“Hot climate. Working men. Cowboys. Miners. Railroad workers. All things that the booming Arizona territory of the 1800s had more of than any other state. So it must be true that … ARIZONA TEE SHIRTS STARTED IT ALL.”
This is the triumphant proclamation of State Forty Eight, a local company that makes tee shirts celebrating the great state of Arizona. How can these people be so passionate about tee shirts and take such liberties with historical fact? Because SFE is about much more than tee shirts…. Founders Michael Spangenberg, Stephen Polando, and Nicholas Polando conceived of this lifestyle and apparel brand not only from an enthusiastic interest in fashion, but also out of a deep love for Arizona and a desire to give back to the community. Artistic collaborations with nonprofit groups result in interesting and imaginative iterations of the logo, and part of the profits from these go to the State Forty Eight Foundation whose mission is to invest in youth entrepreneurship and community action. Since the company started, an impressive $93,000 has been donated to date, with another $8,000 in-kind donations, with hundreds of volunteers mobilized.
Businesses like State Forty Eight are part of a growing altruistic trend that is harnessing the hearts and minds of consumers that want to make their purchasing decisions work towards helping others. The Millennial generation didn’t invent corporate philanthropy, but they are more often insisting that it be part of the business structure, and not just what seems safe to give away after making profit. The rise of the philanthropic business model has been gathering speed since Paul Newman started Newman’s Own in the 1980s and since has given $500 million to charities. Tom’s shoe company in Santa Monica, California was made famous partly by their policy to give a pair of shoes to a needy child for each pair of shoes they sold—now they give 30% of all profits to charity as a policy. The Australian company Who Gives A Crap—who sells recycled toilet paper in rolls that are individually wrapped in recycled paper and delivered in cardboard boxes—has a business model that directs over 50% of their profits towards building toilets and water sanitation systems in underdeveloped areas.
Michael Spangenberg and brothers Stephen and Nicholas Polando started just by selling shirts online from their home…now they are a multi-million dollar enterprise.
One would think that SFE had this model in mind when they formed the company, because their success, and impact, has been immediate. In fact, it was more random than that. Michael Spangenberg and brothers Stephen and Nicholas Polando started just by selling shirts online from their home, then acquired a storefront and warehouse space in Chandler. After that, they got a shipping container they planned to move around as they worked events, but ended up connecting with architects from Local Studio and becoming part of The Churchill in downtown Phoenix. Now SFE is a multi-million dollar enterprise.
I spoke with Nicholas Polando, Creative Director, about State Forty Eight. For all his humility, it is clear he has honed his talent over the years through hard work and self-education. Not unlike the company, Nicholas started with no skills, and ended up being the creative leader of a design team and architect and author of a successful visual brand identity.
What are your ties to Michael and Stephen and how did you become the Creative Director of SFE?
It was my brother’s lightning bolt idea. Mike always wanted to do something with clothing, and Stephen said let’s make it be about Arizona. We are all huge sports fans (especially the two of them) and we noticed that anyone who sold Arizona gear was largely sports-oriented with minimal selection of AZ merch, or had really cheesy Walmart-type stuff. We wanted to be a different thing. I feel like most of our company has been the luck of right place, right time, with the execution that worked.
I wasn’t even going to be a part of it except for possibly helping with design. I was a film school dropout with no background in design. My brother just asked me to draw a logo because I have always drawn a bit: on scraps of paper and in the margins of notebooks in school. He came up with the name, State Forty Eight. Their creative brief to me—before I even knew what a creative brief was—“we want it to say State Forty Eight in the shape of Arizona.”
How did you go about the process of arriving at the signature design of the SFE logo? Is that your typo-illustration design?
I literally just stuck words on the shape of the state. I’ve no idea why I ended up choosing Futura (or even where I got the font). I didn’t have any ideas, but eventually I decided that all of the letters should touch. I don’t have any process sketches because I was just learning Illustrator and literally just kept moving shit around until it seemed done. Somehow I managed to NOT stretch and distort the letters. I really had no idea what I was doing. I’m not gonna lie to you, there wasn’t a lot of thought there.
Our directive is always: what can we do to make this look really awesome? We always offer to do something unique for them, but most clients want to see themselves within our logo.
We now have two designers besides me who were brought on to help out with our nonprofit collaborations, because they started to come in more and more. Now I mostly oversee these collaborations and help where I can. Our directive is always: what can we do to make this look really awesome? We always offer to do something unique for them, but most clients want to see themselves within our logo. A lot of these companies have strict brand guidelines and this is really an opportunity for them to do something different. I am glad we have a logo that sort of has the directive to not have guidelines.
The collaborations are so much fun. It’s wonderful to see all the iterations of the design, reimagined for each different client and what they do. Was the design of the original logo conceived with the idea of these collaborations in mind?
One of the first collaborations for Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Every September we do a shirt for them. For one of the first ones, we simply put the image of their heart/hand in the “O.” After that, that “O” somehow became this landing zone area and everyone wanted to put their logo there. Using our logo became everybody else’s way to show that they care about Arizona—that they are from and represent Arizona.
So then I started using all the letterform shapes to either contain some image or explore patterns and shapes and color.
Using our logo became everybody else’s way to show that they care about Arizona—that they are from and represent Arizona.
At first it was frustrating because I wanted to do more design, and I thought it was going to get monotonous, but then I realized that we had no brand guidelines and I could literally do anything I wanted. So that became the direction: just do whatever we want to our logo as long as it is still legible and you can tell that it is us. We will use whatever content the client has to make it look as cool as possible.
How did the collaborations become part of the core structure of the company? Were the collaborations initially part of the idea for the company?
No, again that was organic the way it unfolded: more companies were asking “How can we prove we are Arizona, and really deep into Arizona?” So these collaborations ended up becoming a handy way to make that happen. Now they could say “Let’s go make a shirt with State Forty Eight and that will at least solidify our message and also give us something to sell.”
Would you allow other designers to create their own iteration of a shirt?
For the most part, I want to keep the creative in house, and not just to control it (although sometimes that is best depending on what the client has, as we may have to say delicately “let us try to come up with our own version.”) Eventually I would love to do an artist’s series, like one per month. The bigger reason, though, is that I would need to figure how that works financially, because the collaborations have kickbacks to charities—so what would the artist need in addition to that donation, and how would that affect us, etc.? Not sure how we can develop that yet. But it would be great to pursue, right? All the eyes that watch that artist, will then watch us as well, and it would expand our reach in a great way. We worked with Andy Brown, who was part of that great mural at The Rebel Lounge, on one project, which was very fun.
The whole thing was his idea to begin with, and when you are a person that has struggled, the chance to help others becomes a very positive thing.
What was the spark that set off the Foundation and its role in the whole organization?
My older brother is actually a recovering alcoholic for ten years now. He has written a book about the adventure: Ten Twenty Ten: Sobriety & State Forty Eight. Part of his journey to sobriety was Mike and I really being in his face and being with him before and throughout his recovery. State Forty Eight became an extremely important vehicle for him to channel healing. The whole thing was his idea to begin with, and when you are a person that has struggled, the chance to help others becomes a very positive thing.
Zach Pugh, Drea Castelo
Community has always been at the core of what State Forty Eight does. As a local brand who started with very little, we only got to where we did because of the support we received from our neighbors, as well as local businesses and organizations. As soon as we were able to, we developed a following, built business and paid it forward. In 2019, we launched an initiative called State Forty Eight Community Impact, which was a platform to promote local causes and activate our supporters to give back. Our primary focus was events such as volunteer opportunities and food & toy drives.
Amid everything happening in the world, we decided to step it up a notch and be more intentional with our community work—thus, the State Forty Eight Foundation was born.
In 2020, amid everything happening in the world, we decided to step it up a notch and be more intentional with our community work—thus, the State Forty Eight Foundation was born. We are still in the planning stages, but we will continue activating the community through volunteer events (once it’s safe) and will also begin to develop programming that supports entrepreneurs and the youth of Arizona.
When the “Unity” tee shirt sells, $10 (pretty much all profit) goes to ICAN, a family-centered service supporting youth tackling substance abuse, gang involvement, and juvenile delinquency.
This year we put emphasis on social justice with our recent collaboration with BlackLustre, a locally based, Black-owned store. When the “Unity” tee shirt sells, $10 (pretty much all profit) goes to ICAN, a family-centered service supporting youth tackling substance abuse, gang involvement, and juvenile delinquency. And typically, we do a volunteer event for the United Food Bank in September. This year because of COVID-19, we simply hosted an online fundraiser and raised over $8,500 to feed the hungry in Arizona.
We’re looking forward to rolling out more programming and offering more mentorship and volunteer opportunities.
How is business now, during this pandemic?
Because of COVID, we dropped the minimum order to 50. Depending on the client, it often makes sense to sell shirts on our website as well as them selling themselves: such as for some of the more high-profile organizations, or the universities.
We started off 2020 with over 70 collaborations in progress, and since they were mostly based on events that got cancelled, much business has dropped off. Things are trickling back in, but events are pretty important to us. At least the lockdown gave me the chance to dive into creating some brand guidelines.
I’m aware that SFE has recently expanded to do screen printing and embroidery services—what does that entail and how is it different from collaborating with SFE?
Yes. Starting next month, we are getting more screen printing and embroidery equipment and moving that into the back of our space in Chandler. We delved into this world of screen printing and embroidery services because it was something we felt our community could benefit from and we could easily support. The difference between these services and our collaborations is that the SFE logo doesn’t have to be part of the design. In fact, the design is fully led by the customer—we simply offer the product and help you get your logo and design placed on anything from hats to T-shirts and tote bags.
We love doing this because it gives our customers freedom in what they create. We’ve had people use these services for business and school promotion, to commemorate an occasion, such as a family reunion, or as holiday gifts for their employees.
The possibilities are endless, and our goal is to provide a pleasant experience that leaves our customers with a quality product.
Contact Janice Vega about SFE:
Read more about State Forty Eight: