be a time of total reinvention. The shape of retail you see next season ought to be as innovative and progressive as the riding itself will be.I’m a huge proponent of disciplined and effective merchandising standards. But those standards need to be immersed in an overall selling environment that reflects the sport.The future is “change sustained.” Re-color, re-detail, and redo wayfinding-signage every season. Organize and plan for dramatic product and thematic changes within the shop during the season. That means not just flipping back and forth between summer presentation and a “proven” snowboard presentation. It means not just assuming that product mix is enough to deliver a credible, living snowboarding environment.Retailers should resist vendor-shop “concept areas,” which can’t change profoundly and can’t disappear, and push the industry in a retrograde direction. I work for one of those vendors, and I can tell you that neither us, our competitors, nor the dealer should be interested in putting down permanent stakes at retail.Instead, budget for paint every year instead of spending on new POS systems. Change the name of the store every winter. I’ll send a bottle of champagne to the first store that does so. Budget for a new storefront sign and stationery instead of a new stockroom. We have more to learn about store planning from nightclubs than from national commodity-fashion retail chains.

Jager: I agree that rejuvenation that conveys passion for the sport is key, although it takes more than just painting the walls a different color every six months. It’s about using contemporary imagery so the store reflects what is going on in the wider culture, and therefore excitement is felt through finish, color, texture—it’s about recognition of design in the wider culture, because the customer increasingly recognizes it.

Styskal: Actually I think stores like Faction or Snowboard Connection in the Seattle area offer an environment where you immediately know you are on the cutting edge. My objection to vendor stores is not in design terms but that they limit consumer choice. What makes retail exciting is a wide choice with a constant selection of new brands. The way Alphanumeric burst onto the scene is what enlivens retail. It’s unreasonable to complain of retail being boring when perhaps the dominance of the brands we work for is what makes it boring.

SNOWboarding Business: So how does apparel design fit in?

Jager: The cutting edge is companies such as Arc’teryx, which evolved from climbing gear. Arc’teryx has extraordinary performance elements that are both part of the design—such as zipper sleeves—and also relate to street fashion. There is a parado
x in the jamming together of both technology and diverging styles, which perhaps sets new boundaries. The principle that in outdoor industry the aesthetic story is also the technical story is well established. Now I’m hoping we utilize that paradox and emulate Arc’teryx in that the design is its own distinct element, but remains part of the technical story.

Maher: In clothing, the relationship between form and function is clearer than a topsheet to a board. But clothing styles not only reflect the stylistic interests of the designers, but also reflect the character of the progressive rider who is largely about technical requirements. One of the coolest things about our industry is that, unlike fashion, we have a close link between consumer and designer. Call our customer service, and you’re talking to someone that probably sessioned the jacket you are discussing with a favorite pro. The influences the sport is built around remain accessible to the individual. The top-rank rider of the sport is one step from the up-and-coming kid, who in turn is one step from his riding buddies.

Laats: And because of the relationship between form and function in apparel, the relationship between performance and emotional appeal is also strongest in this category. Performance must be paramount, but performance isn’t affected by color. But as jackets tend to cross over into streetwear, the emotional must extend beyond simply riding attributes. Design must also interface with outside fashion requirements, so designers must be more aware of street-level design. But here again the pros step in to translate what they see from around the world.

Styskal: I think there is a clear divide in the apparel-market ranks between those buying something to use both off- and on-slope, and those wanting on-snow protection 60-days-plus a season. And this divide shadows price. My feeling is sales of low-end jackets are driven by the look of the jacket with the assumption it will also provide basic protection, while the buyer of a high-end, 350-dollar jacket probably doesn’t wear it to study hall anyway, and cares far less about what they look like on the hill.

SNOWboarding Business: So what should be included in a snowboard-industry design manifesto?

Styskal: Promoting fun and camaraderie is always what matters most.

Jager: I agree. Always go back to the essence of snowboarding for all of your answers. It’s about friends, fun, and creativity. The minute you’re out on a powder day with friends, you step into a realm of fearless creation.

Laats: Design is about respect for those that have earned the right to be transmitters of the aesthetic. Technical aspects must be paramount, but good product with the wrong emotional appeal is going nowhere.

Maher: Trust riders. Standing still equals death.