A Penny's Worth

Hat Designer, Jim MacLeod

Jim MacLeod is a former sports headwear designer for sports apparel and headwear company, '47 (formerly known as Twins Enterprise).

» Quotes by Jim MacLeod» Straw poll votes by Jim MacLeod

What attracted you to the sports headwear design field?
I've been a crazy Red Sox fan (and Boston sports in general) for a long time. This was an opportunity to mix my passion for sports with my love of graphic design. Also, I had lost the perfect cap a few years prior and I had been on a non-stop journey to find another one. My original perfect cap was a fitted, red Red Sox cap with a white "B". The white "B" always jumped off of the cap better than the standard navy "B".

I loved the Twins caps because they were already broken in when you bought them. Growing up I can remember the hours I would spend cutting out the buckram that lined the front of these caps (now popular with trucker caps, but still dumb-looking to me). The Twins caps were already soft and perfectly fit my head. As time went on I ended up designing caps that I liked better than my long lost "perfect" cap.

(Examples of Jim's designs)
As a sports headwear designer working within the narrow perimeters of a team's visual identity scheme, how much artistic freedom were you afforded and what type of design brief were you given?
We didn't necessarily have a design brief, it was more along the lines of "come up with a new style that will sell". The trickiest part was coming up with a design that would work for all 30 MLB teams, as well as many collegiate teams. For example, some teams with longer names (The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) could cause issues. The main guideline was to avoid infringing on other manufacturers' exclusive designs. Other than that, just design something that will sell.

The amount of creative freedom which we were afforded depended on the licensee. Many colleges and universities have very, very strict guidelines. Sometimes these guidelines would prevent an institution from being available in certain styles.
Sports headwear rallies the competing interests of style and sentiment and pits team affinity against fashion sensibility. In your experience, which factors influence a product's sales success?
The classics always sell. The number one reason people buy these caps is to let other people know that they support "their" team. It has to be instantly apparent who the customer supports. So I would try to create slight variations on the basic caps (team logo on team color cap). Little twists like a color change or different material would sell better than a "designed" cap. Of the thousands of prototype designs that I saw the art department develop, it was always the basics that ended up as the best sellers.

One theme that I always noticed was that the most popular caps sported the initial(s) of the city. the Red Sox "B", the Yankees or Mets "NY", the Dodgers "LA", the Cardinals "StL", the Cubs "C", the Phillies "P". Even a non-baseball fan can show love for their city. It also helps that these tend to be the big market teams that tend to win.
Ultimately, artistic sense must make good business sense. How many of the design decisions were driven by quantifiable data and how many were driven by artistic instinct?
Personally, I would try to mix it up and present both "artsy" designs, as well as more "commercial" designs. There were other designers that I worked with that had a much better eye for commercial designs. As a designer I'm always trying to give the client (customer, boss, whomever) a little more than what they're looking for. My theory was that anybody can put a red "B" on a navy blue cap. It was my job to push the boundaries.
To what extent is sports headwear design independent of, or subject to, the trends and patterns which affect the wider fashion market?
For a while, since it was still the basics that sold the best, new materials and textures helped guide where new designs would go. Fashion plays a small part, but not as much as you'd think. If stripes are big this year, you can't wear a striped cap with a striped shirt.
The perspective of a show's audience naturally differs from that of its performers. How did your role as a sports headwear designer compare to your preconceptions?
I never realized how many different styles are out there for each team. And I wouldn't have believed that for every new design you see, there are probably 10-15 more that didn't make it past the prototype stage. I also didn't know everything that goes into making each one of the prototypes. The manufacturer would have to interpret my flat design (thread color, canvas color, positioning of elements, etc.). There was sometimes a lot of back and forth to help them see and produce my vision.
Science refers to the difference between physical changes (like freezing water) which are reversible and chemical changes (like burning wood) which are irreversible. How did working behind the scenes designing sports headwear irreversibly change the way you look at hats?
I still love baseball caps. Wherever I am, I'm always looking at them and studying them, seeing what is popular and what is new. I enjoy walking through the mall and figuring out which of my former co-workers designed which caps.

One of the things I had to tell myself when I left Twins was that I wouldn't buy any more hats. There are some nice designs out there that I've considered, but I still like the ones that I have. If I were to buy another cap, it wouldn't be anything but a Twins (now called '47) cap. I was loyal to their brand before I worked there, and I continue to be. I'm a bit of a cap snob, so I won't settle for a cap that doesn't fit well (I'll be nice and not name names here).
Straw Polls at strawpolling.com
Jim MacLeod's responses to straw polls at strawpolling.com / See how they compare to the consensus.
Would you rather a double portion of luck or a double portion of courage?
a double portion of luck
Would you rather have a flower, an insect or a library named after you?
a library
If you were a professional athlete, would you rather be bad enough to be famous or average enough to be anonymous?
average enough to be anonymous
Would you rather be stuck in a booby trapped elevator with MacGyver or Batman?
If Superman and the Incredible Hulk were to arm wrestle, who would win?
the Incredible Hulk