Two dudes on their vision to use golf as an avenue for inclusive recreation.
The duo of self-described weirdos, the Chicago-based entity that is Whim — a topsy-turvy palindrome in its own odd way — is a quirky boutique design studio founded by Colin Heaberg and Will Gisel. Mainly working with clients in the product design stage, whether brands or individuals concepting industrial or clothing projects, human-centered digital worlds, or parties around town everyone talks about, Whim World is the mountain-top tip, with Whim Golf being one of the foothills first borne within its range. As we sat down to chat with the boys, it felt very much that: a couple of pals at the height of summertime with adventures on the horizon.
It was reminiscent of a period when kids stayed and played outside until the streetlights turned on. In the distant future, a retrospective look could argue that Whim World was founded at the cusp of youth, Colin and Will just thirteen years-of-age. What started as a hike in the woods between two strangers — an experiment on screenprinting socks and shirts in the oldest summer camp for sport and art in the United States — would blossom into a kinship in a league of its own. We took a break with Whim World to chat about beginnings, ideas, and the movement to rebrand the sport of golf where on the green, everyone belongs.
The Recreationalist: How did Whim World (and subsequently, Whim Golf) begin?
Colin: As you can understand there’s an entanglement that the two have to each other. Whim World mostly serves other businesses in the product design stage, whether it be fashion, industrial, or digital projects. Whim Golf really started as a start-up within our company. The way we viewed Whim World when we started was really as this holding company that we could then start companies within. It just so happened that apparel was the first avenue we wanted to approach.
Will: Colin and I met at the oldest summer camp in the United States (Camp Dudley) that’s all about art, sports, and the outdoors when we were thirteen. Fast forward a bit — I’m from Buffalo, New York, and Colin’s from Philly. Despite the distance, we just stayed friends after camp. During the school year, we’d go visit each other, even up to the point of us heading to college. I moved to Atlanta a year after college, and Colin in Chicago. We always knew we wanted to do something together, and we spent years trying to think of the right name. I still have a notebook full of all these crazy names for the business that I was coming up with from ages 17 to 23. And I think that’s a huge part of our story, we found a lot of strength in committing as a team and can use each other to balance out and work through problems quickly.
The Recreationalist: Did you come up with the name on a whim?
Will: We came up with Whim in 2015. I was still in Atlanta, and we weren’t trying to come up with a name that had some huge story to it. We wanted something that was short and visually looked cool, and came up with “Whim.” It ended up being this really sick name because my name is William, Colin’s real name is Michael, and those two letters ended up being the two brackets of the brand. It says “Hi” in the middle, the “W” and “M” are symmetrical, you can flip them and they’re the same. A capital “H” on its side is an “I” so we’ve had a lot of fun with that post-rationalization, and it ended up being perfect. The vision is still for Whim World to be a holding company of startups and Whim Golf dates back to when we were kids in my opinion.
The Recreationalist: Whim Golf is an interesting first play. Can you say more about how this came to be?
Will: Yeah, it was only 18 months ago when we really committed to making something more than a bunch of random clothes. It was really natural because we both grew up with the sport, but fell out of love with golf by the time we were 15 and 17, watching Allen Iverson and listening to hip hop. We were like “golf sucks.” Then at 22 and 23, we realized it doesn’t actually suck. It’s fun to play and it’s an awesome sport. But there are all these parts of the culture that most people perceive as turns offs to the sport, and that turned us off too. So we decided to be the champions of golf. Most people don’t even consider trying it because of their perceptions of the game, and that’s what we’re trying to do — go 70% of the way to invite people to try it.
Most people don’t even consider trying it because of their perceptions of the game.
The Recreationalist: How would you identify that issue of inclusivity, or what do you think prevents people from trying golf?
Will: For the most part, it’s pretty elitist and there’s a lot of aspects that aren’t relatable to people. Especially the way it’s presented to majority of the market at large. We can’t change all of that at once and we don’t really want to. But growing up with and growing distant to the sport, and ultimately finding our way back to it, allowed us to apply sensibilities we learned elsewhere to the game. We kind of made it our own. And that’s what you see when you look at the clothes — it’s not “capital G golf”, but golf-influenced. Stuff you can wear on Michigan Avenue/Downtown and not feel like you’re wearing a uniform. We thought “How can we bend the rules?” and felt like a lot of people can relate to that. So the clothes are kind of a result of that stance.
The Recreationalist: It’s fascinating that your friendship spans all these years. Was there a moment or other variables — aside from sports and screenprinting — that made you say, “this dude’s gonna be a life-long buddy” or something of the like?
Will: Both of us have only sisters, for starters. And I think it’s weird but we’re very weird people, so also very similar in that way. I want to say it was almost instantaneous.
Colin: From what I recall, when we met at thirteen, Will had a little disposable camera, then I whipped mine out and thought we were so cool. It was funny because I didn’t visit my friends from camp — Will was the only one I visited. I’d be like, “Yo mom, I’m gonna go to Buffalo, New York to hang with my buddy.” When she first met Will when he visited me, she told me “It’s kinda weird watching you two, it’s like you’re brothers in the way you interact.” Having had a relationship for more than half of our lives, I think a big driver in why we’re so close is that there’s obviously a kinship in the way we interact with each other beyond being just best friends. We both share the same commitment to curiosity, which is a huge driver for our friendship.
WE BOTH SHARE THE SAME COMMITMENT TO CURIOSITY, WHICH IS A HUGE DRIVER FOR OUR FRIENDSHIP.
The Recreationalist: What are your thoughts on this level of friendship? From a societal standpoint — especially with the idea of masculinity in America — it’s sometimes considered weird. But it’s so hopeful to hear you talk about each other.
Will: I would give the camp we met at a lot of credit. For one, it’s an all-boys camp and it’s super founded on selflessness. Their whole motto is about being selfless and empathetic and looking out for the other person, all the while being a sports camper and competing with each other. So for me, we learned a method of brotherhood through a place like that. Hopefully, it can be an example for other people that it’s possible.
Colin: I think if I’m reflecting, obviously when we first met I wasn’t’ looking for a friendship that would last a really long time and eventually we’ll work together. Sometimes during introductions, I would say, “This is my partner Will.” Some people would jump to the conclusion that we have a romantic relationship together. It speaks to your point about how it’s not really the norm. I have a fiancée, and for me having this other relationship which is very close-knit has helped me in my own romantic relationship. I have him in my life to help navigate that, and in similar ways that Will navigates singledom, there are things he’ll ask me about or he’ll look for guidance in that way. It’s not the norm, and we’re just moving through it with this kinship.
WE’RE NOT TRYING TO GO ALL THE WAY TO MINIGOLF WITH DINOSAURS AND WINDMILLS. WE TRY AND HONOR THE GOOD PARTS OF THE HERITAGE OF THE GAME AND THEN PRESENT OUR FRESH PERSPECTIVE ON THE REST OF IT THAT HOPEFULLY DRAWS NEW PEOPLE IN.
The Recreationalist: Back to Whim Golf, what would you say is the hardest part of the sport?
Colin: Part of it is the difficulty. It’s a ridiculous ask to get someone to commit their time and money. Also, you’re going to suck, it doesn’t matter how good at other sports you are, you’ll suck for a while. There are so many things that create an uphill battle for people to get into golf, but we view a lot of those things as opportunities. It’s obvious that they haven’t been approached with design thinking.
Will: The hardest part for me is the mental part, whether you’ve played for ten years or ten seconds. This is one of the reasons why we build our putting greens — they’re free, they’re a cool place to hang out, and they’re super welcoming. We’re always on the sidewalks trying to get people to come in. The first impression is the hardest part of the game, so if you’re mentally committed and you have somebody trying to give you some instruction on how to get a good shot, you can’t not smile when you finally sink one. In a lot of ways, we’re trying to come up with solutions that give people a positive, early impression of the game.
The Recreationalist: Do you find it challenging to find or create spaces for recreation in a city like Chicago?
Will: Yeah. We’re super interested in redesigning golf courses with this guy named Jason Way. And long term goals for Whim Golf might include building three-hole golf courses in a city, not being so restricted by what people think golf should be. We talk a lot about this idea of subjective truths, this concept that people’s imaginations of what something has to be or should end up making it what it is. We’re not trying to go all the way to minigolf with dinosaurs and windmills, we try and honor the good parts of the heritage of the game, and then present our fresh perspective on the rest of it that hopefully draws new people in.
The Recreationalist: Who are some people or groups that serve as inspiration for you, growing up or currently?
Will: I’ve always looked up to my parents. Someone recently is this female architect from France named Charlotte Perriand. I went through this retrospective of hers and she was the only woman in Le Corbusier’s gang of architects and designers. What they were trying to do for living spaces is leading with design decisions that would drive behavior is similar to what we’re trying to do with golf.
Colin: Nicole McLaughlin is a new friend of ours, we really rock with her and love the work she’s doing and where it comes from. She didn’t come from this “I want to be a fashion designer” background, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but she just loved the outdoors and she thinks it’s interesting and has this insatiable appetite to be doing things that she finds important.
The Recreationalist: Dream collaborations. Ready, go!
Colin: A dream collaboration for us would just be the USGA or some organization that could really affect systemic changes in golf, to the point where we could build a three-hole golf course or change the rigidity of how people play the game. There’s an organization called First Tee that we’re going to start volunteering for, it’s a program that offers mentorship and lessons in the game of golf for people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s really about getting people in the game who might not otherwise have the opportunity.