Photo of bike helmet designed by Nutcase

I Can Get Paid for Bike Helmet Art?!

By Jordan Kushins

There’s so much freedom to be found on a bike: hop on, start pedaling, and go go go. But before setting out, adults have an important decision to make: to helmet or not to helmet. Danny Sun understands that despite the fact that strapping one on can literally save your life, helmets can be a tough sell for adults. “I know I work on a product that no one really wants to wear,” he says.

Sun is an art director at Bell, a longtime leader in the motorcycle and bicycle helmet field. He and senior designer Anne Mark have been adorning bike helmets—specifically, “mid-price-point helmets for average everyday riders,” she says—with colors, graphics, finishes, and more for more than a decade. They regularly collaborate with companies such as Disney, Lucasfilm, and Marvel, and produce custom lines for major big-box clients. The full-time job of a helmet designer requires far more than digital creative skills; here’s what it takes to make it in the challenging, curvilinear world of helmet art.

Three helmets from Bell's current line-up.

UNDERSTAND—AND CHALLENGE—THE HELMET PARADOX

Personal reasons for going without headgear varies, but often, it’s an image thing. “There’s a whole generation who feel like helmets are really dorky,” says Sun.

In the quest to get as many riders as possible opting in, helmet designers have got to offer options that cater to that wide range of potential customers. It’s about finding a balance, but also pushing the boundaries a bit on what might spark a potential purchase—but also joy.

Damon Watters is senior design lead at Nutcase, a brand known for bold styles. “I like to operate under the serendipity principle,” Watters says. “Don’t be too prescriptive. Don’t hang on too tight. We tend to self-edit so much; it’s good to remember that if you’re having a good time creating stuff, that will come across and people will adopt it. Because that’s the main reason we ride bikes! It’s not just transportation; it’s an awesome thing to do.”

A selection from Nutcase's current line-up.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

When it comes to having an unabashed blast on two wheels and staying skull-safe, grown-ups could learn a lot from kids. “They don’t even question wearing a helmet,” Watters says. “The more fun you can pack into it, the more it resonates with them.” For kids, helmets are a chance for self-expression; accessorizing with styles that are bright, wild, and a bit goofy makes the excitement of being on a bike that much better.

“I have a really creative nine-year-old, and I always bounce ideas off of her,” he says. “She was actually responsible for a helmet design that made it into production last year.” Without decades of shoulds and musts and what-will-everyone-else-thinks, the kids have a fresh filter and keen eye for what works and what doesn’t.

“We want to bring kids into our early design processes because they’re so honest,” Watters says. “Adults hold back, or don’t always speak frankly. A nine-year-old just says it.” Get things right and the benefits may be lifelong. “You may even have a helmet-wearer forever.”

ALWAYS BE OBSERVING

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and helmet designers are always on the lookout for something—anything—that catches their eye. “It could be a part of a mural, or a stripe down the side of a van; I take pictures of so many things,” Watters says. “I try to curate my own world, because the best thing you can do when others are zagging is zig.”

Two views of Bell's "kill wall."

Bell's Anne Mark also makes a point of snapping pics of day-to-day ephemera to kick-start ideas. In addition, she and Sun travel the world—from annual trade shows like Eurobike, to flagship athletic shops, to popular public spots—to collect intel and get a sense of what a global audience is wearing. It’s a mix of trend-spotting and trend-setting; they put all the images and recon info on what they call their “kill wall” in the office, then look for commonalities and narrow down viable ideas to experiment with. “We start to separate what is a cool one-off and what is, or could be, a trend,” she says.

These insights go into a trend report, which they present to buyers from Target, Walmart, and other clients. The Bell designers and the clients then collaborate to create a unique helmet design for each client. “We gauge what they like and what they don’t,” she says. “Then we use that information to design a few different options for them to chew on.”

Danny Sun's original sketch and finished helmet.

DETAILS ARE A BIG DEAL

When it comes time to start designing, Mark and Sun must consider color, materials, and finishes. “We incorporate colors and graphics from our trending reports,” she says. “Materials includes what’s soft—like strapping touching your face—or a pop color in the buckle, or any high-viz reflectivity. Finish could be sparkles, or matte (which is all the rage right now), or maybe a rubberized touch, or gloss. All those extra little pieces.”

Watters compares these key considerations to a different form of transport. “If it can be done on a car, it can be done on a helmet for the most part,” he says.

THINK IN 3D

Helmets aren’t flat. (Duh.) Their domed shape, sliced through with vents and other engineering and structural needs, makes them particularly difficult to design on and around. “You need to imagine your flat graphic turned into a popcorn bowl,” says Sun. “It completely distorts when it's printed. We live in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, but it’s a lot of trial and error,” Sun says. “No one has delivered a special magical program that will help us do this.”

Examples of Bell's work in progress in Illustrator (left) and Photoshop (right).

So all helmet designers submit to the reality that their jobs require a special kind of patience. “We use the Warp and Free Transform tools a lot,” Mark says, but the process is far from perfect. “You have to endure getting stuff back and feeling kind of heartbroken because it didn’t come out right,” Sun says.

For Watters, it wasn’t long ago that the Nutcase team was printing out prototypes on paper, “slicing and dicing” them, then laying them over the top of a model shell to see how they’d look. They’d snap a pic, and send that to the factory for reference. “Now, I use Illustrator for most of the artwork, with photo-real renderings in Photoshop that show the helmet how we’d like it to be,” Watters says. And while he acknowledges it’s an improvement, there’s a definite hint of longing in his voice when describing the state of things.

CREATE A COMPELLING NARRATIVE

Pop-culture franchises license their properties to Bell for helmets. When working with, say, Disney, Mark and Sun have to create a world that includes instantly recognizable characters; for example, Elsa, Anna, and Olaf from Frozen. “They'll provide us with some assets, then we’ll create a scene out of them: painting, airbrushing, etc.,” Mark says. “It’s like building a movie poster… that will stretch out and print properly so everything is still recognizable, with the right colors, on a dome.” Bell's Frozen helmet took 80 Photoshop layers, but it was worth it as one of the most popular recent SKUs.

BLAZE YOUR OWN TRAIL

The path toward becoming a helmet designer is not universal—which is great news for those who have the will, skill, and passion to make it happen—but it helps to have a mastery of the art and graphic design basics. “It really helps to know your fundamentals: color theory, lighting, shading, all that stuff,” Sun says. In addition, perseverance is essential.

“I knew from age five I was going to be an artist,” he says, remembering a youth spent doodling on walls with crayons and pencils that eventually led him to the Academy of Art, then to a job in the skate industry drawing illustrations for decks, ads, t-shirts—basically anything and everything that needed doing. His gig at Bell was a leap; he had the chops, but helmets were new.

Mark’s path was decidedly different. “I was a food science and nutrition major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but I loved doing layouts for the school’s daily newspaper,” she says. After graduation, she pivoted towards design. “I took some classes and jumped in at the low end of the totem pole doing production at an ad agency. Then I worked my way up.” Eventually she decided to pursue illustration; when a job at Bell opened up, she went for it.

A Nutcase helmet.

Watters graduated from the University of Oregon with a graphic design degree, then made the rounds of local activewear companies: from Nike, to Adidas, to Columbia, and snowboards to ad work to t-shirts. Eventually he became an independent contractor, and one of his clients was Nutcase, which turned into a full-time gig. “I think it's having vision and courage—which applies to a lot of things, really,” he says. It’s good to be prepared to hop on whatever may come your way.  “We’re such a small team that I’m tasked with speccing strap colors and trim pieces, plus hang tags and retail pop-ups and all the stuff that surrounds the helmets and the brand. So it’s multifaceted.”

He also hires freelance “worker bees” to get involved with realizing concepts; these are, for the most part, people he’s worked with through the years. In addition, Nutcase is developing an ongoing “artist series” to leverage independent creatives for new collaborations. “We're looking online and finding artists who have some cachet, and their own style and voice. The world is full of starlings mimicking songs; we need those who have the courage to be their own person.”

Lastly, to be a bike helmet designer, you gotta be—on some level—into bikes. “I bike, I snowboard, the whole bit, because I think you have to practice what you preach to get a better understanding of what you’re making, and why,” Watters says. “Especially in today's world, it's easy to spot a fake right away. It's super important that you know who you're talking to—and if that includes talking to yourself, even better.”