Extreme graphics

Adrenalin-fuelled design work for extreme sports brands ends up influencing the entire industry, as mainstream brands borrow the authenticity of creativity pushed to the limit. Mark Penfold reports.

The relationship between the creative industries and the extreme sports universe is not as straightforward as it might seem. From a purely practical perspective, it's hard to see the attraction. Bikes and boards are just awkward shapes to work with. Can you imagine decorating the frames for supermarket shelves with the reverence applied to a BMX down tube?

There must be some other factor at work. It could be that the sports are seen as cool, and doubtless in some cases this is a hook, but there are many things that are cool without attracting such a creative audience. Skateboard artist Todd Francis may have the answer: "For some folks, it's a chance to finally work in an industry they've followed their whole lives." He also mentions another benefit: "It's a chance to create artwork with very few rules or restrictions."

Creative types usually enjoy creative pastimes - the kinds of activities that, like graffiti and music, are rich in the raw material that fuels design. As outlets for personal creativity, extreme sports provide designers with inspiration and, perhaps more importantly, a source of work more closely allied to play than hard graft. The resulting alliance between sport and art sets up a resonance that results in exciting experimental work.

One thing unites the likes of BMX, skating, surfing and snowboarding. "They're individual sports," observes Steve Cousins, a senior designer at JDK Design, long-term partners with snowboarding legends Burton. The sports themselves share something with design - they offer an opportunity for self-expression and creativity. "There's no set of rules to follow, a low competition and pressure factor, and the main focus is on having fun," adds Cousins.

Translate this into the production phase of any object and you have a recipe for excellence. Illustrator Adam Haynes expresses it well: "There is so much energy within this industry - so much youthful exuberance. It's infectious." An artist working without restriction on a project that absorbs them will tend to produce their best work.

For larger brands lacking any direct connection to the sports in question, the coolness of such experimentation is like blood in the water. It's no wonder that the high-street brands want to get in on the act, and the resultant visual culture finds its way out into the wider world. Haynes' recent work for Nike 6.0 not only bears this out but also makes a convincing case for the idea that the diffusion process can be good for all concerned. But that interpretation isn't always the most obvious.

The spread of visual identity from the cultures that surround extreme sports into the mainstream is a fact of life. Skaters may be distressed at the speed with which their decision to be different is translated into a generic catalogue option, but that's the way the world works. What we're concerned with here is whether the process is good or bad for design. As you might expect, opinions differ dramatically. On the one hand, it could be argued that the larger high-street brands are cultural pirates: lacking the courage to create their own aesthetic, they simply opt for a bit of poorly disguised identity theft. This view is not without merit, and in some cases is right on the money.

However, it could also be seen as a natural process, like osmosis. The larger brands have deeper pockets; their cheques pay the designer's rent and in effect subsidise more radical projects with the grass-roots producers. The big names are happy with this arrangement because the ideas generated by experimentation feed back into the more commercial work that they pay for in a bid to appear more contemporary. The important thing to note is that everybody wins. It's an economic model that works well.

The natural, wholesome process of diffusion occurs when a designer like C100 Studio's Christian Hundertmark, himself an accomplished graffiti artist and BMX rider, turns his hand from snowboards to the needs of brands like Levi's and Adidas. It's what the big names want: to appear authentic, exclusive and cool. A deal is struck and everyone benefits. Piracy occurs when diffusion happens outside of this loop. It's obvious to everyone, says Hundertmark, for one reason: "You can't just copy creative freedom."

Steve Cousins commissions artists to produce work for Burton Snowboards. "To me it's important to let the artist do their thing without being too heavy-handed with the art direction," he says. "Allowing the artist to have that kind of freedom with minimal direction seems to produce the best results."

Of course, it's not always true that extreme sports brands foster an open attitude to creativity. Hundertmark points out, "If you have an open-minded person at a boring company, it could be easier than a narrow-minded one at a cool company." The important thing is the creative freedom that the individual designer is granted.

The ideal situation is when you combine that freedom with a product that the artist involved believes in. And in the extreme sports arena that happens all the time. Not just because the designers and illustrators often participate in extreme sports themselves, but because it's high profile and big business.

You'd expect people buying boards, bikes and associated paraphernalia to prioritise performance when drawing up their shopping lists. After all, a smart-looking board that fails on you is never going to be as good as a plain one that always performs; the look and feel of whatever you're riding is an additional feature, not a functional necessity. But for many customers, it's still a significant factor. And it's critical to the brands themselves - they know that design can easily swing the decision between competing products.

Fortunately for enthusiasts, there's a degree to which good design naturally coincides with sound functionality, argues Haynes: "A really good product will combine superior craftsmanship and materials with well-conceived graphics." And high sales figures mean the combination will be repeated.

But good graphics alone are not enough. Devin Leggett, who works closely with Norco Performance Bikes, emphasises: "Bad design can be overlooked on a good brand. But if you put this same design on a less trusted brand, it becomes more obvious that the design fails."

The alarm bells sound when brands attempt an unwarranted use of culture-specific iconography. People see it and sneer. Francis says: "You can see that whole Ramones-esque pseudo-rebellion vibe in a crappy, $100 T-shirt sold in some lame-ass boutique." It's like lying to the buyer, who is attempting to identify themselves with the underlying spirit.

This is never more true than with skateboarding - arguably the most vibrant of all the extreme sports. "Skaters really are rebellious," insists Hundertmark. "You have creative people doing the sport because on the street they have to be inventive with their tricks." Skating is the kind of thing that will eventually get you in trouble. And in a world that is rapidly being bleached of character, that's valuable.

There are considerable creative problems when decorating extreme sports equipment. Shapes are awkward to work with, specialist materials are often required and the work rarely earns a big cheque. Working on mountain bikes, Leggett has it harder than most: bike tubes are small, fast-moving and curved. "To communicate an idea on such a surface can become quite a task," he confirms. Even skateboards are difficult if you're used to regular print or packaging jobs. "A lot of people can't really make it work," says Francis.

But there must be compensations for the market to attract the likes of Evan Hecox, James Jean and even Damien Hirst if you include surfboards. In fact graphics have real power within this market, not least because the consumers are young and visually literate.

"Basically, youth culture has become much smarter," says Cousins. "They want the graphics to be designed by artists with a 'name' or some kind of street credibility, and are quick to call out anything that doesn't feel fresh or authentic."

So not only is this a difficult medium, it's one with pressure to be original from a vocal audience. The effect is to encourage crazier and riskier design. Leggett relishes the challenge: "It's really cool to see how much people are pushing the envelope. It makes me want to take more chances with my own design." It's this process, the striving for originality under difficult circumstances, which makes this field so exciting to work in. Though Leggett does warn that the desire to take risks doesn't always pay off.

Leggett makes a very interesting point when he brings up Jamie Lynn. A pro rider for Lib Tech snowboards for many years, he's also a fantastic artist whose work has decorated dozens of boards. And Lynn is in no way unique. Whether we're talking about riders, surfers or skaters, a high proportion turn their passion into a job and bring out their own bikes and boards, decorated the way they want. How their equipment looks matters to those people, and the industry is built on them.

Naturally, there are figureheads in all these sports who are known worldwide, but more than any other it's the guy or girl from down the road who is often the centre of attention. The one who first masters a new trick, discovers a new run or uses the coolest-looking piece of kit. There's an independent spirit buried somewhere within these sports, and it's that which attracts artists from all over the map. Unsurprisingly, it's also what pulls in the big brands.

This lesson has been learned by a number of corporations and, if Haynes is right, the benefits run both ways. "Larger brands can bring legitimacy to a sport," he says. And the money they put back into the sport in terms of sponsoring contests and promotional tours inevitably leads to competition that improves quality.

Apply this to the relationship between skating or BMX and high-street brands and you have a pretty good match. A certain amount of natural crossover occurs, as does blatant copying, but in the end the two things are separate and they always will be. Wal-Mart will never own the slopes for a very simple reason: "I don't want to be thought of as 'high-street'," says Francis. "Do you?" Of course not, and nor does anyone who shops on the high street. That demand closes the circle.