The man behind the bike: Specialized industrial designer Brian Szykowny
Industrial designers are the magical bridge between how an engineer makes a product work, and how it ultimately looks to the end user. You’re likely already familiar with the Power saddle, Venge ViAS rim and disc, and CLX-series Roval road wheels from Specialized. If you’ve been paying attention on social media, you have probably also already seen some of the outrageous paint jobs the company has provided for notable sponsored figures and left-of-center events like the Red Hook Criterium. But do you know the person behind all of that?
Meet product designer (and painter extraordinaire) Brian Szykowny — better known as Swiznooski.
Custom paint job for Red Hook Barcelona
Specialized has been celebrating the popularity of the Red Hook criterium series with unique Allez Sprint aluminum frames, all of which have been modified for fixed-gear drivetrains and painted expressly for the purpose by a different designer at each stop of the tour. Not surprisingly, the paint jobs are intentionally eye-catching so as to stand out from the crowd — and stand out they most definitely do.
For the next Red Hook stop in Barcelona, Spain, Specialized industrial designer Brian Szykowny delved a little deeper toward the brighter end of the spectrum with a graphic that may appear somewhat random at first glance, but is actually a mix of camouflage patterns.
“I’ve always wanted to do a camo pattern, and this is based on a couple of different camo patterns,” Szykowny told CyclingTips. “One is based on the M90 camo, which is used in Germany and a lot of other European countries. The stripey bit is based on a camo called Rain Streaks, which is an older, vintage camo. And the blotchy parts are loosely based on another German camo that I think is called Plain Trees 3. It’s a camo mash-up.
“The colors were picked to be a little bit inline with the Specialized colors we use in production. The red is our Rocket Red, that orange is actually McLaren orange, the white is out of the adventure category, and the purple was just a wild card I threw in there. I think I was staring at a color wheel and trying to make it make sense a little bit. It all kind of plays together.”
Normally, complex graphics on production bikes are achieved with a mix of base colors and decals. For the Red Hook Barcelona bikes, however, Szykowny used nothing but a complex array of vinyl masking decals to achieve the desired look.
“There are twenty layers of paint on the bikes,” he said. “When you lay down a bright color like that red, or orange, or purple, you have to put white down before it or else it doesn’t pop as brightly as it should. I did a light pearl clearcoat before I cleared it, and then I did three coats of clear over that. It took a week to do three bikes: frame, fork, stem, top cap, spacers, and bars. It was a super labor intensive project.”
All of that paintwork requires a lot of labor, but it’s also a lot of paint — and paint doesn’t exactly weigh nothing. Even so, Szykowny says the complex paint job didn’t actually add that much mass over a simpler and more conventional factory finish.
“When you take the mask off, it takes the paint with it so you end up with this negative space. So a lot of that paint that went down on the frame just got pulled off with the mask. The ball of masking vinyl I have from that is so big, you could hug it. I weighed it before and after, and it was 150g of paint.”
More than just a painter
The folks at Specialized have been highlighting quite a bit of Szykowny’s handiwork lately, such as the Flow Shiv — a one-off S-Works Shiv whose paint job was inspired by computational fluid dynamics modeling — and a wild custom sidecar-equipped bike for noted YouTube rally car star Ken Block.
Ironically, Szykowny isn’t officially a painter for Specialized; it’s just the one aspect of his job that he’s free to discuss publicly. He’s actually an industrial designer across a wide range of categories who just happens to have a knack for paint. Szykowny’s influence can be seen across a wide range of Specialized products across multiple categories, but he’s currently focused primarily on high-end road bikes and components.
“[Being regarded as a painter] is an association I’m ok with, because basically all of the things I do at work, I can’t show because it’s not in production yet,” he said. “I am a product designer, so that basically means that I am the steps between engineering and the concept.
“All of my projects start with an idea, either from other designers, or from engineering, or from a rider we’re working with, or from [company founder] Mike Sinyard. But basically, I’ll take that idea, along with engineering constraints and direction, and make it look great and still function under those constraints.”
Szykowny says that while much of his time is spent sketching in 2D, what he really enjoys is the 3D modeling work that follows, using such varied media as clay, carbon fiber, foam, and various 3D-printed materials. As it turns out, it’s the 3D work that ultimately got him into painting in the first place.
“A lot of development is 2D, like sketch work. Sketching is the quickest way to get ideas out and run it by people, and see how they feel about feasibility, manufacturing, and whatnot. Once you get a fairly solid direction going in 2D, then you get into the 3D element. A lot of times, you’ll get it roughed in in CAD, and once you print it out [on a 3D printer], it’s like looking at it for the first time.
“In the computer, sometimes it’s like, ‘yeah, this is awesome’, and then you’re holding it, and you’re like, ‘this is not awesome’. So then it’s the second step, where you go into the hand work.
“What I like to do is bring it into our shop. We use Bondo [a filler material commonly used in automotive body work], and we actually smooth out the surfaces and create highlights and prime it, spray it black, sand it, add more Bondo on, and that’s the magic right there. It’s a lot of trial and error.”
Getting the shape where you want it is one thing. From there, though, a designer has to give the item a finish to make it look like the real thing.
“It was my first finished model that made — and a finished model is basically what it should look like when you get it back from the factory. It was made of Bondo and 3D-printed parts, and you have to paint it to make it look real. I was shown some cool paint techniques to make this Bondo piece look like carbon, went through some of the steps of adding some color, and the clear coat, and doing that really opened the doors for me. I saw immediately how I could easily just jump right into painting a frame. So I did.”
That was roughly a year and a half ago. Szykowny estimates that he’s painted about a dozen bikes since then, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Szykowny earned his degree at San Francisco State University, and supplemented that with additional study at the Academy of Art University. As is the case with so many people in the bicycle industry, Szykowny first got his feet wet in a local shop.
“I worked in bike shops through college, and the majority of my projects in college were bike-centric. My portfolio coming out of college was all bike stuff.”
After stints working for frame builder Tom Schoeniger of Forty One Thirty Cycle Works, a design job at 3D-printing specialist Studio Fathom, and even a year managing his father’s tile contracting company, Szykowny eventually landed an internship at Specialized.
“I got an interview at Specialized and met them at Interbike, and then had another interview at Interbike, and made them three portfolios. Finally, they gave me an internship. It was a six-month internship, and I worked for a month and half, and then they hired me. That was a nice surprise.”
That was nearly three years ago, and as is typical for Specialized, it’s been full speed ahead ever since. Szykowny still manages to maintain a hobby of interior design on the weekends — and has aspirations to get back into rally car racing as a co-driver.
“There’s not much room to fit anything else! I do work, and I do work. I somehow — god bless her soul — still have a girlfriend; that’s awesome.
“One year at Specialized is like six years of normal work. But it’s cool. It’s fast paced, so you go through a lot of projects. Some make it, and some don’t. That’s kind of the deal.”