This piece originally came out in issue 81 of Whitelines, way back in 2008. Obviously graphics have changed a lot since then, but it's a pleasure to look back and reflect at some classics now.
If you have any opinions as to what makes a great graphic or particular boards that should make the list, feel free to drop us a comment or two in the box below.
To get you going, we've compiled some of the classics from the time the article originally ran in a gallery below. Enjoy.
Words: George Blomfield
When it comes to buying a new board, it is with a guilty conscience that many of us would admit the role graphics play in our final decision. Of course, it’s the “tri-axial super weave topsheet", “tip-to-tail carbon stringers" and “sintered, sublimated base construction" that we’re really salivating after. Sick graphics? I hadn’t noticed. Just a happy co-incidence – honest.
The role these seemingly random pictures play in the snowboard market can hardly be overstated, and trying to decipher how they work is the lofty goal I set myself when Ed asked me to write something about a subject I have held close to my heart since I first clapped eyes on a board in 1985 and decided… I needed one.
Transport yourself, if you will, back to the late eighties, and the Italian resort of Courmayeur. Visitors that year will have noticed some crazy looking kids riding around standing sideways, sporting Oakleys and spikey hair. It was enough to make an impression on anyone, especially given the usual attire was either a skin-tight one-piece or a fur coat, coupled with some narrow skis. For a skateboard kid like myself, it was a revelation. In those days the actual graphics on your board were not too important – choices were limited, and just having a snowboard said enough about who you were.
Things have changed a bit since then (though the fur coats, I fear, still remain). Snowboarding is now a multi million dollar industry with an army of participants across the globe, and each season sees more makes and models of snowboard hit the shelves. While the technology of these products continues to improve, it is up to the art department to communicate what each brand and their boards are about. Getting this part of the equation right is vital to any snowboard operation. All that R&D will be for nothing if the face doesn’t fit – because in snowboarding, style is at least as important as substance.
Think about it. It is no accident that you are willing to part with up to £500 on a piece of plastic, wood and metal, whose arcane inner workings are a complete mystery to most. “I am continually amazed at how a little hype and a good graphic – or even a little hype and a bad graphic – can push a piece of junk," explains Aaron Draplin, a respected art director who has produced graphics for a number of brands including Burton, Ride, Lib Tech and Forum (not that his boards were junk of course!). Danny Kiebert, the design chief at Bataleon, agrees: “How important are graphics to a sale? With conventional flat boards I would say 90% graphics 10% tech."
So how do these pictures work, and who decides which buttons to push in the psyche of the guy drooling in the shop? And how did this artform, if that’s what it is, develop?
[part title="A Little History..."]
Up until the late 1980’s snowboard graphics were a fairly gaudy affair that operated in a bubble of their own. Not wanting to ape skis, but with little culture of their own, boards tended towards fluorescent, typographic exercises that were closer in spirit to surfing than skating. This was after all the age of OP t-shirts, Zinca sun cream and bermuda shorts. Classic snowboards of this era include the early Sims boards, Burton Air, the original K2 Gyrator and (who can forget?) the fantastically named Hooger Boogers and Crazy Bananas.
As you might have figured out from these latter names, the marketing aspect of snowboarding still had a long way to go to get to the slick products we are used to today. “The sport wasn’t ours yet," explains Draplin, “Boards looked like fuckin’ windsurfing sailboards and surfboards and shit. I remember having to pick this ugly ass Burton Air, purely because it fit me, and being bummed on the gross purple and orange graphics. Yuck. As things got going, riders took control and made what they wanted under their feet. It was a liberating time."
Graphics that riders of today can easily relate to can be traced back to early nineties. As snowboarders took more and more inspiration from skateboarding, and their sponsors started to recognise the potential marketing power of graphics, board design became bolder and more exciting. It was a truly seminal era – both in terms of the graphics themselves and riding progression. Two of the new wave of freestyle riders emerging at this time were Terje Haakonsen and Jeff Brushie, and their early Burton pro models are often cited as turning points in design and technology. The riders, as Brushie recalls, were finally having a say:
“The fish graphic was my very first pro model, and the idea behind it was that I was from Vermont. Vermont has a lot of hunting and fishing – and there are lots of rednecks – so I decided to do the fish."
It hardly sounds profound, but the implication was significant. As Draplin explains, the rise of pro models meant “you got to see the personality of each rider. Instead of the company calling the shots, it was the rider, and that was super fun to think about."
[part title="A Skate Influence"]
Other sticks that typified the era were Noah Salasnek’s Sims (which featured skateboard trucks and wheels on the base) and the Santa Cruz boards of John Cardiel and Chris Roach, whose graphics were carried straight over from the brand’s skate department. Jamie Lynn too was becoming major influence on the scene, not just because of his incredible riding style but because he painted his own artwork, tightening the link between skateboarding and snowboarding still further.
“I grew up with pictures of Mark Gonzales, Neil Blender and Chris Miller in the skate magazines," recalls Lynn, “and I really used them as role models for my own opportunity to get into snowboarding, and [then] to get a pro-model. And to use your pro model as a vehicle for self-expression, not only in your artwork, but in the way you rode it. Kinda following what those guys had done in skateboarding."
These early snowboard graphics were so vibrant and memorable not because they simply copied skateboard designs but because they borrowed an approach. Unlike skis, whose shapes and patterns hinted at speed and grace, snowboards were free to use any cultural references that might appeal to their market. Designers were tapping directly into popular culture, opening up themes that had never been associated with the mountains before. They were also in synch with ‘yoof’ in a way that put them ahead of the curve. For example the A-board ‘Starsky’, which picked up on the growing interest in 70’s cool, was launched long before the Beastie Boys exploited a similar trend with their era defining ‘Sabotage’ video.
These were truly exciting times in snowboarding. Technology was moving on at speeds never seen before – or since – in the sport, and artists were being equally experimental with their graphics. With riders upgrading their equipment more often, it was easy to try new ideas. This era of risk taking was short-lived though. As the sports’ technology bedded in and something like a ‘standard’ snowboard emerged, riders typically held onto their sticks longer, and as the market continued to grow, the stakes for the brands became higher. For those in charge of the graphics, it meant they were put on a tighter leash than had previously been enjoyed, as Lance Violette, Creative Director at Forum and the man behind Un-Inc, explains:
“A snowboard is a significant investment for a kid – in a lot of cases it may even need to stick around for more than one season. It is not nearly as disposable as a skate deck. This ‘disposable’ factor is what gives skate decks their beautiful sense of urgency. What I mean by this is that skate graphics can react fast and evolve at the exact same pace as our culture, while snowboard graphics are an expensive investment – not only for the kids buying them, but also for the companies who build them. A lot is at stake, and there’s not as much room to take risks. If you get it wrong, that board will still take over a year to even get into the market, and then it will be sitting on the retail floor for another year. A mistake can be devastating to a brand – there’s just no coming out with a new graphic a month later."
[part title="The Technical Side"]
In order to reflect this level of investment (from both the manufacturer and consumer) and in order to give the final product a feeling of quality that wouldn’t date, designers began to incorporate new touches into the graphics. Spot mattes, foil stamps, pearlescent lacquers and laser-etched inlays – such details added perceived value, and have helped set snowboard graphics apart from their skate and surf ancestors. Ask yourself what makes a snowboard look like a snowboard – why a Custom X graphic, for instance, would look out of place on a skate deck – and you’ll find it’s often down to a safe, abstract design combined with flashy details like a di-cut base or an embossed logo. As Lance puts it, “technical graphic applications have come to be a defining factor of snowboard graphics." This subtle and often expensive approach is a world away from the loud screenprints traditionally employed on a £50 skateboard. It is, one might argue, a whole new art form.
As this new medium developed, companies became more sophisticated at using the artwork to sell their product. Graphics, the brands realised, were a key factor in the success of an individual board – and a driving force behind the brand’s own identity. They are a short hand way to tell potential customers about what they stand for, what each of their boards are for and where you, the rider, would fit in if you ride this board.
“Graphics are the front lines," explains Lance Violette. “We can’t be standing there in every shop with some drawn out explantation for every kid walking by. With all snowboards, it’s the graphics which truly communicate the attitude and philosophy. They need to not only be able to speak for themselves, but also drive the ads and other marketing collateral."
Graphics that successfully “communicate the attitude and philosophy" to their target market are what all companies are striving for. “The brands learn more and more each season about how to go after their customers," says Aaron Draplin. “You’d be amazed at how pinpointed the graphics game is from the perspective of the companies doling out the jobs. They know what they want, and who’s gonna buy it. It’s pretty fascinating."
But how does this all work? What kind of graphics appeal to beginners, for instance, and what makes a top end board ‘look’ top end? According to Lance Violette at Forum, a few basic formulas have been developed.
“For a lower price point, directional board, you really need to play it conservative. This person (let’s call him ‘Joey’) is probably pretty new to the sport. He sees himself as being just a bit more ‘radical’ so that is why he has chosen to snowboard rather than ski. Joey wants to buy into a bit of our culture, but he is not ready for total commitment – he wants to look ‘cool’ but not flashy. When shopping for a board he’s looking for a brand he recognises, knowing that he will have it for a few seasons, so the graphic needs to oblige."
This approach can be seen for yourself in many snowboard catalogues, where entry level boards often use limited colour palettes and heavy branding in such a way as to offend as few people as possible, for as long as possible. At the other end of the price spectrum, a similar set of rules has emerged to satisfy a similar rider:
“For a super high end board, most companies feel it’s best to play it a different kind of conservative," continues Lance. “This person (let’s call him ‘Remy’) is looking for the best of best. In many ways Remy is a lot like Joey, but Remy has a ton of cash to spend on his kit and probably knows a bit more about snowboarding. Remy has all the latest tech and in most cases has done his homework enough to know that he wants a sintered base, stainless edges, etc. When it comes to graphics, most companies think Remy wants the ‘stealth bomber’ of snowboards and that is why many super high-end boards look the same – but I do not necessarily agree with that forumula."
[part title="And Now..."]
A flick through this year’s (Whitelines!) Buyer’s Guide will demonstrate the formulas being discussed here. Design trends are easily spotted, particularly in the high and low end boards.
“The acceleration of an F-22 Raptor," boasts the sales pitch of the menacing-looking (and pricey) Burton T6. “More tech than a stealth bomber," say Atomic of their (all black) Rapture model. To find the more edgy designs you really have to look at the mid to high priced boards aimed at jibbers and freestylers. This where we find younger, more sophisticated riders who know what they want their board to say about them – as David Farcot, Snowboard Design Manager at Salomon, explains.
“On a core freestyle board, we have to be right on the edge, while staying fresh and spontaneous. So we’re focusing on visual impact, colours and all the little cultural references that will position the board within an identified universe."
To operate successfully in this more demanding market presents a different set of challenges to designers and the marketing bods who build careers around image making. Here, the designers need to spot trends emerging early on, from a variety of sources, and spin them into graphics that are going to speak to the riders who pride themselves most on knowing what is going down in the world of snowboarding. Focusing exclusively on this ‘core’ demographic, with boards and graphics to suit, has seen the rise of companies like Capita, Dinosaurs Will Die and Bataleon. The kids buying these boards are looking for something alternative, something that is pushing the envelope – in terms of riding, technology and graphics. It’s a fickle and fast moving world, where formulas are uselss and gut instinct plays a central role. “Target market? Design briefs?" laughs Danny at Bateleon, “It just needs to look good, that’s all." Sean Genovese, rider and founder of Dinosaurs Will Die, agrees: “We don’t think about what our ‘target market’ is going to want. We make what we want and then they can decide if they like it. And hopefully that makes us stand out because we’re not trying to appease anyone except ourselves."
Recognising the freedom that this approach can have, and the way that certain (influential) riders respond to it, led Burton to create ‘Un-Inc’. Here the Burton mothership has launched an independent department where the designers can play around without tarnishing their overall brand. This has resulted in some great work, including the iconic Un-Inc pig and last year’s ‘animals’ series, which made a mockery of the trend for ‘blood/death/skulls/gnar’ by featuring baby seals, puppies and kittens (“the animal range are graphics of which I am most proud," says Lance Violette). These boards show what is possible when you lock a group of talented snowboarders and designers in a room with one objective: come up with boards that speak to riders in a way that cuts out all the baggage that has accumulated over the last few years. Back to basics. Back to risk taking. Don’t worry about upsetting mom and pop.
“There was no brief," recalls Violette, Un-Inc’s original design director. “René [Hansen] brought us all together and did a great job of blocking out the obstacles which exist in the usual process of developing a snowboard graphic. It was just myself and the riders, doing whatever we wanted, pure and clean, direct from our minds to the factory floor with no ‘outside’ involvement. The fact that they let us get away with it is evidence of their commitment to real snowboarding and has been greatly appreciated."
[part title="To the Future"]
The irony is, of course, that by throwing the brief out of the window, the Un-Inc graphics perfectly fulfilled their objective. Like the high tech boards themselves – and the snowboarders who ride them – the Un-Inc graphics are cutting edge, stylish and ballsy. Their success even appears to have influenced some of the boards in Burton’s regular range – as witnessed by this year’s ‘Love’ model (featuring full-length Playboy girls) and the brand new ‘Farm’ (which takes the rock and roll approach to heart with graphics by ex-Wheezer front man Mikey Welsh). In fact so effective has this return to anti-estbalishment graphics been that they’ve literally upset mom and pop! In Vermont, a group of parents recently began a campaign to have the ‘offensive’ Love range removed from stores. “I want people to see [my daughter] as this vibrant girl, and look at her for her accomplishments, and not for her physical appearance," explains Jeff Sprenger, the dad of a teenage girl who loves to snowboard. “It’s not like the old days, when it was just a handful of people fighting the ski mountains to get on the lifts. I think their attitude needs to change, and the company needs to show more respect to the community as a whole." Jeff and his wife Lezlee began a grass roots campaign to get the Love boards off the market, which gained the attention of Vermont’s local TV station WCAX. It has since been reported on America’s global news channel CNN.
For the average snowboarder, such a storm in a teacup seems laughable. To tell the truth, these are the exact kind of people snowboarding kids want to piss off. “I think it’s nice to see that certain edge in snowboarding," said store owner Ian Singleton when questioned by reporters about his freshly-delivered stock of Love boards. “It’s kind of where the roots of snowboarding have always been." Whatever side of the fence you sit on, one thing is for sure: the Playmate controversy is the ultimate example of the power of graphics.
What then of the future? Where will the fascinating world of graphics go next? “Digital printing is the latest blessing – and a curse," says Lance Violette. “In the next few seasons digital printing MAY be responsible for the reproduction of some of the best graphics ever to hit a topsheet, but watch out because it will DEFINITELY be responsible for some of the WORST." Aaron Draplin, a veteran of the graphics game, has a broader take on things. “It’s all so cyclical, and derivative from action sport to action sport. One of them hits on something, and the rest fall in line. And that’s fine. It’s about keeping shit fresh for who cares about it the most: The kids. I was 19 a long time ago, and cared so much about how big your jeans should be, and whatever riff raff was going on at the time. It’s just weird, all these years later, to kinda ‘get’ the cycles, trends and stuff – after seeing it all come and go, and come and go."
‘The kids’, as Draplin touches on, are central to everything in the graphics game. Every designer we spoke to was conscious of their importance. After all, if a snowboard is a canvas, then they are the audience. For this reason, it seems, relying on your peers and your gut will always be crucial to coming up with successful new ideas. As Danny from Bataleon puts it, the key to snowboard graphics is “just to make good stuff that you and your friends like – and hope somebody else isn’t doing exactly the same thing!"
As the sport we all love has grown up, and the technology in snowboard construction has made riding easier, the graphic designers have developed a medium that we all seem able to read but very few can speak. It is hard to define what makes any given board work, but when it does, its impact can help push the whole sport in a new direction. Whether it is through celebrating our skateboarding roots, or highlighting a board’s new fangled 3D base, a designer’s job isn’t finished when the board leaves the shop floor. If everything falls into place, the stoke that fuelled a purchase will remain, inspiring some kid, somewhere, to try something new. And so it continues.