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Jeff Staple On Collaboration

posted by on 13/01/2012

Some Friday reading for y’all who commute to work like me. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration – that’s all you see and hear nowadays between brands, bloggers, celebrities but how many of them are actually successful? Adidas x David Beckham, Jordan and Nike, Uniqlo and Jil Sander to name a few. Jeff Staple who is a man of many talents; product and apparel designer, entrepreneur, blogger, visionary and probably more. He speaks on the background of collaboration and more importantly explains when it is a collaboration isn’t actually one. He also gives us insight into his work with Nike, what the different types of collabs are and what makes a successful one. Read the full article from Antenna magazine after the cut, trust me it’s worth reading.

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As soon as man could make things, man was collaborating.

When the first caveman discovered fire, one person found the wood, the other worked the flame. Centuries later, the blacksmith needed to work with the leathersmith in order to make that perfect belt. Long before the word “collaboration” or “colab” was invented, we were collaborating.

The reason is simple. As humans, we are adept at only a certain number of skill sets. Even so called “Renaissance people” are not masters at everything. Eventually we need help. There are two kinds of help: we can simply pay for the help, otherwise known as “work-for-hire,” or we can collaborate. When you collaborate, you’re basically saying, “Hey bro, I’m really good at X, but I suck at Y. You, on the other hand are really good at Y, but you’re miserable at X. If we come together, we might be able to do some amazing things!”

The result is an epiphany. A yin and a yang forming one. Taking the best of the negatives and turning them into positives. Fast forward a few more centuries and we now live in the digital/technological/informational age. Our outputs are no longer only physical objects, but they are experiences now too. People make a living by offering opinions, or by having a certain number of people “follow” and “like” them. It’s a new day where your thoughts are the commodity.

Even with all that, the basic premise of the collaboration is the same.
Nowadays a corporation will seek the services of a cool artist, influencer or designer to work with them on a product. Why?

The reasons are transparent. A limited edition production run of something will not make or break the publicly-traded behemoth of a corporation. Why would a mega-corp make 30 pieces of something, or make something that only sells in one boutique?
It’s so the corporation can gain some sort of credibility in a market it currently cannot access or reach. Meanwhile, the “cool-guy” probably lives and breathes the aforementioned unattainable subset. So what do they do? They collaborate.

Company X says, “Hey ‘cool-guy,’ we know you can’t make a car/shoe/sunglass/bottle of alcohol/denim jacket/snowboard, etc. And for the life of us, we can’t get your friends to try out our stuff. So maybe we can help each other out here…”
And thus you have the 21st century collaboration.

I may be sounding cynical about it, but in all honesty these colabs can offer up some amazing innovation, product design and in some rare cases, even change the world. Unfortunately, many many companies now see it as a requirement to do a collaboration. It’s now literally a line item in their annual marketing budget. If they DON’T do a collaboration, it’s viewed as a wasted opportunity. This to me is completely ludicrous.

It should be obvious to anyone that by nature of the definition of the word “collaboration,” it cannot happen this way. Collaborations—or at least GREAT ones—happen organically and naturally. They are not forced into a calendar and a PowerPoint presentation. Great collaborations don’t start in boardrooms. They start in restaurants. They start with conversation. They start with mutual respect. They start with a common goal that, together, they can work towards achieving.

Often times, what gets mistaken for a collaboration is actually a “work-for-hire” project. These are based around set budgets, set timelines and set expectations. At the end of the day creativity, passion and what’s truly best for both parties, must take a back seat to those parameters.

I also want to quickly address a new phenomenon that has recently occurred that often gets mistaken for a collaboration. It’s called a “licensing deal.” When you see a brand do a project with a cartoon character, or an artist that has been deceased for many decades—this is not a collaboration. The arrangement is this: brand says to cartoon intellectual property owner, “let us use your trademarks and art. We’ll create some cool shit with it. You can approve it. And then whatever we sell, you will receive a percentage of sales (e.g., royalties).” A legal document must be drafted and signed. And often times, the trademark owner will impose a minimum amount of sales or a minimum guarantee on royalties. Doesn’t sound very collaborative does it? It’s because it’s not. I just want to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing a licensing deal. I’ve done them before in the past. I just don’t like when they are called colabs. It then degrades the things that go into an actual collaboration.

I hope that in the future, the idea of collaboration will go back to its pure form. That is: two people/companies/entities sitting down, sharing a great meal and bouncing ideas off of each other. The objective is not to finish dinner with a “plan of attack.” The idea is to share. You see how this is very different than having a “creative” meeting in a conference room that starts at 9:15am and must have a hard-stop at 10:10am. THAT’S NOT A COLAB!

Great colabs are the stuff of MAGIC. It’s alchemy in a bottle. It’s creating something from nothing. And I’m not talking about a physical product; I’m talking about an entirely new way of thinking—for both parties. That is some special shit that doesn’t happen very often. At my companies, Staple Design ( and Reed Space (, we’ve had the pleasure of creating many collaborations. But we’ve done “work-for-hire” projects as well as a few licensing projects. Maybe because I’ve had experiences with all of these, it is very important to me that they are properly delineated.

If I start talking about all the different projects we have done in the past, it would fill this entire magazine, so I’ll just highlight one and that is—The Pigeon. Our Pigeon trademarked logo was born out of a collaborative project with Nike to create a pair of Nike SB Dunks that was dedicated to the city of New York. The brief from Nike was that simple–create a shoe for NYC. This project took over two years to come to light. I wasn’t pissed. Nike wasn’t pissed. It was just going to happen when the planets aligned. This allowed for our design process to be very fluid and organic. It might sound really cheesy, but I believe that the story and concept for your product needs time for it to marinate into your product.
Because we were given this flexibility, and because the powers that be at Nike allowed for this to happen, conditions were prime. When the Pigeons were released to the public—history was made.
You couldn’t have drawn up a better plan even if you had the world’s smartest and most strategic people working on this campaign. Why? Because it wasn’t a campaign. It was a collaboration, in the purest sense of the word.

I can confidently say that if Nike never approached us to do that shoe, to this day, there would not be a Pigeon on a sneaker…or any of the other things we’ve applied the Pigeon mark to. And I can also confidently say that if Nike didn’t approach us to make that shoe, that to this day, Staple Design would not have been able to make a shoe as good as the Dunk. So in essence we needed each other. It’s been a dream of mine to make a shoe. I needed Nike’s expertise to create this sneaker to my specifications. And Nike needed Staple to create this shoe in a way that could not have happened within their corporate walls in Beaverton, Oregon. Hell, even if this was created at Nike, in exactly the same way, but instead of releasing at Reed Space, it was given to a sales manager and shown to national accounts like Foot Locker and Modell’s…it would have been totally different. I’m telling you, the planets aligned. But they aligned because we ALLOWED them to align. It’s part luck. But it’s also about creating the conditions for luck to happen—which is not luck. It’s preparation.

If there’s anything I can pass on from my experiences in this arena, it’s this: let the ideas come to you. Whether you’re a new jack just starting out or a billion dollar corporation trying to invigorate the product line with some energy—give yourself the time to get it right. Let the marination process happen naturally. The more you rush it, the shittier your steak is gonna taste. Your job though, is to create the conditions to allow for optimal marination to occur. Lay the foundation properly. And for chrissakes—TALK. IN PERSON. Meet. Break bread. Drink. Laugh. Poke fun. Have a good time. After all, you’re not trying to change the world—but hell, you just might.

Also peep this documentary on Jeff Staple: