The New Face Of Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz skateboards definitely has a fresh new look.

Even people who haven’t consistently paid attention to the company over the past few years probably can’t help but notice it. And the person behind that new look is the brand’s Art Director, Lee Charron, who’s done a damn good job at making heads turn.

Jeff Kendall, skate product manager at NHS, which own Santa Cruz, says, “I think the direction Lee is taking Santa Cruz in is much more indicative of what Santa Cruz was in the 80s. It’s definitely what we should have done and stuck with thoughout the 90s instead of constantly changing and falling prey to the negative feedback of not being ‘fresh’ enough.”

Charron, who’d already worked a couple of years in the production department at NHS, came on board as Santa Cruz’s art director almost two years ago. At the time, the brand had just changed over to a new logo and was in transition. “Santa Cruz was heading toward something totally new,” says Charron. “I wasn’t sure where I was at as things were changing.”

Charron notes, “The look was really evolving away from what SC had been originally—more illustration based with heavier illustration concepts. It was starting to go in a direction that was more design oriented.” And that’s what the problem was. Clearly the correlation between brand identity and a skateboarder’s support for a company is not a new one—brand identity creates a company’s support base and ultimately its success. Santa Cruz is no exception to this. So when its focus shifted away from the art that drove them successfully through the 80s and into the 90s—the era Santa Cruz experimented with design concepts—their grassroots identity was affected.

But Charron appreciates the design period the brand went through in the late 90s: “I think design is cool. At the same time I think it’s important to look at where you were image-wise and concept-wise. That’s only going to help you to where you’re going.”

When he first started as Santa Cruz’s art director, Charron recognized a general feeling, the need to change things at Santa Cruz—back to a more true feeling of both what the brand is and what it was. “Image-wise, I think Santa Cruz has always been kind of the gnarly NorCal brand,” he says. “In that aspect, the design-based look for the brand wasn’t really working. From the history of the brand, we realized we couldn’t just change it up.

“I made an attempt at marrying the two: quality of the design with quality illustrations to bring the strength that we had within Santa Cruz together. There was definitely a feeling internally that we needed to be more illustration based again.”

“I don’t think there was anything wrong with the (design based) look then,” Charron adds. “It was executed well. The main problem was a lack of that one person in marketing who drives the brand—somebody who really knew what they want the brand to look like. So Santa Cruz was kind of free floating for a little bit, and that’s when NHS started looking for that one person. And I knew I really wanted to be the artist for that one person.” That’s when the company hired Santa Cruz’s team and brand manager Shawn Sterken, who brought a lifelong passion for skateboarding.

“Shawn doesn’t have a lot of experience with all of the things that make skateboarding lame, like marketing plans and focus groups,” says Charron. “He just loves skateboarding and loves the period in skateboarding when it was just more fun and board graphics were something that kids wanted to look at—when graphics were important to skateboarding. When Sterken thinks of Santa Cruz, he thinks of that—of the late 80s and 90s when art was the focus.”

Santa Cruz’s latest series is Charron’s fourth one for the brand. His first series dealing with riots and protestors versus cops was canceled as it was scheduled to drop around the time September 11 happened last year. “It wasn’t the right time to release a series like that,” says Charron. “Everybody here gavee the choice to keep it, and I have tons of respect for doing that (axing the series). They were getting heat from shops and distributors. It was in our catalog that had already been printed, and I just made the decision to not do it.

“You have to really be able to draw a line between right and wrong for yourself. I felt it was a wrong time for that series, and so we came out with the Addicts series right after that.” It’s the successful Addicts series that caused a lot of heads to turn. “It made people see Santa Cruz again,” says Charron with an air of satisfaction. “And even more than that, it felt good around here. People internally were both happy and excited to see the graphics. That was good.”

Charron admits that although he was always passionate about art, like others in his profession, he didn’t think he could make a living out of it. After he graduated from high school, he started doing a magazine with some friends and realized that his ability to contribute to it would be seriously limited unless he learned more about computers and design. “If you’re an artist, then design should come pretty naturally,” Charron says. He adds that he considers himself an artist more so than a graphic designer: “I’m still a little unclear as to what a ‘graphic designer’ is anyways.”

Charron’s perspective on the role of art is simple, yet profound: “Art makes life look better.” Considering that, how he chooses to develop designs for the brand’s hardgoods and softgoods is both simple and realistic. “You have to draw some boundaries as an artist. You can’t be totally selfish about the art you create, because at the end of the day you have to be able to sell the stuff. At the same time, money can’t be your motivation for a skateboard graphic, you just have to feel good about it, I guess.”

Charron says working with sales and marketing inputs and filtering it in a way that doesn’t compromise with what he’s trying to do with the brand can be a challenge. “The stakes are high these days, the skate industry has gotten a taste of mainstream America’s wallet and companies are making serious money. At other companies you might see artists panicking trying to create graphics for this season that compete with the numbers they moved two years ago.”

Charron feels skateboard artists fifteen or twenty years ago invested more time into graphics, saying it was more of a craft back then. “You had to cut rubies,” he says. “There weren’t computers for laying shit out, just the production of the graphic alone was an art, not to mention the art itself.”

He feels art’s role in skateboarding has shrunk considerably because of its huge growth in popularity. “From say 1985 to 1993, it seemed like graphics played a huge role in skateboarding. That was a great time for skateboarding. Artists took risks conceptually because they weren’t trying to sell boards to little kids, and the skill level was amazing. These days you don’t have to have the best graphics to sell boards.

It’s not difficult to give a company an image—as long as the company genuinely believes in the image they’re projecting. “It’s not hard if you don’t lie to yourself,” he says. At the same time, Charron admits that keeping the image consistent is a huge challenge. Especially if the brand has a long history: “That was the biggest challenge—fighting and embracing the history of Santa Cruz. I just created what I really believe is the most honest direction for Santa Cruz.”

“We are one of the oldest brands around, so how do you keep a consistent image for 30 years? It’s nearly impossible.” Art directors have come and gone over the years at Santa Cruz including Jim Phillips, Johnny Mojo, Demetrie Tyler, and Tosh Woods. While each individual left a pretty distinct mark on the brand image, Charron believes they created what they saw as Santa Cruz skateboards. “We’ve changed, not to sell more boards but because the vision for the brand has evolved from person to person. So here I am, and I want to make my mark.”

Obviously it’s important for companies to ensure they’re offering something viable to the market in both quality and appeal. Recognizing this, Charron is adamant that if a company finds itself saying they need to change their graphics to look like another brand then they’ve instantly compromised their identity. Charron feels a company’s look defines its image as much as its image defines its look. How the skateboarding public regards his work is not really a priority. Charron says he tries his best to separate himself from the general public’s opinion: “It just fogs up what I perceive as right.”

The opinion that does matter to him is that of the team. Charron is a firm believer that pro graphics should be exactly what the rider wants them to be and tries his best to keep them involved in the process, from the initial sketches to the final version.

Kendall says, “I think even the riders who have been on the team during the art ‘searching’ period are super stoked on what Lee has done over the last year. A look and style that could be called Santa Cruz’s own is exactly what they’ve wanted all along.”d I want to make my mark.”

Obviously it’s important for companies to ensure they’re offering something viable to the market in both quality and appeal. Recognizing this, Charron is adamant that if a company finds itself saying they need to change their graphics to look like another brand then they’ve instantly compromised their identity. Charron feels a company’s look defines its image as much as its image defines its look. How the skateboarding public regards his work is not really a priority. Charron says he tries his best to separate himself from the general public’s opinion: “It just fogs up what I perceive as right.”

The opinion that does matter to him is that of the team. Charron is a firm believer that pro graphics should be exactly what the rider wants them to be and tries his best to keep them involved in the process, from the initial sketches to the final version.

Kendall says, “I think even the riders who have been on the team during the art ‘searching’ period are super stoked on what Lee has done over the last year. A look and style that could be called Santa Cruz’s own is exactly what they’ve wanted all along.”