Bob Thomson is a Senior Graphic Designer at Felt Bicycles. He designs the graphics for all of Felt's road bikes, TT bikes, as well as their cyclocross and fixed gear bikes. During his time at Felt, he has worked on team bikes for Garmin/Transitions as well as special one-off bikes for specific riders, and for special occasions like grand tours. Before his time at Felt, Bob played in a band called Big Drill Car...but perhaps his most important accomplishment is that he played a large role in me cutting my mullet off in 1991. Before we delve into the interview, allow me to explain.
Much in the same way that a snake will shed its skin, in 1991 I finally shed my mullet. Although I'm embarrassed to admit that I kept it that long, I should explain to you that mine was truly a compromise haircut. At the time, I very much wanted to have long hair, in order to mimic my favorite death metal musicians, whose long, flowing manes of hair seemed ideal. My mom, knowing better, insisted that I keep my hair short. So we met somewhere in the middle, and I ended up with the haircut equivalent of an El Camino. In 1991, my family was in a terrible economic state, so we moved in with another Colombian family. Together, we shared a two bedroom apartment in Miami, and at times there was as many as 10 of us living there in the sweltering heat. Although there are far worse neighborhoods than the one we lived in while in Miami, I can still remember sitting inside our apartment, watching large gang fights from the safety of our shared living room. This was usually a weekly event, and became part of our entertainment. Anyway, regardless of our living situation, those were good times. I was young, largely unaware of how terrible our current living situation was, and I quickly made friends with the sons of the other family we lived with. They were recent transplants from California. They spent every waking hour skateboarding, and loved the music and oversized pants that went along with skating at the time. I was slowly sucked into their world.
Through them, I was introduced to several punk and hardcore bands. Although I'd had an affinity for bands like Agnostic Front for some time before then, it was not until I started to watch skateboard videos that I became aware of more melodic punk rock bands. One such band was Big Drill Car. Big Drill Car became one of the bands that I quietly obsessed over for the next few years. I was an emotional young man, and music such as theirs seemed to speak to me, and served as a counterpoint to the angry hardcore, and political punk rock music that I was also fond of. Those were formative years in my musical taste, and also helped shape the way I would see the world (for better or worse) for the rest of my life. As I began listening to Big Drill Car and bands like them, my mullet haircut suddenly seemed dated. It had to go. I went outside of our apartment, and unceremoniously shaved my head. I felt like a new man. I was like a phoenix, rising from the ashes. But instead of being a bird, I was a young man sans-mullet...and Bob Thomson played a role in that moment.
Big Drill Car played with a wide range of bands, including incredibly influential ones. Are there any shows in particular that you remember from your time in the band?
There are quite a few. One that sticks out always for me is playing with ALL in Green Bay for the first time. It was at some hall, like a VFW or something, and it was the first time a crowd was singing our songs in unison, so loud we could hear them over the music. I remember looking at Frank and thinking "OK, this feels really good, this is what it's all about!" Lots of shows from our last tour were insane, and getting to play with and open up for some big great bands that we admired was of course a big thrill.
Although I never did the amount of touring that you did with Big Drill Car, I too spent countless days driving in horrible cargo vans in the United States and Europe while on tour. Looking back, do you miss those days, compared to the more stable life you have now? Is cycling a way to recapture that feeling of freedom?
I do miss it, but I have no desire to do it again. I miss it in the way that you would longingly remember any great time you had long ago. But what we did and how we did it was/is something you can only do as a 21 year old with nothing to lose. I love my life and my family, and have no desire to be away from them. Cycling definitely ties into those feelings of freedom, both playing music and going for a 3 hour bike ride are essential to my mental health. Both activities help me flush ill feelings down the mental toilet, helps clear the old head out and reinvigorates the soul.
When did you start riding a bike more seriously than you did as a kid?
I started riding when I was in Big Drill Car. We toured a lot, and I struggled financially all of the time, so my car was eventually repossessed. I bought a bike from a friend just to make the commute to my work which was about 5 miles away, it never got any more serious than that. About 4 or 5 years later I was in a band with my friend Michael Ward, who was going bonkers about riding road bikes. I got the skinny tire bug from him, and he helped me buy a used Bianchi while we were on tour in New Mexico. I was hooked immediately and haven't stopped, for long, since '95 or so.
What was Felt like as a company when you started, and what has changed?
It was much smaller, so growth is really the biggest change. When I started, Brett and I did all of the bike graphics together. It might sound surprising, but that's a huge workload. Now we have 5 graphic artists working on bikes alone, and I'm allowed to focus on the Road category exclusively. Obviously the Slipstream/Garmin Sponsorship was a big deal for us, and really brought our profile, and product, to a new level.
What are your current responsibilities at Felt?
Bike graphics. Stickers and paint, in other words. I'll do some tee shirt designs, and did the race clothing we have, but I'm mainly a bike guy. I usually do most of the road product, which usually includes TT/tri bikes, cyclocross bikes, and track bikes as well.
Do you have a certain amount of leeway when it comes to color schemes, or general direction of bike graphics, or do you work under directions of someone else? Is there a certain "look" that is preserved across the entire line by model year?
Man, that's a loaded question. we certainly start off with me taking the reigns, but there's a lot of people to please outside of our graphic department. Sales, product managers, international, and the big boss all have to sign off, and that can be a big struggle, especially when it comes to color. That's probably our most polarizing issue. As far as general graphic direction, I usually come up with a few options and we go with the one which is the most liked. So far I've had pretty good luck!
We try to keep a Felt look to the bikes, and not change too drastically from one year to the next. A common thread from model year to model year is good in my opinion, evolution not revolution, as they say. It's really hard to keep things consistent across the entire line, at least for us. Companies like Giant have one look across all of their lines, their high end TT bike looks like their kid's MTB, I guess we are over-achievers that way. We look at each line as an entirely different customer, which is usually the case in my experience.
Most road bikes seem to be limited to a four color palate. Red, blue, white and black. That's it. Do you think this is simply a self-perpetuating fact because these graphics have proven to sell best in the past?
Yes. don't get me started...
Did you work on the semi-controversial Curbside? If so, where did the color ideas and design cues come from for that bike?
No, not the original green one, that was before my time. That bike sold out, so regardless of what people were saying, it was a big success for us. Like it or not, Felt was one of the first corpo bike companies to "whore out" the sacred ground of the fixie bike. The fact is, people of all lifestyles, backgrounds, and total lack of any cred whatsoever want a bike that is fun to ride and looks cool and/or different. Your 40 year old uncle, that cool teacher, the college student who's never heard of Modest Mouse, colorful single speed bikes you can customize fit that bill for those people perfectly. We are in the business of making bikes people want, not being cooler than you. The fixie category is a legitimate one for all bike companies and continues to grow and evolve. So as long as people are buying them, we'll be making them.
Many bicycle graphics today seem to be taking cues from graphics in other fields (automotive for example). This is a big departure from the days when bicycle graphics were simple, but had their own aesthetic. Bikes were solid colors, with one or two contrasting bands of paint on the downtube and seat tube, where the company's logo would be placed. Do you think that the ease of creating complicated graphics due to computer software, and the ease of applying those graphics has left designers with too many options?
Great observation, and yes I do think that. The market is reeling it back in though, things are simplifying quite a bit. As far as the ease of applying those graphics, it is not easy at all for the factories to paint and decal bikes up these days. This latest over the top trend is driving them nuts, and the price of the decal application and paint have skyrocketed for companies like ours. Another reason things are cleaning up on the graphic front.
The graphics for Felt bikes are generaly understated. Is this conscious decision that was made at Felt a some point?
We do try to push the graphics, but we are also aware of the FELT look, and what people expect, and want from our company. While it's not a conscious decision, we will get gently pushed back if we stray too far out of line. We are fortunate that Felt has an "image", some companies chase that like mad and it makes them bonkers. I've been in the "lets change/make/redefine our image" meetings elsewhere, and it's something I have no desire to do here.
Forgive my ignorance, but how are most bike graphics applied on the bikes that you work on? Are they decals that are painted over? Are the graphics painted in higher end models?
The graphics are usually applied as water slide decals, over paint, and we'll also use paint breaks for larger graphic areas. The higher up you go in the line, the more money can be spent on paint and graphics. The whole mess is clear coated with the decals underneath, as they are so delicate and thin, that they'd be scratched off by the slightest touch without a good clear coat. When we were supplying Garmin with bikes, they demanded we keep the bikes as light as possible, so we pressed our factory to keep the clear coat to a minimum. The team ended up having a hard time keeping those bikes looking nice, as the clear coat barely protected the decals.
As the battle for creating the lightest frame continues, one easy way to lessen weight (however minimally) is to do away with unnecessary graphics. The Cervelo "California Project" comes to mind. Have you been restricted when it comes to frame graphics due to weight restrictions?
Yes, we are always aware of the weight penalty a heavy coat of paint and clearcoat can add. That's why you'll almost always see our top of the line bikes with little or no paint, and usually matte finishes which are much more thin than a gloss coat. As we go down in price point, weight is less of a concern to the consumer, so we end up going a little nuts in the middle where we are still able to spend the money on paint and graphics, and then get back to a minimal approach near the bottom when the money runs out.
What is the normal turnaround time from the moment you finish a design, to when you receive a mock-up, and then see a finished product from overseas?
It varies greatly depending on the project, but we can see a paper mock up within a couple days sometimes, then a decal approval/mock up comes about a month or so after. We usually do a paper mock up in the office while the design is in progress as well to verify everything is fitting properly. Arrival of the finished product varies on the product's delivery schedule, but we can get a finished bike within a 4-6 weeks if we are pushing for things like custom team graphics and whatnot.
You worked on the bikes for team Garmin/Transitions/Slipsteam. How much input did you get from the team regarding graphics, and who did that input come from? Jonathan Vaughters?
Initially JV insisted the bikes be blue and orange, and feature their trademark argyle. I did a bunch of comps and we met at Interbike that year, nailed down a couple he liked the most, then went back and finished it off based on his input. The following years, I would send them comps, and there was less input, but the approval included a few other folks within that organization. There were a couple things we fought them on, and won, so the main direction came from here, and I always tried to keep it tied into what was going on with the production bikes of the following year. That way, when people saw a Garmin bike at the Tour in July, they'd be able to buy their own version a month or two later.
When you worked on special bikes (national champion bikes for Millar, Wiggins or Zabriskie), did you work with the rider directly? Did you also work on the graphics that were applied to things like wheels, or did Zipp (or the wheel sponsor at the time) design those graphics?
I designed the Garmin team Zipp decals, with Zipp's approval, but those huge flag ones at the Tour were done by the team's mechanic or something—apparently Zipp was not pleased.
The only time I worked directly with a rider was a short email exchange with Zabriske, which ended up being key to his Captain America bikes. He wasn't really detailed, just told me to use the shield, which became a cool focal point for the last DA we did for him. With Wiggins, I knew he was a fan of The Who and Paul Weller, as am I, so I went full Union Jack with his last DA. I didn't have a chance to speak with him directly, but I was forwarded an email he sent praising the graphics (before he tossed the bike into a ditch at World's a few weeks later). It's always cool to get to hear what they think, as I try to research the rider quite a bit before I start on their custom graphics.
Wiggins throwing his bike (top), and Millar throwing his bike (bottom). Apparently, the only thing that British people like more than cooking flavorless food, is throwing their bikes around (I kid, I kid)
Are the graphics on those special bikes applied any differently than those on consumer models?
Outside of a slightly lighter clear coat, Not at all.
It's now commonplace for bike sponsors to have special bikes in color schemes that match the color of a certain jersey, should one of its sponsored riders get that jersey during a grand tour. Did you ever work on any such bikes for the likes of Vande Velde or Farrar? If so, did the rider know the bike was being made/designed?
For the past two years we did custom team bikes in yellow and pink, for the Tour and the Giro. We'll make the 3 most common sizes, and that easily covers anyone on the team that would be a jersey contender. We do this months in advance of course, and unfortunately they never saw the outside of the team van. The up side is, we always get those unused frames back, and these one-off frames get sold to employees and associates for cost. We also did special Paris Roubaix bikes for the team, featuring custom layups, geometry, and graphics. Those bikes got used, and we even got a few back in the office. I have to say, doing this stuff is truly a dream come true for me. 10 years ago I would have crapped my pants at the thought of being so involved in the sport of pro cycling at it's highest level. The fact that I'm designing bikes for these guys still just blows me away.
Cipollini, one of the earliest adopters of the whole color-matched bike and accessories idea. At the time, it was a novelty, now it's common practice for companies to have special bikes ready before Grand Tours.You illustrated two children's books, Mike and the Bike, and Lucille the Wheel. How did these projects come about, and how did Lance Armstrong end up writing the foreword to them?
My previously mentioned friend Michael Ward came up with the idea and the story for Mike And The Bike. After a few years, a couple of starts and stops, we (or he) finally got really serious about pulling it off. Through Mike's success in the music business (he was in The Wallflowers at the time) he was able to meet a lot of cool people, including a big time bike racer who was recovering from testicular cancer. Lance and Mike hit it off, which led to both us getting to know him a bit, both of our bands played his first Ride For The Roses (I was playing with Jon Doe of X at the time), and that led to friendships with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. So long story short, once we got the book going with some momentum, Michael asked his friends Lance and Phil to lend their talents, not to mention heavy clout, to the project. Lance was going for number 4 or 5 I think, so the tie-in worked in our favor. He was now a household name,and we nailed a publisher. I had 1 month to illustrate the book in order to get it on shelves for Tour time...with a full time job to be at, a 5 year old to entertain, a 6 month old baby girl, not to mention my wife's birthday and Mother's Day which all fell within that 30 day stretch. It all worked out well though and the book was a great success as far as children's books go. Lucille had the luxury of a less brutal time line, so we did that one a couple years later, and pulled the same favors from our pals Lance and Phil who were still happy to take part, thankfully.
How far ahead do you work graphics for upcoming bikes? Are you already starting to work on bikes for 2012?
We are well into our 2012 line, we started designing over this last Summer (2010), and in August we travel to the Eurobike tradeshow in Germany to get some inspiration and check in on the competition. Now, in January 2011, we are already talking 2013. I know that might sound crazy, but when you do production graphics for a "2012" bike in December of 2010, it is available to the consumer 7 months later - in the middle of 2011! Sounds confusing?...it is.
Thanks to Bob for taking the time to answer all these questions.
The books that Bob illustrated, Mike and the Bike and Lucille the Wheel
Big Drill Car on the Plan B skateboard video "Questionable" (first song on the video)
Big Drill Car on Rhapsody
Big Drill Car on Facebook
The newest episode of my brother's podcast is up. It's part two of the 2011 season preview, which he kindly invited me to be a part of. During the recording of the podcast, I was brilliant as usual, and thus stated that the Garmin/Cervelo team is a bit like Voltron coming together, due to its high caliber of riders coming together from separate places as one...to which my brother added that Vaughters would be the head of said Voltron-like robot. With that, my brother went straight to the computer, and used his vast artistic talents to create the image above. A masterpiece is born...so go Tweet about it.