During part 1 of our interview with design/business mogul, jeffstaple, we discussed digital fabrication, collaboration and what it’s like to manage multiple teams.
It’s clear nobody knows better than Jeff what it means to be a designer and businessman at the same damn time. So, I was curious to speak with him about what that exactly means, in terms of managing responsibilities, transitioning between roles, rebranding and designing for a niche-turned-mass market. Let’s get right down to it, because there’s a lot to cover.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are there any design roles you love to play in all of your projects?
No, I’m not so excited about designing. I think because I spent the first 15 years of running this business being the designer. I’ll pat myself on the back—I’m a good designer. When a young person out of school comes and works for us, I can still run circles around them in Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign.
What is new to me is this role of dot connector, if you will. There’s not really one word that encapsulates everything. It’s everything from traveling to Berlin and meeting some underground, unknown artist that has eight followers on Instagram but is the most amazing talent, to meeting the CEO of a four-billion-dollar company. It’s all those highs and lows and everything in between, trying to find connection points between those and figuring out how my brands, any of them, can work in that world. That, to me, is what I get a lot of satisfaction out of right now.
I haven’t done it before—I didn’t have the capability of doing it before. But now, it’s interesting to me because it’s not like I’m just a PR person out there passing off business cards. It’s more like not only making these connections happen, but then making them actually come to fruition in some way, which involves much more granular things than connecting people. I’m seeing something that maybe he doesn’t see and she doesn’t see, but I’m seeing something that they can do.
It’s also fortifying in that it’s a win-win for everyone contractually, so that he doesn’t screw her over, or she doesn’t screw him over—it’s a little bit of artistry, but it’s also a little bit of legal deal making as well. Then, when everything comes together, it’s like there’s magic that happens—it feels really great. That’s very, very satisfying to me right now. Whereas, sometimes I get pulled back into something like design—everyone’s busy, or something—and I just have to do it. And I do it, and it’s great, but it’s like doing a karate chop if you’re a black belt. I’m a good designer. I’m not the best designer in the world, and I’m not the most talented designer, but I think my skill set lies in my ability to navigate the waters that surround being a working designer.
Throughout your career, you’ve always had to look towards the future of retail and design simultaneously. Do the two ever oppose each other, and how do you deal with that if they do?
They do oppose each other a lot. In fact, I’m in the midst right now of reopening Reed Space with a whole new concept and a new space. In doing that, I’m finding—not even consciously—that the new iteration of Reed is actually very backwards to technology and innovation. It’s super DIY and hands-on.
Now that I think about, it I realize it’s because technology is so pervasive in your life. In terms of a store, you can buy anything you want and get it in a moment’s notice. So, the purpose of a store cannot be to compete with what’s going on technologically in a physical space that you walk into. Maybe by going super raw, DIY, it makes it more of an experience that you cannot get on Instagram and on the web.
Do you have any advice for designers, or businessmen, going through a similar challenge you’re facing with Reed?—Wanting to rebrand and move forward with their company in a different direction while still keeping their fan base alive?
I think you gotta back up for a second and ask yourself what the true reason why you want to change up is. Is it because your fan base is dying off or because you can’t sustain the business model? It’s great to have ten thousand fans, but there is the reality of whether that fan base can sustain your business. And if they can’t, then will a rebrand help? Sometimes rebrands happen for vanity reasons, so you have to really ask yourself honestly, “Why are we talking about a rebrand here? What are we really trying to do?” I think that would really help that decision. I feel like a lot of brands are doing it on a whim, you know?
If you were referring to Reed, I would say that when you see Reed Space reopen, you won’t think of it as a rebrand, you’ll think of it as an evolution. When I think of rebrand, I think of changing the name, the logo, or the identity. Reed Space’s brand and identity will be the same, it’ll just have new contents.
My whole career has been a big social experiment in branding. My logo—both the Staple bar and the pigeon—and the motto, “a positive social contagion”, and Reed Space and its logo, a chair, have never changed since the inception of both companies. I haven’t even changed the font once—it’s just been the same. I do that deliberately because the theory I’m trying to prove is that it doesn’t really matter how good, bad, beautiful, or ugly, your logo, name, motto, or mission statement is. It’s all about the contents behind it.
What has the journey of incorporating experience design (workshops, parties, etc.) into your overall business model been like for you?
We had another space called Reed Annex that was next to Reed Space. Out of that, we did these educational workshops called The Reeding Annex, which is a play on The Learning Annex—I did them with Skillshare. To be honest, those Reeding Annexes probably planted the seed for the next evolution of Reed Space. Reed Space 2.0 will be much more maker space than retail space.
I think the learning with The Reeding Annex is, you can’t do things all the time for commercial ROI. You can’t do things and think that everything’s going to make millions of dollars, or has the potential to. The Reeding Annex had no potential to make any decent amount of money. We paid speakers, had drinks and pretzels and stuff. Sometimes you just have to invest back into the culture that you’re profiting from. It’s kind of like farming—you
have to re-fertilize the soil that you’re planting on.
As designers, we always push hard to legitimize what we’re working on. In your case, it’s streetwear—a movement that has taken off beyond imagination and is now considered somewhat mainstream. Now that it’s gotten to this point, do you ever look back and wish you hadn’t pushed so hard?
Doesn’t even register in my head. When those words came out of your mouth, an error 404 code went in my head like, “Beep! What?” I don’t understand not pushing something to the furthest limits, and this is what makes me different than other people in this industry. You should ask this question, one day, to Bobby Hundreds because he has the opposite stance on it.
Bobby thinks that—I don’t wanna paraphrase him, but I’ve talked to him about this—streetwear was destined to fail because it’s predicated on being underground, anti, and niche. So by us making it successful we are, in fact, killing it at the same time. I could see his point, but I guess I’m more of a businessman than a martyr in that sense.
When I broke into school to print the first Staple shirts, I didn’t have grandiose visions of a brand. But, when I opened the bank account, went to city hall and got my tax ID number, I was like; “I’m not gonna make an invoice right now so that I can be cool and niche and underground. I’m making this 12 shirt invoice, and one day it will say 12 hundred shirts.” From day one, that was my vision. So that’s what makes me more businessman than artist.
I don’t understand why, if you are an artist, why you would even bother opening up a bank account or a business account, or creating invoices or doing taxes. Don’t even bother—once you go down that rabbit hole, you’re fucking plugged into the matrix. You’re like Keanu Reeves. You’re in the system. So now to be like; “Okay. I got my tax ID number, I’m paying my taxes. But I’m angst! I’m anti!” No you’re not. You have an EIN number. You’re not anti anything.
Do you believe transparency in design process and business model is an important part of running a successful design company?
Yes. So here’s my stance on transparency: I suck at it. I really suck at transparency. And, I really envy the new entrepreneurs these days, where they’ll be like; “Going to meeting right now, I’m gonna close this deal.” And then they Facebook Live like; “Okay. Here we go.” I look at that, and I’m like; “How do they do that? That’s amazing.” I can’t do that. I’ve never been on Instagram live. It scares the living shit out of me.*
I feel like the role of a designer is to curate and show people a better way. I get that reality TV has made kids be like; “I wanna see you take a dump. I wanna see everything!” But I feel like my job is really to be like; “Let me show you an elevated, more organized and more efficient way of doing this.” Versus the muck.
Even in my Skillshare classes—while all those classes look like I’m letting you in behind the curtain and you’re seeing everything, I have to go on record and say those are very manicured, deliberate views that I’m letting you see. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not giving you 100% of the secrets. I feel like giving you 100% in a reckless way is actually not helpful.
But on the other hand, technology allows even an unfiltered person to be filtered. I’ll give one example. Snapchat’s whole thing over Instagram is that it’s about who you really are, but then you’re a dog and you have flowers around your head. So, it’s unfiltered, but it’s heavily filtered.
If you look at it in a real world analogy, it’s all about buffers. When you walk into my office, you have to go through a doorman. You have to get buzzed up from an elevator. When you come in, there’s a man that greets you. You have to walk down a long hallway. Now, you’re sitting with me unfiltered, but you had to get through. There’s a good seven filters from the street to get to me. If you equate it from real world versus digital, the filters are still there between reality, it’s just in a different way.
In terms of working in the creative industry in general, what do you know now that you wish you would have known just out of school?
We, designers, are the bitches of everyone—everyone that works in this world in terms of the business of life, where things get made, and people buy those things. The reason why there are so many designers today is consumerism. People wanna make stuff that is desirable for people to buy. It’s that cycle.
I wish I knew that early on because I think coming out of art school, a lot of students have this sort of confidence. Then, when you sit at a boardroom, you have CEO’s, operational people, sales people, and marketing people, and you’re the bottom of that totem pole. You don’t matter, for the most part. All those people that I just mentioned above you determine your fate and how much you’ll be allowed to contribute.
Talk to any seasoned designer, ask them how it is working with the sales and marketing team, and they’ll tell you the straight dope—it’s horrible. Because they actually control the purse strings and the transaction. In order for you to change that position and get yourself to that level, where you walk into a room as a designer and everyone bows down to you, takes time and experience. More so than, “I know the latest filter in Photoshop” or “I know how to video edit in this app”. You have to know about the negotiation side, the people skill side, the presentation skill side. It’s a lost art, I think.
*Editor’s Note: Post-Core77 interview, Jeff has faced his fears and tested out Instagram Live. I, on the other hand, am not so brave.