As an art director for Trek Bicycles, Brian Lindstrom has a lot riding on his work—literally and figuratively.For the past six years, he’s been the lead designer of Trek’s professional racing teams, creating a cohesive identity head to toe, from bikes to vehicles, across road and mountain bike disciplines.
From his desk at Trek headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, he’s designed kits that legendary athletes have sported in the Tour de France and on podiums around the world. Oftentimes, riders are brilliant blurs, but Lindstrom lives for the moment when Bauke Mollema or John Degenkolb sits up after crossing the finish line in first, and pumps his fist in a well-designed kit.
He spoke to Rouleur about what it’s takes to design an award-winning, instantly recognizable cycling kit.
Rouleur: What’s exciting to you about designing things that have a physical presence—like jerseys, bikes, car wraps? How does your design process on these kinds of projects differ from things that will just live digitally?
Brian Lindstrom: My background is in visual brand identity, doing logos and icons. That has a very 2D aspect. My first job was at Oakley doing apparel graphics, so that was where I first got my feet wet on the product side of things. So, being able to see something out in the world that I had done—my first experience with that was at Oakley.
But then, coming to Trek where you have these objects that you use, like bicycles, or you put on a helmet or a pair of shoes—and still being able to see other people wearing it and riding it is a really cool and unique thing.
Getting feedback that someone bought something, in addition to the performance aspect, because of the colours and graphics you’re responsible for is always nice. I guess you design, more so, with the intent that things will be around for a lot longer if you’re designing for a product than you would for a print campaign or digital web app.
Because the latter are temporary…
You can always change them and you can’t mess up too bad. There’s not a lot of overhead tied up in that design. But if there’s a bicycle you’re making a million of a year and they’re going to be around on the planet for 10, 15, 20 years or more, you have to a) make sure the quality’s up to par and b) that the colors and graphics are appropriate for the product.
Right, no pressure—this bike could just be around for generations.
And right about the time you see it in the real world you go “Oh man, why did I do that? I should’ve done this.” It is such a unique opportunity, but it actually took me a while to warm up to the idea of being a product graphic designer.
I didn’t understand what it fully entailed. But after being in the role for a handful of years, I try to explain it to other people. You’re basically designing a poster, no different from print design. You’ve got composition, you’ve got color, graphic elements, typography. You have to work up the hierarchy of information. But it’s all on this rideable piece of equipment, which, for the most part everyone loves.
There’s very few people I know who don’t love bicycles. That’s the coolest part to me. We’re not talking about some random product that people have no interest in, or that’s totally utilitarian. You know, it’s a fun object and it’s cool to be part of that process.
Professional cycling team kits can end up looking like spandex billboards, with the color palettes and graphics often pre-determined by sponsors. How do you work with and around this limitation to make a nice-looking kit?
We’re lucky in that we own everything. Trek is the title sponsor and owner of the team. And so, myself being the only planner that had designed all of those, there wasn’t a team of people I had to go through, not a lot of sponsors we had to deal with that can dictate colors and patterns. We just had to come up with a brand direction and a vision for the team of what we wanted to be.
So, those first five to six years it was very much that clean, classic gentleman racer type thing. I think it’d be a challenge if we were just the clothing supplier designing the kit for another title sponsor—you lose a lot of freedom.
Do you ever collaborate with the athletes directly?
The place where riders provide more opinions and input is on their custom bike schemes. The greatest pro rider experience I’ve had was when I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin and hang out with Jens Voigt for a few days. He took us around the city, showed us where he grew up, the velodrome he trained at in East Berlin, and his current home on the west side of Berlin.
We sat down in a café and talked about his new bike scheme and just doodled, talked and worked through design decisions. Jens is everyone’s best friend. He always has something to say to keep the conversation fresh and moving along. He’s a legend as a rider and as a human. That was a trip and design project I’ll never forget.
Do you feel a sense of pride watching races and seeing your work in the peloton or flying down a mountain?
Yeah, I love it. I happen to enjoy cycling and love bikes, so it’s even cooler to see the product out there. But it could be something I have no familiarity with, like a world cricket team and it’d still be just as cool to see these people in it—I mean, this is their livelihood. The only way I can relate is being a kid, because I’ve never been on a pro sports team. But, you know, you get your high school soccer jersey and it’s a big deal.
New jersey day—what you look like in it, what the colors are, what number you are, that feeling—but this is their actual livelihood. They’re good at what they do as opposed to me playing high school soccer. I would imagine it’s a big deal for them to wear something they can enjoy, that’s a good design, and something they can perform well in.
Walk me through what the initial conversations were, leading up to the first year of designing for Trek Factory Racing, and how you’ve managed to refine it over the years.
At the beginning, we knew we wanted to have a common theme across our different teams. So, right off the bat the road and mountain teams adapted the same design. And then, what that design was and how we came up with it—we outlined a few things: Who Trek is. We knew that Trek was clean, simple, classy and that was a starting point to move forward.
We definitely learned some lessons from the first kit and implemented them over the years. Visibility in the peloton, heat from having too much black material. Simple things like having areas on the jersey that a rider can sign for a fan. So, we started creating designs that addressed all the issues, not just a few.
My favorite element of the Trek kits has always been the pinstripes. Did you come up with that element?
It wasn’t my idea or brainchild. It was actually a legacy thing from the Gary Fisher Mountain Bike team. Fisher had those for a long time, you know he’s always wearing those pinstriped suits. So that’s where it comes from. They were actually on our Trek Factory Racing mountain bike jerseys before we started the UCI World Tour road team, so we just adapted that. We had a lot of design options and the pinstripes was one of them.
You mentioned in a recent Instagram post that 2018 was your favorite design. What did you like so much about it?
I just like how clean and simple and cohesive the whole team looked. I grew up being a sports fan. I grew up respecting teams with iconic looks like the Yankees and Cubs—teams where, even if the logo wasn’t on the uniform you’d still know what team it was. And that’s something I think the pro peloton has never really had.
Sky is the only one off the top of my head that I can think of, that’s had a handful of years being recognizable. But I think this year we’ve gotten to that point across the board—road, mountain, downhill, cross country and enduro. Every touch point felt cohesive. I’m an Arsenal soccer fan. You look at their jersey and it’s a brand in and of itself.
And Trek are now there too?
I think this year we got there. Small things from a design standpoint. Taking off the color block, running the stripes up all the way but having them be very tonal I think added that whole classiness that we were going for in the original jersey design. [Each season] you try to refine things as much as you can and I think this jersey design is as refined as you’re going to get. So, it just creates a fun challenge for next year.
I thought Trek had the best-looking kits this year, and I’m not just saying that.
Thank you. The funny thing is, we won best kit in the peloton two years in a row in 2016 and 2017. Then this kit, which I agree is our best one—and I don’t know how the voting is done—but we didn’t get it.
It was definitely rigged. They couldn’t give you the three-peat.
(Laughs) Totally. But that’s okay.
Trek will be launching their 2019 teams at the Rouleur Classic on Friday November 2.
>Updated: The lead image on this article was updated on November 7 2018 to show Trek’s 2019 kit