For longtime Kanye West fans, it can be both daunting and uniquely comforting to look back on the proven multi-hyphenate’s classic debut album The College Dropout. The hunger to hit new artistic heights was immediately apparent, even down to the conceptual nature of the album and follow-ups Late Registration and Graduation.
A key component of the era, of course, was the bear logo. While the character itself would go on to be depicted in various forms throughout the pre-808s & Heartbreak chapter of West’s career, the original iteration of the logo remains a coveted one among fans. And in a new interview with Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive, designer Sam Hansen (of FTK shop fame and much more) breaks down the origin story behind the still-ubiquitous Dropout logo.
“They’re saying that they wanted to have a logo for The College Dropout and originally they wanted—and I think they finally got someone to do this for them—but the Bill Gates, Ross Perot, and all these different famous college dropouts that they wanted on a shirt,” Hansen, who designed and printed (and shipped!) early Kanye merch with business partner Bobby Naugle, said around 14 minutes into the interview. “I ended up not doing that and someone else did it and I just didn’t think that that was the move.”
But when Hansen got a look at the Dropout photo shoot, the idea that became the bear head logo we know and love today came into focus.
“I’m a Polo head and I knew Kanye was also so I was like, yo, we could flip this bear on some kind of Polo shit but make it a little more sporty,” he said. “And so I have this sketch. I remember just kind of, like, on a piece of paper putting sad eyes and sketching out and making it look more collegiate and putting a thick stroke around it and that’s what we did. … We took the head off the picture of the cover and turned that [into the logo].”
Hansen clarified that he first sketched out a “super rough” version before doing it more formally in Adobe Illustrator, then passing it to West and the team.
“They were like, ‘Yo, that’s it. That’s our shit. That’s our logo. How much do you want for this?’” Hansen said, adding that—despite the Roc-A-Fella budget—he opted instead to strike an agreement in which he and Naugle would instead be made the team responsible for handling the merch.
Around 21 minutes into the interview, Hansen reflected on not being fully prepared for Dropout’s massive success. While Hansen knew the album was great, he didn’t foresee the merch demand that—as quickly became apparent—remains a key facet of the Kanye West fan experience.
“We come in, like, the first day. …. There was, like, 300 something orders and we were like, oh shit.” The next day, Hansen recalled, there were roughly 400 additional orders, followed the next day by 700. And the demand continued to grow.
Around the 56-minute mark, Hansen briefly looked back on a design pitch he had for West after hearing a rough early version of what would become the Late Registration hit “Gold Digger,” laughing as he recalled West’s initial reaction of, “I don’t hate it but I don’t love it.” After a pause, Hansen said, West amended his assessment.
“And then he was like, ‘You know what? I hate it,’” Hansen said. “I was like, tight.”
What makes the logo so special in Hansen’s opinion, however, is the work it was designed to represent.
“I made that logo and I made the College Dropout logo,” he said deeper into the discussion. “To me, neither one of them are very intricate. They are what they are and they serve their purpose but what Kanye did makes this logo so much more iconic, in my opinion. So I feel like I can’t really take credit for it. For one, Bobby had a huge part in it… But it was really cool to be part of that experience at that time.”
The full interview also includes insight on a T-shirt inspired by the iconic “Miracle Whips” line from The College Dropout (including how it came full circle during the Donda era), and much (so much) more. For any Kanye fans, the full interview is more than worth your time and can be found in full above.