Feeling like a Subculture Tourist

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As a designer and strategist, it is important to understand subcultures. The varying references, ideas and lifestyles inform projects from beauty to fashion, streetwear to luxury. Today, it feels the subculture scene is paradoxically plentiful, yet globally consolidated. Either way, these communities still influence main society, and also have a profound impact on individuals in creative industries.

What we’ll cover:

Feeling like a subculture tourist

Throughout my career, I’ve joined numerous interest-based subcultures for both work or projects. These include everything from sneakerheads to denimheads, skintellectuals to bikers, punk to one-bagger. As designers and strategists, we try to transport ourselves into other people’s lives. I found by trying to go to events, sample products or follow thought-leaders in certain communities my understanding of audience behaviour felt more intuitive.

I call myself a tourist, as in my attempts to understand and immerse, I never quite fit in. My understanding could still be considered surface level. Try going to a denim event in stretch denim or having no idea what a cafe racer was at a motorcycle convention. With a career spanning streetwear, music journalism and agency-side, paired with a personality that is anything but cool, it’s been a growing experience.

What is a subculture?

Let’s look at what a subculture is. This is a community with shared beliefs, expressions, traditions and lifestyles unlike greater society. These exist both online and offline, local or worldwide. Many times subcultures are associated with younger generations, but can be cross-generational if centered around an interest or identity. That is to say, we usually think of punk, hipster and goth versus cosplay, biker or sneakerhead even though these are all subcultures.

It does not stop there. It’s worth pointing out these communities can also span religion, occupation, academia or sexual orientation. There are debates around subculture vs scene, tribe, counterculture or movement. Furthermore, I realise the topic can also get quite controversial and there’s great emotional depth in the subject. Both are valuable conversations best left for another time, and more than 1000 words.

In general, if it’s greater than an aesthetic or consumer behavior, and a gathering place or events are involved, I would say we are close to subculture. We want to build upon the fact that there’s a strength in understanding different lifestyles and their influence on the creative industry. The multi-dimensional aspects are important as brands themselves are also (or trying to be) multi-dimensional communities.

Does mainstream even still exist?

Trend forecasters can’t keep up with the, sometimes self-proclaimed, subcultures appearing today. It seems like everyday there is something new on TikTok, Reddit, YouTube or - gasp - in your IRL locality. Furthermore, our audiences participate in different subcultures and change subcultures as their beliefs evolve.

Subcultures create a substantial community challenging mainstream ideas. You might be asking - with so many subcultures these days, is there a dominant or mainstream culture? Mainstream is indeed breaking down to some degree, but it is still there. Take a look at your country’s long-standing beliefs, as an example, which are many times represented in mass media and can be identified by an external perspective.

Subcultures are a form of experimentation, resistance and attempt to understand society. There is a lot of repurposing, reusing and reinterpreting of ideas and themes. In the end, people are looking for ways to genuinely express themselves and feel included. ‘Love and belonging’, as Maslow showed us, is pretty important. To some of us, it can feel like this is getting tougher in our digital, phygital, connected, meta age.

From subculture to mainstream

Characteristics and beliefs from subcultures are many times adopted into mainstream, and commercialised. You might be thinking, ‘yep, those evil corporates simplifying complex identities for consumption’ - you got it. There are examples where this works okay and other times it’s a disaster. Fashion designers, you know who you are.

While the aesthetic and sonic aspects are easier to mainstream-ise, it’s more interesting to understand the reasoning behind beliefs and rituals. This is because those ideas evolve overtime. When I think about brand experience, it’s about framing change and creating the approach to make it happen. As creatives, we need to think about solving today’s problems while anticipating future needs.

Let’s take an easy example. When you work within fashion or footwear, you are projecting years and seasons out. While most people are looking at Kim Kardashian, designers are looking beyond. This means tracking subcultures helps to understand what will affect us tomorrow. But fashion is not all surface, as every aesthetic starts with an emotion, idea around identity and desired lifestyle. We usually look at lifestyle first to then understand an aesthetic.

Creatives are always exploring and experimenting

Even to this day my subculture trips affect who I am. At Converse, I worked with a number of sneakerheads. Their knowledge and selectiveness around sneakers was inspiring. When working on Clinique for China, beauty products were initially not my thing. Putting my preferences aside, I tried existing and competitor products, watched YouTube videos and followed influencers. Years later I am still particular about footwear and watch science-focused skincare YouTube videos.

If you’re able to get over feeling out-of-place, there’s a lot you can learn from first-hand experiences. These help to contextualise qualitative or quantitative insights, and internalise customer journeys or empathy maps. This is because as designers and strategists we are inevitably still creating through our lens. Furthermore, we are also looking at a brand identified audience through our desired journey versus their everyday life journey.

Unless we are from that subculture, it’s difficult to make decisions about an audience intuitively. However, by taking the time to join their community - even as a tourist - we then feel more comfortable with the vocabulary, have a better idea of what questions to ask and understand our own knowledge limitation better. Tourism gets a bad wrap sometimes, but showing up and trying is half the game.

Let’s summarise

  • Throughout my career, I’ve joined numerous interest-based subcultures
  • These are communities with shared beliefs, expressions, traditions and lifestyles
  • There’s a strength in understanding their influence on the creative industry
  • Mainstream is indeed breaking down to some degree, but it is still there
  • Every aesthetic starts with an emotion, idea around identity and desired lifestyle