Without further ado, let's hear from the man himself!
What is your background in the fashion industry? How did you get into it?
Luck was a big part of it. I was up in Santa Barbara going to school and randomly making clothes for friends. I was hand stenciling T-shirts and sweatshirts. Then I met this girl, Cari, through my friend Brian who worked for a smaller startup company, Horny Toad (now Toad&Co). She needed an assistant, and I ended up getting an internship. I started and did that at the same time I was going to school full time.
I knew photography, because I was going to photography school, and before that I was in film school, but I had never used applications like Illustrator or InDesign, anything like that. I had this opportunity to be one of the first people hired at this small company, and I just took that and ran with it.
They originally offered me the choice of either going into product design or graphic design. I looked at what the company's needs were at that point, and I said, “Hey, I could help the company more doing graphic design, because building that up is where you have an immediate need.”
What school were you going to?
Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara.
It was just one of those things where I kind of got in, got a good introduction to the apparel business. My motivation at that time was to learn everything I can about the apparel industry, because I saw my vision as one day wanting to run my own company. I thought that would be a pretty good way to learn.
What was cool about it being only twelve people at that time was I really did get to see how the whole business worked. In looking back, that really was a Masters in apparel and apparel manufacturing, because you saw everything, all the pretty and the bad of it. It really helped to inform my decision making as I continued my career, learning how to go into it authentically.
What Toad was really good at was ... Their tagline was, “Everyday is an adventure,” which is an amazing tagline to work with, and it formulated my thought process around how I go about communicating to the audience. My whole thing is, I want to create work that is emotive, thoughtful, and speaks to the customer more than just selling them something. If you can make them think a little bit and think about things that are more than just materialism, then I think you're doing a good job as a brand.
What led you down the art direction path?
Even when I was at Horny Toad, when there were twelve people and my title was “Graphic Designer,” my thought process was much more towards art direction because I saw what that really entailed. It's brand strategy, communication, marketing. You need to sell the customer on a brand vision, and the why of the brand, because you're trying to build long-term loyalty. Being an art director is being responsible for the visual manifestation of that brand.
In your role as an art director, are you coming up with the brand identity or are you trying to articulate an existing identity?
It just depends on the company that you work for. The interesting thing about my career path and where I've been, is that I've been fortunate to start at smaller companies and have had the opportunity to help these companies grow.
That’s great, but a lot of that is learning as you go. It's run and gun. You're trying to figure it out. In most situations in which it would be a flow from the top down, I was starting with nothing. A lot of that forced me into actually going about and putting my own twist on it. You need to have a vision.
How have you learned to shape a brand’s vision?
At Horny Toad, I had really great leadership above me and a great team. The people I was working under were really good at teaching me. They were all ex-Patagonia people. They had already experienced starting with a brand and helping it grow. They had such valuable knowledge.
I took every bit of information and was totally open to everything and took that mentorship in order to help formulate my ideas. A lot of that was actually just paring off what they instilled upon me. Then as the company changed and time went on, I became more and more responsible for helping to shape that vision.
Are you talking about photography? Are you talking about web design? All that and more?
If you're at a bigger company, your role is a lot more specific. Then you have Art Directors of Photography, you have Art Directors of Print, Art Directors of Digital, in which their focus is narrowed. In the situations I’ve been in, even before I had the art director title, it was really having to work in all mediums.
To me, true art direction and being really good at it is understanding human behavior. It's really communicating to your customer on a deeper level. It's hard to articulate. It's capturing a feeling.
Back to what I was saying about it being emotive: I want the customer or the audience to see a visual, be it catalog, website, an image, and feel something from that. With prAna, which is connected mindfulness, the human spirit and active pursuits, I want to there to be a sense of truth between the audience and what they're seeing.
From a standpoint of how you do that — it's being authentic. If you’re capturing yoga, you want the model to actually know yoga or be doing an actual yoga pose. You don't want to stage it. On a photography shoot, my direction is to try to put the team in real situations.
For example, we went on a shoot to Costa Rica, but my direction to them at the time was, “Hey, we're going to Costa Rica. Here are the setup shots. What do you want to do? If you went to vacation in Costa Rica right now, what would you do? Let's go do that. Let's go capture that. Let's put you into these real moments, and we'll photo journalistically document that time.”
How do you put together a crew to create these authentic moments? Do you try to cast adventure-minded people that you know are going to get along well and create a good vibe?
From the vibe standpoint, 100%. If you're trying to capture real moments and not have them come up posey, you need to have the right people and the right vibe on shoots.
At the same time, you have to sell products, so there is a fine line between attitude and having people that actually fit the clothes. If you're selling product, at the end of the day you want the product to actually stand out and be front and center. There are some tradeoffs and realities that go with that.
I always look for models that are real people. I actually look at the bios and see what their activities are on their free time; sometimes when you get the reader about a model, it'll say what they do in their spare time. I look for ones that are adventurous or that like to travel or do yoga, surf. Something with personality, and something to tie back into what the brand vision is and what the brand goals are.
Does having a background in photography help you?
Having a background in photography has been huge, because it helps formulate the way that I do graphic composition. Everything I do in design is still based off of photography principles — where the model or the eyes are, where the focus of the image is, where the logo placement is.
Look at the golden mean; the golden mean is nature's geometry. Everything fits into this symmetry. I think really good designers work in that realm, which is really cool for prAna, because Beaver (Ed. note: the founder of prAna) always had that in the back of his mind. We were able to take that concept and modernize it, which was really cool.
How'd you modernize it?
It was taking that principle, which is very nature centric, and giving it more of a fashion forward look and aesthetic. The catalogs that we were originally doing all fit into the golden mean, but you wouldn't know that unless you really knew what it was.
There were these little gems of discovery if you looked in between the lines.
Beaver seems like a cool guy.
Beaver is great; I have nothing but respect for him. I've been fortunate to spend tons of times in meetings with him and Scott Kerslake, the CEO.
You have Scott, who founded Athleta, and then you have Beaver, who founded No Fear, Spy, Life's a Beach, prAna... I'm nothing but fortunate to have spent so much time with both of them. They have totally different points of view around branding and creative, but they are equally passionate and committed.
Beaver is super committed to authenticity and realism and passion, and Scott is all about creative and design. Listening to Beaver talk about how he started prAna and why he bought back the company, and the passion that he has for it: he wanted to create this zero waste business and be super sustainable and help. It was so much more than just selling product.
I feel like a big part of prAna’s success is the story — you feel like you're making a difference with your purchase.
That's a good example of what it means to actually be a brand. As a brand, what you're trying to convey to a customer is that there's more to it than just the products you sell. There's a benefit to becoming a brand loyalist, because it stands for something more.
My idealistic approach is that I don't want to work for a company just to work. I don't want to work for a brand or promote something just to punch in and punch out. I really want the world to change somehow. If I can create work or direct work that makes people think differently, and provide something with a little bit more substance, sweet.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Definitely in everyday life. As long as you're not just a homebody, if you're out there and doing things, design is everywhere. Art is everywhere. If you look at it, inspiration is everywhere. It's just being open to your surroundings and navigating life.
How do you capture it?
I'm a big fan of pencil and journal. If I'm in a pinch, then I'll do notes on my phone.
What about visuals?
Definitely take pictures. Technology has been crazy. You always have your iPhone on you. I'll do that a lot.
Even then, for me there's no replacing the human eye. It's just seeing stuff, feeling, and writing it down. Writing down what those thoughts are, and tabling it for later and coming back to it.
As far as looking at inspiration on the web, I have a few random sites that I look at. I try not to look at anything that I'm directly doing in my work — other companies that are in our industry. I think there's a lot of redundancy there.
There’s a quote I love, I forget who said it, but something along the lines of, “There's no originality, only authenticity.” It's so true. Life has been going on forever. The chances of someone coming up with an idea or somebody doing something that's already been done ...
“Simpsons did it!”
Simpsons did it, totally. I think it's how you're trying to present it: be authentic in what you're doing. If there's the authenticity there, then that's just as good as originality in today's times.
There's a lot of Euro sites that I look at. I think Europe has a really good design sensibility and structure to it. They're all about negative space, symmetry, just simplicity. I think that's a really strong sentiment too. Really good design is simple. There's not a lot of fluff to it. Same thing with photography: a good image is a simplistic capture of a moment in time. That's all it needs to be.
What do you do to create an authentic photoshoot experience?
Ahead of time, it's really looking at who's in the crew that you're going on the shoot with.
From a crew standpoint, I want to work with photographers that get the vision I'm trying to capture. I want to work with team members that are committed to, “Hey, it's a photoshoot. You're not traveling.” It's not all glamorous. It's actually hard work.
A lot of people think, “You’re really lucky. You get to go to all these cool places!” And I'm working 16+ hour days in order to get this done.
It’s not a vacation.
It's definitely not a vacation.
I try to find people that work well together. For example, if you know you need a guy and a girl for a dual gender shot, I hire models I know have good chemistry — but I would never hire a boyfriend and girlfriend to do that.
It just wouldn't be authentic, because it would siphon them off from the rest of the team. Because when they're not doing work, then they're just off by themselves traveling the globe.
I try to have the chemistry of the whole group be like, “Hey, let's go all stay in this house.” It's like Real World. How do you put seven strangers together, and have shit get real?
You do that, and try to build chemistry within the team. Because if you're building chemistry before you even go out on the shoot, that's going to set you up for better success. Rule number one in a photoshoot is you can have a plan A, a plan B, and a plan C, but it's never going to go that way.
You can have detailed plans for a shoot, and then you get there and the weather’s bad, or your bags got lost, or you get stopped at customs and might not make it in the country. Things that you can't predict are going to happen. The only thing that keeps it moving and keeps it somewhat cool is if the people that you're dealing with are super cool.
Those things have happened so many times, but as long as the crew is cool and that chemistry exists, the shoot will go at least a little bit better no matter the obstacles that are thrown at you. Just know that nothing's going to go as planned, be nimble and live in that moment.
I know people in this business who look up another person's catalog and see an image, and will just be like, “We want to replicate that, put that page here. This is how I'm going to go about building my photography brief. That image that J. Crew captured that looks really awesome, I want that image on the shoot.” They'll spend all day trying to replicate something that's already been done. I think that's the worst idea ever.
That sounds wasteful.
It's wasteful on multiple levels. You're going to spend all your time trying to set up a shot someone else has already done, rather than experiencing this trip and going on this trip.
Nine times out of ten, when I'm on the road to a location, I'm going to see something that captures my eye on the side of the road. I'm going to say “pull over,” because that's the shot. I know that I can be as planned out as I can be, I can be as organized as I can be, but life happens in that moment. That moment is what I want to capture, because that moment's going to be more authentic than anything else I set up.
People like Embry and Ben, photographers I've worked with and that I want to work with, they get that. It's really cool partnering with them because I can sell them on that vision. Before we go on the shoot, I can give them a deck of tears and have a phone conversation like, “This is what I want to capture,” and all of us know that it's never going to go to that plan, but we have the vision. We will all be on shoot, and we'll see it on the side of the road and be like, “No, that's it. Let's go.”
How do you find those photographers?
That’s where my photography background plays into it. When I look for a photographer, I put my own lens on it. I look at their past work and read between the lines: what is their unique perspective, and what can they bring to the table that helps me navigate the path I have to execute for this brand?
How do you try to communicate your vision to the stakeholders, to people who may not be creative?
Honestly, that's the most challenging part of my job. I think every person that I've worked with that's been on that other side of the coin is different: some people I could show them visual tears, and they'll get it. Other people, I really need to hold their hand through the whole process. Some people just want to see things like a hundred times.
I think the hardest thing in the creative industry is letting people just be creative. Everybody wants to be creative, but not everybody is, and it's really challenging for people on my side of the fence. “Micromanage” is a hard word, but there's a lack of trust because the difference between good and bad creative is still a really hard thing to quantify for non creatives, right?
It's the knowledge of the “intangibles” that go into creative that makes design powerful. Really good creative directors and art directors have an understanding that most things are actually tangible.
Trust me to do my job, because this is my background and the results will prove it. Even with the backing of results — I've built catalogs that have greatly outperformed projections, and all these other accolades - it still doesn't build that trust, because good creative's a thing that's really hard for non-creatives to believe is objective. It’s not subjective; it can be quantified.
Like, you want the higher price point item in a catalog to be on the outer edge, because that’s where the eye goes first. Your eyes naturally go the corner of the page, rather than the inside gutter. But someone without education or training in creative thinks it’s all arbitrary.
Like for Pixelz, being in retouching or image manipulation or image correction, the details that go into that are your bread and butter. It's consistency that you're building, but not everyone can see it.
What do you think post-production's role should be?
My mindset and methodology on post-production is the same as when shooting. I want the post-production asset to be as authentic as possible. If it's a lifestyle shot on location somewhere, I want there to be a general color edit to the photo. I don't want it just to be RAW, I want to adjust for exposure and I want the color profile to be natural to that time of day.
If I'm shooting in Morocco and it's sunset and I'm holding a camel, I want the mood right there to feel like what is actually happening and be as realistic as possible to that moment. An art director, or whoever is on the shoot at that time, it's their job to keep it in the guard rails of authenticity. From a sellable product standpoint, you can make enhancements to the product.
The things that I will color correct on, or direct color correction on, again, I want the product to be as authentic as possible. When the customer gets the product in the mail, it should reflect what they're seeing in the photo. I will clean up wrinkles, or if between the photoshoot and production we change a label on it or something visual, I'll tweak that, but I don't want to over correct a photo to have it become something fake.
Some people color correct water to be extra blue. No, it has to be realistic. If the photo is underexposed or overexposed, correct for the exposure, right, but don't overcorrect and make it something fake. That's my rule of thumb. When I see catalogs or things where I can totally tell they've shaved five pounds off that model, that's effed, that's not cool.
That water color example, this is where a photography background plays into it. I know that at that time of day the sky would have this color, and there is no way that the water could be that bright blue; that kind of thing. That's where I think there's a truth to authenticity. As a customer, not everyone’s going to get it because not everyone understands, but there's going to be some people that see that and be like, “They're selling me on something that's not real. I'm going to check out and not be a customer of that brand anymore.”
Do you shoot differently for a catalog, eCom, packaging, etc? Does the final medium matter?
Totally. It matters. I think you have a lot of companies right now that don't understand how much it really does matter, just because of how quickly technology has grown.
From a website and a digital standpoint, you're trying to capture imagery for such a variety of platforms: I need an image that fits a tablet; I need an image that fits a mobile phone; I need an image that fits a homepage; I need an image that fits my cellphone, but it's my Nokia cellphone, not my iPhone; no, it's my Samsung cellphone.
There is so much variety you're trying to capture for, and in print it's the same way. There's also differences within print, like, “I have the catalog in which I need to sell the product.” Then the shot needs to be more straightforward and show the product as best as it can, versus “I'm creating a lookbook or a brand piece,” in which I want the photography to be more atmospheric and pulled back.
You're thinking about that during the shot? You're thinking about the size of the screen it might ultimately end up on?
You should be thinking about that. If you know your onions, right, you should be thinking about that. You should going into the shoot thinking about that. That actually would dial into what your shot count would be.
I put it into my photography plan, but a lot of the time companies are run-and-gun and they're not thinking about that. It's this contention I've been having lately, where I think a good photography shoot, given the realistics around budget constraint and different things that companies are dealing with, the best thing that you can do going into a photoshoot is shoot for the whole brand of that season. What's the brand theme of that season? From a higher level, ladder everything up because you're dealing with so many different channels.
You're dealing with print. You're dealing with retail. You're dealing with web. You're dealing with wholesale dealers. How can you get the most bang out of your buck? For me it's looking at what the key marketing stories are for a season across all touchpoints and laddering that to the brand, and creating this whole brand umbrella going into the photoshoot; we need to shoot for this brand as a season versus channel specific. A lot of companies will shoot just towards one particular channel and then try to sandwich everything into the other channels. That's where you're forcing yourself against the wall because it's fitting a round peg in a square hole.
Does channel specific photography lose the unified story?
You might lose the story, or it just doesn't translate. If I shot a model straight forward and posing for a catalog because I wanted to show the product, well I'm not doing a good job of showing what the brand is because there's no emotion in that photo. On the website, where I have a wide platform to show the emotiveness of a brand, now I'm coming off as very posey and inauthentic. It's understanding all those components at play, which is another one of those things where people seem to think ...
People think that going on a photoshoot is apples to apples, that every photo works, that it's really easy. If you're doing a really good job, it's not easy. It's super complicated. There's a lot of details that can be the difference between selling five hundred grand versus a million bucks. Which detail’s going to do more?
It's that same intangible knowledge, right, that goes back to a company that's really good at design, really good at art direction, or really good at photography. With brand storytelling, their long game is going to do much better service because design actually pays dividends if they're doing it right. Same thing with post-production. If the company's partnering with a company like Pixelz, right, and actually is leveraging them in the right way, that can inherently help a company make more money and make more profit.
Do you shoot for social?
I don't, personally, but there's totally a need to art direct your social content. You want the photography on your social media to be authentic, right? If I see social media that has the same things I was talking to you about, fakeness in the photography, that's not cool, but you do want it to be curated.
Good brands have a curated look and feel that maps back to their overarching brand definition. What's the “why” of their brand? Good branding is the why of a brand, more than just the product you sell or making a profit. Profit and product are a given. That's why you're in business. If you're a brand and you're trying to solve “here's the why of our brand,” it's more than just that. It's, “We're trying to solve this bigger global issue.” Apple's was, “We're not in the business of making computers. We're in the business of changing the status quo.” Something along those lines, and then they pitched it like, “by the way we also make computers.” Simon Sinek has a really good philosophy around this.
You want to provide meaning.
Something. You're trying to provide meaning to the customers, because that's where loyalty is going to come from. At the end of the day, if you have that loyalty, sooner or later that's going to lead to conversion and profitability. A lot of companies are just after the short sale or the quick sale. That might work right then, but ultimately it’s not going to do anything.
Where do you think art direction, fashion in general is headed over the next five, ten years?
I think this is a really interesting time, and I think it's going to be a complete change. Same thing with the retail market — especially in outdoor, people are like “Retail’s dead!” Because you see smaller mom and pop shops dying, you see bigger shops thriving, and all this change in retail; but I don't think it's dying. I think people need to innovate. They need to rethink it. It's not going to be the same thing.
Technology's moving so fast. People are moving so fast. Our needs are changing so fast, where companies that are thinking outside the box and are willing to be like, “times are changing, we need to figure out how to work with these times or how to think ahead of these times,” that's where growth’s going to come. For me, I don't think retail is dead: I just think it's not pulling somebody into a shop and shoving all this product in their face. I think it's creating community hubs or social hubs.
Saturday Surf is a good example, right? They're putting a surf shop in big metropolis cities, such as New York and Sydney. Cities that are not necessarily adjacent to the beach, but they're pushing that culture in a unique way in that city that makes it a cultural hub. If I live in New York, I'm like, "I want to surf." I grew up surfing. Well, I can go pop into Saturday Surf, and I'm going to feel that culture. I'm going to feel that mentality even though I'm nowhere near the beach. I think that's a really interesting idea.
How did they become a community hub?
They have a curated apparel look, which is simple. It's not over the top. Design of the store, it's open, it's clean. There's a simplicity to it. That whole brand name “Saturday Surf” is so much like “Weekend Warrior.”
You're in a metropolis like New York which is so fast paced and moving all the time, but if I'm there and I grew up surfing and I want a taste of that, then I'm going to go hang out at that shop. Being a kid growing up surfing, I used to love going to a shop and just rapping out and hanging out and just being around and immersed in that culture.
You're doing it in a way that's like, I can go there and get a coffee or a cold brew on tap and sit and read a magazine. I don't necessarily need to buy anything, but I want to hang out there. I want to hang out there so much that suddenly I want to buy something because I'm there, because I'm hanging out so long. There's a thought process to it, right?
Urban's another really good example of it. Urban's doing a really good job. You walk into Urban, no matter what city you're in you feel like you're in that city, because they do such a good job of curating their space toward their environment. I go into an Urban Outfitters in Chicago, I feel like I'm in Chicago. I go to one in San Diego, it feels like San Diego. They curate their lines according to their target demographic.
That's really smart, because not everybody's the same. (Shaking head) You have retail shops that have the same look from shop to shop to shop. There's no diversification. Not everybody's the same!
Isn't it so much more authentic if you're communicating to people differently and on a real level? And it's like I'm not trying to sell you on something, but you might need that sweatshirt. Let me be the one that provides it because I'm doing something that's not only just to look good, it's sustainable, or it has these technical features.
How do you art direct studio photography?
You can't put a model in a situation and just have her pose, because each model has four looks: it's hair flip, turn, smile, look up. I apologize to all my model friends, but I know each one of their four looks by heart. When you start to see them, that's another thing where it's inauthentic.
Sarah (Ed note: former photography manager at prAna) did a really good job because she was in the studio. Sarah put on music, she had connections with these people. She created a comfortable vibe where they could get out of their routine.
Then maybe they don't just do the four looks.
Maybe they do something else. Maybe you're telling them a joke, right? There's nothing like seeing someone actually laugh, or actually smile. I think if you see a photo side by side of someone fake laughing and someone really laughing, you know the difference.
My friend Ben, who's a photographer, he will dance on shoots. He has such a disarming personality, where the way that he gets models comfortable is amazing. It's because there's no false air about him, which immediately makes the models have no false air about them.
On a shoot, let's go out and have a family dinner. Let's go do these things together. Let's actually build this community and this vibe. I've dealt with models that won't go along with that. They'll just be like, “No. I need my own this or that.” That's going to throw the whole vibe of the shoot off, and that's going to suck.
What do you do in that situation?
I just don't shoot them as much. Then they start feeling really uncomfortable. Then they'll want to be involved, because they're not getting as much published.
It's just like, here's my no bullshit. You're not going to have fun. You don't want to have fun. You want to have an air about you, so I'm not going to shoot you. I don't think that's Machiavellian. I just think that's me being authentic and saying, “Here's what I'm trying to capture, I'm not just here to cater to your rules.” I'm trying to create this vibe in which we're all working together to create something better.
The best shoots are the ones where people just let go. They actually have fun. I think that the people I've worked with that actually know me will work with me again because it's the same thing. Good people create good content.
It's as simple as that. Don't come to the table thinking you're better than anyone else. No. How can we work together? Two heads are better than one. Three heads are better than two. It's really simple.
So everybody is on the same level, and everyone can contribute?
Does that not make you feel empowered? Does that not make you want to work harder?
That's the lifeblood of everything creative. It's not just sitting here and posturing or playing politics.
Posturing. I hate that word. It's what I deal with. Like I've said, no, you empower the people under you. You raise them up. Their goals are your goals, and you need to support them in those goals. You need to support them in how they want to grow, not only in their career but how they want to grow in life. If you're not personally vested in that ... That whole adage of, “it's just business it's not personal,” that's bullshit. No, you need to personally invest in the people that you work with.
Relationships are everything. It's human behavior. If I sit here and tell a person I work with, “I'm going to champion for you. I'm going to empower you. What do you want to do? How can I help build you up?” They're going to work harder. They're going to want to create more.
How would you sum up your advice for directing a good photoshoot?
A photoshoot needs to be flexible because it's never going to go according to plan. Then on top of that authenticity is ... I mean it's starting to become an overused word, but it's just capturing moments.
There's so much chaos in life, right, that we're living for these moments in between the chaos. From a photography standpoint and an art direction standpoint, how I'm trying to communicate the brand is to capture those moments in between the chaos. You're not just standing around posing, you're actually living your life. There's a movement to it. There's an emotion too it. Something's happening, and it's something that is unposed.