Michael Leon on going from skate punk to creative force

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My co-host Aarron Walter and I both grew up as “aspirational” skateboarders in the 1980s, when brands like Powell Peralta and Sims were in their prime (for a great peek into this era, check out the documentary Dogtown and Z-boys).

In my case at least, the term aspirational may be a bit generous: we had one poorly-paved, gravel-filled road in my neighborhood, and despite the many skinned knees and elbows I brought home, I never managed to master the most basic of skateboard tricks, the Ollie.

Our amateur status didn’t dampen our excitement to chat with Michael Leon, whose professional career began in the skate industry. I guarantee that he has better skating skills than your 2 hosts—but as he explains in the interview, he wasn’t quite good enough to go pro.

Michael Leon

For those who wanted to stay in the industry but couldn’t earn their keep doing rail slides, there were only a few options: get behind a camera, or start illustrating and designing decks.

“There is also a cynicism that comes out of skateboarding culture…that actually turns out to be really useful when it comes to marketing…when it’s easy to identify someone that’s trying to sell you something in an inauthentic way.” – Michael Leon

Leon evolved from his role as a designer at Girl Skateboards, to a design director at Nike, then creative director at Patagonia, and now the global creative director for Sonos.

Michael Leon designs

Skateboard deck designs by Michael Leon for Girl Skateboards

All along the way, his background in the skate industry influenced his work: as he mentions in the show, skaters are great at reinterpreting their environments (turning concrete stairs into a launchpad for aerial tricks). He also says they can sniff out inauthentic marketing from miles away.

Here are some other insights from Leon to listen for:

  • How he addressed the natural tension between Patagonia’s desire to be sustainable and the business need to sell more products
  • How he understands the customer experience and designs solutions that fit into a broader ecosystem for lifestyle-oriented companies
  • Some of the traits he looks for—and some traits he actively avoids—when hiring for creative teams

If you’re looking for something inspirational to listen to as you walk, drive, or skate to work, grab your headphones and listen to Leon’s story.

If you like what we’re doing, and want to hear the stories of more great designers like Michael Leon, it would help us out a lot if you subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and leave us a review.

Thanks for listening!


Eli Woolery, Director of Design Education at InVision
Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he is a lecturer in the Product Design program at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Medium or on Twitter.

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