Every summer I must flee Texas. If you’re a Texan, you know why.
THE SET-UP: I recently took a few weeks off work to do a little traveling with my family. We cannot fathom traveling to the beach or another hot climate during June/July as we melt from sunrise to sunset in Texas. You see, Texas makes you earn it – Texas demands (May through October) that you prove you are tough enough to call the Lone Star state: HOME. We always head north to gain elevation and west to lose the humidor of Houston.
On the road- we made a discovery
We spent our time-off in the following locations:
Salt Lake City, UT // Jackson Hole, WY // Missoula, MT
While in SLC, we visited friends who live in the Halladay neighborhood. We had a few coffees/scones at a fantastic little shop called THREE CUPS. Now, this small residential enclave and quaint/modern coffee shop rest in one of the most coveted zip codes in the city. It’s an affluent pocket within the moderately prosperous (and so clean!) Utah capital city. It is not an ethnically diverse part of the city – not even close. No teenagers were running around, didn’t notice any elderly people – think moms and strollers and trendy businessmen using words like ‘equity’ and ‘capital infusion.’ I hope that paints the picture. Here is a view of the interior of 3 Cups to assist. Lovely shop. Visit if you’re in the area – the blue tea scone was top-rate. Here is a pic of the interior of the shop and the branded hat that you can purchase in their shop.
The Moment of Confusion
So why does this matter? Because this happened: my son’s eye kept wandering over to the merchandize shelf with this hat receiving the most attention. When he wasn’t paying attention, I purchased it for him. I’m not often around my teenage son when he is ‘shopping’ and rarely notice when he is interested in something particular. He has freedom, for the most part, to make his clothing selections – so here was a moment when I could give him something he liked. I should tell you I felt very strange about purchasing a trendy cap from a coffee shop. I assured the barista it wasn’t for me. She didn’t seem to care. She said it is the most popular item on the shelf.
When I surprised my son with this hat, he lit up. But he also seemed conflicted. As we were driving down the road, he kept turning it over in his hands as he examined it. I pushed him to talk, and he finally said, ‘I love this hat. I do. It’s just that …there is a famous rapper who wears a hat very similar to this, and I’m not sure I have the look to pull it off like he does. He’s big-time. I didn’t mention it because my friends might give me crap about it.’
Of course, this never occurred to me – a middle-aged father with no remaining hairline to cover with a great hat. I didn’t know who my son was talking about – but I later looked him up. Anyone under 40, it seems, will know this is Chance the Rapper – soon to be featured in the new Lion King film. Here he is sporting his famous hat. You’ll notice the remarkable similarity to the cap from the coffee shop.
This moment toggled my dad switch — I told my son that ‘cool’ is a synthetic concept, a constructed term: it’s an empty set filled with meaning based on precise times/locations/subsets of people. The piece of clothing that would make a 15-year-old boy ‘cool’ in Osaka, Japan in the summer of 2019 is radically different than the article of clothing that would have made a 15-year-old boy ‘cool’ in 1961 Fort Lauderdale, FL. Since there is no objective standard of ‘cool’ (and there never has been), he is best served to wear what he likes with confidence and pay no attention to whatever remarks might follow. It’s odd, but the ‘not caring’ is most likely the only real indicator of innate ‘coolness.’
I don’t think my little treatise on ‘cool’ burrowed too deeply in my son’s bedrock – he shrugged, put the hat on backward, and went back to his cell phone. The problem seemed to be solved – he would wear the hat. We drove on to Wyoming.
The Initial Contemplations
Those road trip hours rolled on, mile by mile, and my mind drifted to that ballcap again and again. As a creative director of a branding agency, I couldn’t help but think about the simplicity of the numeric three and how it stood at the intersection of three VERY distinct sub-populations. The socio-economic differences and cultural composition of the three markets shared nothing in common aside from this numeric graphic on a hat – all of them manufactured off American shores.
It’s kind of crazy. This one graphic simultaneously appeals to predominantly white, affluent SLC suburbanites AND a 26-year-old black rapper from Chicago AND my white middle-class teenage son (who isn’t into rap/R&B) from a (very hot, did I mention that?) Texas town. Why? That one product design probably shouldn’t work that way – not if we believe symbols, icons, logos have meaning.
But it does work -because the numeral is universal, because Americans, across the board, like to wear hats and are very picky about the kind of lid they’ll drop on their skull. But most importantly, both of the brands who utilize the number three graphic created something so appealing that even people outside their target audience want their product. This unusually long reach is a happy (and probably unanticipated) outcome. 3 Cups serves such good coffee and scones, and their merchandise is so well-designed that their customers want to take that product/experience into the rest of their life – their office space, leisure hours, and backyard bbq. That’s one hell of a cup of coffee.
My son has friends who like Chance the Rapper’s beats enough to emulate him in his style/dress. They would (rightfully?) spurn a ‘poseur’ who poses as ‘cooler’ by borrowing the rapper’s cultural capital. I get it. But you can purchase the rapper’s caps online, and they’re quite popular because he is so talented. The cap is nearly ubiquitous – it’s everywhere. He delivers excellent songs and wins the adoring crowd as a result. His product is so good that his fans want clothing associated with him.
There is a mix of forces at work in this instance of design: it’s 1991 AirJordan sneakers all over again, a dash of cultural appropriation, and borrowed signals from across religions, regions, and other demographic cross-sections. That three has meaning — ohm in Hinduism, the 3 main patriarchs in Judaism, the Holy Trinity in Christianity. It has meaning. But perhaps it has too many reference points — such that it ceases to have meaning at all. That numeric symbol simply ‘works’ because it is a powerful icon and it seems we are saying something powerfully symbolic, something infused with dynamic meaning – even if we aren’t.
These thoughts lead to design questions. So, are we sure the magic isn’t the design of the three itself? Maybe this three is so perfectly constructed that the graphic is the secret sauce? Yes, we are sure it isn’t the power of the ‘3.’ Maybe it’s that Chance’s ‘3’ is slightly altered – a subtle flat diagonal on the bottom portion of his ‘3’ – a minor, but interesting detail? Maybe. But the power probably isn’t in that slight diagonal cut.
Truthfully, all graphic designers work within constraints: they utilize a limited color pallet, a finite number of pixels, shapes, lines, and fonts. No visual artist is such a genius that they create something entirely new ex nihilo – from nothing. Everything truly is a remix. Some remixing is innovative (good design – based on playful manipulation of the rules), and some feels nakedly derivative, uninspired, worn-out. But a ‘3’ is a ‘3’ in SLC, Chicago, and Texas. The quality of the brand that graphic represents makes the chest swell with affection or puts a 15-year-old boy into a state of mixed-inputs confusion — and it kept old dad thinking for a few hours across the much cooler prairie grasses of Wyoming.
So. What does Chance the Rapper himself say about his number three? A highsnobiety.com article from 2017 quotes him, “Chance has also found that the number has taken on multiple meanings for him since he started wearing the hat – ‘I’ve rationalized it to myself that it stands for the third mixtape, the Holy Trinity, and the three-pronged family of myself, my daughter, and my girl.'” So – he gives it subjective meaning – multiple meanings. I can only guess what that coffee shop means by their ‘3 Cups’ brand concept: three founders/owners? Does management hope every patron purchases three cups instead of one? Does ownership intend to expand into three shops/markets? Did they start their shop with only three cups and they kept washing them between customers? We can only guess.
My Shop-mates Weigh In
I explained all these musings to our younger design team this week when I returned to work. They laughed at me for not knowing about Chance the Rapper. I watched his impressive NPR Tiny Desk Concert to get up to speed. I am really NOT caught up.
One of our staff insisted that the SLC coffee shop just HAD TO KNOW. It just had to be a clear, ironic nod to the pop-culture power of the Chance 3. Maybe. But, in my view, that would make more sense if the coffee shop slung java near a university with vinyl records and longboards streaming past their front windows – not expensive yoga pants and Land Rovers. Maybe Chance the Rapper invested in this coffee shop? Perhaps he pulls the controls from a remote command central under a dormant volcano – the epicenter of his growing empire? We speculated for half an hour about what is really going on.
One of my oldest friends summarized his takeaway from this piece – not knowing modern cultural symbols can leave you with egg on your face – with your kids and in your design efforts. He is right. Of course, that’s true. But I think my final assessment is this: all our designs have built-in limitations, and no terrain is genuinely virgin territory. It’s all been crossed and re-traversed again and again. The trick is to make outrageously good coffee, record jaw-dropping tracks, and design the hell out of whatever file you opened on your computer. Let the quality of your work stand for itself and the graphics -if it is even close to being on point – will come to absorb the meaning of your work. Our shop ordered scones and told Alexa to play Blessings (reprise) because it just seemed right.