INTERVIEW // JEFF STAPLE
February 10th, 2021 // Interviewer: Shane Allen // Culture
The thing with creative people, is that most of them aren't business savvy.. Often of times, you'll find that its really hard to figure out how to sell the things you make, grow an audience that respects your work and find ways to get people to let you do certain things you cant' do on your own. Which is why its really impressive when someone has both the qualities of a creative talent, and a business mindset. Where those two roads intersect, you'll find Jeff Staple.
Jeff Staple is a graphic designer and streetwear pioneer. Widely known for designing the celebrated Pigeon Dunk, if you check out Jeff Staples portfolio, you'll see that he's worked with so many of the biggest brands you can think off.
If you're a young creative person trying to learn how to make your passion into a business, Jeff should be who you're looking up to. He's an OG in the world of design and streetwear and he has successfully navigated that uphill battle that you have when you're trying to figure out how get your voice heard and your work seen.
His goals are to take all of what he learned along the way and give away that information to anyone who wants to hear it. You can listen to all of that on his podcast Business of Hype, where he talks to successful creatives and asks them how they navigate a creative profession in with a business mindset.
What were you interested in as a kid?
I was really into sports and comics. My favorite comics were The Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men , X factor. I was following artists, like Seth MacFarlane and Frank Miller and stuff. So yeah, avid comic collector.. I was also that kid that made sure each one was backed with a Mylar acid-free protected coverings for preserving each one. I still have them, I gotta figure out what to do with them, I have like 12 huge cases of comics.
What I would do as a real young kid is like, I would imagine if the X-Men recruited a new character, what would their power be? What would they look like? What would they be named or what their uniforms look like? And I would draw those people.
I’m not a good artist or portraiture person, but what I would do is take tracing paper and trace different elements from different characters and create like the new character out of that.
Remember any good characters you came up with?
I can’t remember any, I just remember really having fun with it. It’s funny how like just destiny sort of manifest itself, what’s funny is I was much less concerned with the quality of the actual drawing but like I was always concerned with like the font in which the characters name is displayed.
The total package,
Exactly the total package. One other thing that I vividly remember doing as a kid is, I’m from Jersey, which is like mall capital of America, I remember when I was really young, like 10, 12 years old, I drew and created my own mall of the future. What would a mall look like in the future? I created how people get around the mall and what you do in the mall and stuff like that. A very strange project that I just gave myself to do.
Were you ever encouraged to do any of this?
No, not really. I’m Chinese and my parents are first generation immigrants. So they literally came to this country primarily so that I would be like the first person in my lineage to have a US passport. They were very traditional, so supporting artistic creativity was not something that they were really supportive of.
In fact, I would say like I kind of hid it from them. You know, the sort of great American stories of a kids a drawing being put on the fridge. Like, no.
When I did a drawing I would hide it in a drawer. It was not supported. It was, it was seen as a waste of time. You should be doing your homework, you know?
When you have to like hide things from people, you get sort of attached to it. It makes it feel like it’s your own thing and you grow a personal bond to it. Is that kind of how you felt?
Facts. I mean, yeah. I’ve never broken it down like that, but you’re right. The fact that I was sort of like putting this stuff away. it made it heavier in my heart. Like it just added this weight to it. Frankly I was drinking the Kool-Aid too. I’d never thought that a career in the arts or creativity was a viable option all the way through college, to be honest.
Yeah, totally. So what were some of the first things that you made that you kind of felt that you were onto something good?
I didn’t really make anything in high school. I’m also old, I graduated high school, 93. And so, you know, there was no like Mac, Photoshop, illustrator, like it was still the age of metro set lettering and tracing paper and number two pencils. So if anyone who did feature themselves as an "artist" was someone who was sick with paints and pencils. No one, was accepted for being a great visionary because your tumbler was dope. It was nothing like that.
Nowadays, if you have a dope Tumblr, you get a job out of it.
So there was nothing to show for it. There was this issue I had, sort of an identity crisis, I was having in high school. The school was in a community in New Jersey that just had no people of color in it.
I had 1600 kids at my high school and there were three Asians and like five black kids.
You know, like the rest was just white kids. So there was this identity crisis. That was hugely shifted when I went to NYU because all of a sudden at NYU, I think it’s 55% Asian.
Just a year ago when I was still sort of being ridiculed and made fun of on a daily basis for being different, and now at NYU, I’m seeing the Chinese Student Club, the Korean Student Association, the Indian Club. I joined, all of them. I’m Chinese, but I went to every single Asian club and it was awesome. It was just like incredible to see your own people. And through them thriving too, there’s nothing more inspiring than that.
So I would join the Asian, Cultural Union at NYU and they need stuff done. They need a newsletter done or there’s a party happening and they need a flyer done. I would just raise my hand and be like yeah I’ll give it a try. So I would start playing around and making the party invites for the Asian Cultural Reunion.
That’s probably one of the first time that I saw other people valuing something that I created with my own two hands.
Did that restart your love for creativity and design?
Yeah. There was actually something else that jumped started it. So back in NYU I was always getting odd part-time jobs. I worked at a sneaker store, I worked at a hair salon, I worked at a film developing place, a grocery store.
All you’re looking for is like the highest hourly wage that you can find, whoever pays the most an hour. We’re talking about like the difference between 8.50 an hour to 8.75 an hour, I’m taking the 8.75 an hour.
I don’t care what it is. Like I just need that extra 25 cents an hour.
I found this job at this, what was called back then, a desktop publishing studio. Which is kind of like an old school way of saying a graphic design studio. They focused on books and magazines and they were paying $12 an hour, which was like unheard. minimum wage back then was 8. They’re paying $12 an hour for a data entry clerk.
So I applied for that job and I got it. I answered phones and took messages and I didn’t do anything graphic design wise, but I worked amongst the team of a dozen people. I got to see what they do every day and what’s funny is that the program that they had me entering messages in graphic design apps.
So like illustrator, Photoshop, and back then it was called Cork Express. They taught me how to use those programs in order to do these like super menial things that you could have done in Microsoft word.
And I got so good at those programs that I became an instructor before I became a designer.
I was single handedly teaching classes to old art directors and creative directors that had agencies who needed to learn Photoshop. I was teaching them how to do it.
I got really into it and I wanted to pursue it more so from a theory creativity side.
My mom is a graphic designer and she had her own desktop publishing company. I remember when I was young, she would work with the grids, light box and exacto blades. Then she had to learn photoshop and put all of that stuff in our attic.
Yeah exactly. What’s really interesting is your mom came up in the generation where everything was done by hand, and then this computer and the internet was introduced and they had to shift. My generation grew up learning everything by hand, but we learned the computer early on. After that people were then born with the computer and the internet in their hands.
But my generation is the last generation that did stuff by hand. Like whether it’s to vinyl records to make us to make a beat versus Serrato or MP3s. or working on a light box. Like I’m the last generation that builds those things by hand, but then also had to quickly adapt or die to the future. .
Yeah it’s kind of like an exponential curve, and you got in at the sweet spot where you learned how to do it analogue, learning fundamentals, so when digital you have a better understanding of what you’re actually doing. Like if you learn how to use an 35mm SLR, even though it’s antiquated, you’re going to have a better understanding of a camera.
But it’s hard to argue with like this speed and efficiency of modern day stuff.
Oh yeah. At what point is it worth it or not?
Like driving a car, right? There’s manual stick-shift transmission and then there’s automatic. If you are 13 years old right now, why should you learn how to drive stick? You should probably know about automated lane changing and self-parking too. Really there’s no real reason why you should learn stick shift right now. But I do know kids who like to learn how to drive stick and really know how a car works. They really know why the engine is connected to this and why there’s that. Cause they literally have it in their hand. They’re feeling it.
Now you can fail as many times as you want until you get it right. Where as with analogue materials, you have to take way more care and precaution planning everything out,
When I shoot with photographers that shoot with traditional film, they take like 12 shots and say, okay, I got it. I’m like, really? They go, yeah, I got it.
And then you get the digital kid and he took like 100 shots. Right. And then he’s looking at all the shots on his camera, and say, okay let me try again. It’s because you have that freedom that it’s actually paralyzing.
When you have a roll of 36 in your bag. And that’s your last role, there’s this pressure of, I gotta get this in the next 36 tries.
What would you say is a highlight of your career that you’re most proud of?
I feel like I’m that person who was just trying to get their art understood. Probably from the beginning of like, even my parents first and foremost, right? That kid that was hiding the art in his drawer and trying to figure out a way to get acceptance from that. Now seeing a complete stranger walking down the street and wearing something that I created is the highlight of my career.
Its a highlight of my career every time I see somebody using or wearing something that I created.
To this day, If I’m walking down the street and I see another person wearing a Staple t-shirt or someone having a pigeon sticker on their laptop, I still get goosebumps. I still get really giddy over that.
Because that is real. If you see someone in real life wearing something you made, that says more than any amount of likes or followers. You directly influenced your surroundings.
That kid earns money somehow and he chose to take that hard earned money and gave somebody $40 for a t-shirt. And now he’s proudly wearing this logo that I created on his chest in front of thousands of people. I should be paying him to wear my logo, But he paid me. That is so mind blowing to me.
Is there a specific goal you’re trying to accomplish in everything you do?
We’re at a really monumental pivotal time in our lives right now, so that’s being redefined as I speak. I’m speaking really off the cuff here, but my answer prior to 2020. I was all about giving away the information that I’ve learned over the last 20 years. All the trial and error that I’ve been through, all the mistakes I’ve made all the ups that I’ve gone through.
I want to take all of that and package it up and then just give it away.
I just want to give it away, like for free as much as I can. I do think that selfishly speaking, there is a need for this culture, I think in order for it to thrive, there needs to be more people doing better things so it’s a rising tide. It’s not a competitive thing where I need to be the best designer or brand and everyone else needs to be smoked.
No, cause then I’m the king of a pebble in the ocean, you know? I don’t want that, I want a big robust community that I’m a part of, ideally that I had a hand in helping bring up the next generation too.
I think everyone is now looking at themselves in the mirror for a long time in 2020 and saying like, what is my thing? What is the thing that I want to leave on this earth when I’m not here anymore? Whether it’s because of health or politics or race there’s so many different perspectives, you know, government. I think everyone’s redefining what the mission and their goal is in life and I’m definitely doing that a lot.
Is that why you started your podcast Business of Hype?
That’s, that’s a perfect example. Not everyone’s going to be able to get access to for two hours with Jerry Lorenzo and Nicole McLaughlin or Josh Vida.
I’ve worked hard, I’ve put in my time. One of the fruits of that labor is that I get to sit down with these people and talk to them for a few hours on the culture un-edited unfiltered, you know? One of the most common comments I hear about the podcast is that it doesn’t feel like a journalist doing the Q&A with someone. It feels like I’m a fly on the wall, listening to two friends talk, you know? That’s really the environment that I strive to create.
But I think when it’s me, as a founder of a brand talking to another founder of a brand and we shoot the shit for a few hours and see what happens, that’s where the good content really comes out.
I think a lot of the best shows or podcasts are less so commentary on something other people are doing, and more so stories from people who are knee deep in whatever it is they’re talking about. Talking from the inside looking out, rather than on the outside looking in. Do you see any like common traits in all of the guests that you interview?
The one common thing that I see a lot of the people that I interview, is that.
At a certain point, the majority of the people around them them told them that they’re crazy, or that they’re going down the wrong path.
There’s this moment where like the founder or the entrepreneur, the creator has to really check themselves and ask them if they’re really being crazy. Or If everyone else just doesn’t get it. I think every creative goes through that and asks themselves, am I crazy?
Am I the only one that thinks this is dope and everyone else just doesn’t see it? Or am I delusional? That’s like a really hard question to answer.
All the people that I interviewed, there was always that point where they said, no matter how much I have to sacrifice, even if it means breaking up with my girlfriend or not talking to my parents for like 10 years. Which is something that I personally went through. Starting Staple literally severed my relationship with my dad to where we did not talk for over a decade, only until recently.
Not to say that that’s the right or wrong decision. Some people might say the value of my relationship with my family or my loved one is more important than whatever commercial or celebrity success I could gain from following my passions. So to each his own on that one.
I’m just answering the question, which is like all the people that I’ve interviewed, there was a certain point where they just had to say to everyone, I believe so much in this that I’m just going to go ahead and do it.
How would you define success?
Pretty easy to me, success is not defined by any numerical value. It is just waking up every day and being really happy with that. I know that sounds really simple, but also I know a lot of people now recognize how much of a challenge and a luxury it is to wake up everyday and be really happy with where you’re at in life.
I think a lot of people cook too much pressure on like the five-year plan or the 10 year plan or retirement plan. And what am I doing so that I’m going to be happy when I’m 65. Depending on where you’re at in life I think people have to remember that if you spend all your time trying to figure out how you’re going to be happy in the future, you forget that you have to make yourself happy in the present.
If you’re not happy today, it’s going to be really hard to be happy this weekend, which is going to make February really hard to be happy. And then suddenly the whole year is really hard to be happy about. And it’s sort of like a cascading domino effect.
But if I’m happy today, there’s a good chance that I’ll be happy tomorrow. Keep that forever.
There's a Kanye line where he said. “Money, isn’t everything, but not having it, is.” If you don’t have money, then it is everything. Figure out a way to put food on the table, a roof over your head. If you happen to love eating sushi once a month, make sure to have sushi once a month.
Also if you’re an artist, get the things you need to be an artist. If you draw but you can’t afford a stable table to work on It’s going to be really hard for you to make your best art.
Make enough money to buy yourself the stable table so that you can now create your artwork on it. If that means you need a desk lamp, than get the desk lamp.
You gotta make yourself comfortable at the very least. While success is not marked by money, I do also subscribe to the fact that you have to do things that make yourself happy. Those things just might be tied for something financial.
What are some of the most common questions that your listeners ask you?
How did you make it? That’s the number one question. I think a lot of people are hoping that the secret to success and the road to success is the same thing as treating a cold. Go to the pharmacy and you take this, go to sleep eight hours drink plenty of water. When you wake up on Friday, your cold is gone. Success and career success is not like that.
How do you become Tiger Woods? Play a lot of fucking golf.
Same for design and becoming a creative. Make a lot of stuff, get rejected a lot of times, bomb. Every once in a while you’re going to make some really great stuff that hits and then you’ll start to understand what hits and what doesn’t hit. Then you’ll be able to repeat what hits and that’s how you become great. You know, there is no quick path to it,
How do you find peace outside of work?
Well, to my last point, there’s not really an outside of work. There is no clock out, saying I’m done with Staple for the day. There’s no, it’s Sunday so it’s not Staple day. It’s 24/7 365. So there is no way that I think the answer to that question is really try to position yourself in it, in a place in life where you don’t want to take a break because you love what you do that much.
I remember I would work until the sun rose and I’d be mad that the sun was rising because I should be going to bed.