Experiences: Putting the “Spirit” in Spiritwear

To purchase spiritwear, please visit cafepress.com/bayschoolsf.

Shawn ’13 has been an athlete his whole life. Sports feel natural to his limbs and to his mindset. Most recently he played for Bay to win the boys varsity basketball BCL-C championship. So it’s no surprise that he would gravitate toward a Senior Signature Project (SSP) having to do with athletics. There’s a catch though. While it would be comfortable for Shawn to coach basketball in the community, doing what’s comfortable isn’t what a SSP at The Bay School is all about.

Enter Joe ’13, whose first thoughts for an SSP went immediately to apparel. Joe’s urban, laid-back style matches his practical and gentle personality. In contemplating his interests, he thought about his own tendency to seek out and buy clothing, often purchasing items he knows are overpriced because he loves the message and the design. He wondered what makes these items so desirable, what makes them successful and, ultimately, what makes him buy them?

At the intersection of Shawn’s love of sports and Joe’s curiosity about fashion lies the idea of school spirit, that nebulous Je ne sais pas that sends college students and alumni to fill stadiums, restaurants and each others’ houses and roar with delight and pride as their team takes to the field or court. School spirit can be a forum for self-expression, a show of unity and an intangible sign that a school’s culture is alive and thriving. Joe and Shawn, students of two seemingly incongruous work styles, bonded over the question of how a new line of spiritwear clothing might increase school spirit at The Bay School.

Great query with a simple answer, right? Just design some cool new t-shirts, watch students wrestle each other to snag one for their own and observe as school spirit soars, right? Joe and Shawn now realize that what they were actually asking with their initial question about the connection between clothing design and school spirit was how to start and run a business.

Where to begin? In Shawn’s Presentation of Learning for this project, he explained that one of the valuable lessons he learned was to use the resources around him. In their presentations, both he and Joe cited the challenge of finding out what they needed to know in order to accomplish their goal.

First they asked SSP Co-Director Dave Wang for some key contacts. He pointed them to Director of Communications Grace Woods, who would be a resource on graphics and language guidelines and introduce them to their mentor, Jamie Tibbetts. Jamie makes a living designing, printing and selling his own clothing under the brand Likeminded People. You’ve probably seen his well-known Oakland “The Town” shirts on BART or at A’s games. Dave also directed Joe and Shawn to Jake Wellins, who could tutor the boys in the Adobe Suite’s graphic design tools. Through their interactions with these contacts and others, the boys learned a lot about organization, professional communication, vendor relations, meeting scheduling and follow-through. And it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

After receiving guidance from Dave on writing professional emails to mentors and resources, Joe says he quickly fell into a more relaxed mode of communication, texting people and giving loose timelines. He now wishes he had maintained more formality and pushed for harder, earlier deadlines. For Shawn and Joe, this process of trial and error with task assignment and communication was invaluable to their learning how to make their interactions more efficient going forward. What seemed like little things, such as splitting up tasks and running drafts of emails by people, took up more time than they had imagined. “Running a business is hard,” said Joe, who learned a lot about time management. “The school gives us six months to work on this project because they know that it entails six months of hard work, so it’s better not to waste time.”

Add to that the dynamics of working with a partner with a completely different approach than you, and you get a recipe for creative tension. Shawn felt pressure to do everything all at once and shifted his organizational skills into high gear. Once Joe understood Shawn’s perspective, he balanced out Shawn’s drive with an ability to break tasks down into smaller pieces and focus on one step at a time. For example, they had to make sure they visited the t-shirt press location and paid their vendors on time before tackling the larger issue of how to boost clothing sales.

The boys soon encountered more constraints than time and personal disagreements. In meetings with the Communications Office, they learned about the importance of consistent use of the school’s proper name and logo in all promotional pieces. This crash course in marketing affected all their decisions, ultimately leading them to display new designs on the front of pieces of their clothing line and place an unaltered school logo on the back. Similarly, Joe and Shawn thought it would be great to provide new clothing in many colors and styles, but their mentor Jamie counseled them, saying that people are often so overwhelmed with choices that they will not buy anything.  People prefer, Jamie insisted, to be shown only a few designs to choose from. Having to narrow their focus showed Joe and Shawn how important it was in running a business to be open-minded and expect changes.

Next, working with Grace, Shawn and Joe used the art files of the athletic and school logos to launch a completely new spiritwear website for the school, complete with cellphone cases, hats, mugs, t-shirts and sweats in a couple colors and sizes. The site used only the school’s official logos and had a url name (/bayschoolsf) that matched the url names for the school’s other websites (www.bayschoolsf.org, facebook.com/bayschoolsf etc). In essence, this new spiritwear site increased the potency and consistency of The Bay School’s visual and online identity.

With the traditional logo-adorned apparel project out of the way, it was time to discover what students wanted for new student-designed clothing. Using Dave’s knowledge of statistics, Joe and Shawn surveyed 180 students to find answers to the following questions and more: What do students want out of a school clothing line? How should they price each item? What items are students most likely to buy? In their Presentations of Learning, Joe and Shawn said they would like to be more insistent in future research, getting beneath students’ encouraging attitudes to learn what they would actually spend their money on in the real world, not just in theory.

With student opinions in hand, Joe and Shawn put forth a couple basic designs using Adobe Photoshop. Along the way, they learned about the difference between file types and color designations, fonts and resolution. What they came up with are some fun, urban designs that triumph the city and the bay as places of learning and the greater backyards of The Bay School.

Even after various staff and faculty members approved the images, the graphic design journey was far from over. The task of marketing, about which Joe and Shawn admittedly knew nothing about, loomed over them. They would still need to create posters in Adobe InDesign or Photoshop, and promotion was definitely out of both of their comfort zones. They decided to take the bull by the horns.

For the first time, Joe stood up in Morning Meeting to announce the arrival of the new designs and days when he and Shawn would be selling to the student body in the dining area. He and Shawn asked a group of students to stand up in Morning Meeting and display the new threads with pride. In their efforts to promote, they coordinated a photo shoot of friends wearing sample products. They posted their flyers at key locations around the school and submitted graphic content for the school’s weekly newsletter, the Current. Hopefully these efforts would send students rushing to their lunch table three days a week to purchase the student-designed swag.

In some ways, Joe and Shawn’s SSP left them with more questions than answers. Lagging sales surprised them. Some students misunderstood the cute slogan “we bright” on one of their t-shirts. Why weren’t students buying like they said they would? How else could they market the items? What is the difference between marketing and selling and how can they move from one to the other? With disappointing sales, how could they maintain enthusiasm about the clothing line and their project in general? And perhaps most importantly, could they accurately assess progress in school spirit if students weren’t wearing the new designs?

In their reflective presentations Joe and Shawn suggested that finding an additional mentor with experience in sales would be a great next step for the project. Now that they had made the products, built a booth and advertised at the market so to speak, they needed guidance in building the relationships that would bring them to what author Malcom Gladwell calls a “tipping point” in product adoption. SSP Co-Director Chris Argenziano suggested forming a student sales team to bolster the effort.

On a personal level, Joe and Shawn have taken the important risk of accepting and applying feedback they’ve received on something they care deeply about. The clothing line was not just an essay to be marked in red pen, but a project for which the boys felt a deep connection. For this reason, hearing criticism and praise and learning what to act on helped them both grow as people. One of The Bay School’s 10 guiding precepts states, “We value kindness and honesty; we are careful truth-tellers.” It’s impressive to hear Joe and Shawn talk about their experience, standing up and freely communicating their pitfalls and triumphs to teachers, visitors and students with grace and appreciation.

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