How to Break into T-Shirt Design
A new design phenomenon has taken firm hold online, and it's giving thousands of designers worldwide an extra revenue stream, as well as being an enjoyable way to reignite creative passions. I'm talking about T-shirt design. There are masses of T-shirt design competition sites that offer piles of cash to winning entries, and a growing number of T-shirt design services that let you upload and sell your designs on shirts and whole lot more -- everything from umbrellas to underwear. And this is not to mention the scads of online T-shirt stores run by individuals. Any designer looking to take a tentative first step into this market needs to do some groundwork first. To help shorten that process, read on. Threadless and Its Rivals Let's start with Threadless, which is perhaps the sexiest T-shirt site in design circles. Threadless works on a competition model. Each week, professional illustrators and amateurs alike submit T-shirt designs that are put to a public vote. Six designs are selected, printed, and sold through its online store each week. The winning designs receive a cash prize of $2,000. Around 700 designs compete in an average week -- that's a crowded field. However, many designers do achieve multiple wins, earning a tidy sum in the process. Freelance illustrator Rocky Davies believes that financially, Threadless justifies the time and effort required to win (Fig. "There's $2,500 in cash and prizes, $500 for reprints, and eligibility for year-end award prizes -- not to mention the exposure and redirected traffic to my websites." Figure 1. Rocky Davies calls this T-shirt design "Milton." With revenue last year of $30 million, Threadless can certainly offer exposure, and not just to winning designs: each week the top 300 designs are put up for public voting. "The exposure Threadless has given me has helped, definitely, and I have received a few offers of work," says designer Steve Maggs (Figure 2). "It's given me a decent level of exposure to people who almost certainly wouldn't have heard of me otherwise." Figure 2. This T-shirt, called "Failure is option," was designed by Steve Maggs. Rocky Davies -- whose main source of income is in the children's market ("everything from books to cartoons to holiday products") echoes this: "I've received quite a few emails that start off with, 'I saw your work on Threadless...' Also, when I started my own [T-shirt] brand and started showing it around, my history with Threadless and other sites allowed me to get my foot in the door." Davies adds that the community element of Threadless has also benefited his career (Figure 3). "Through this I've met a lot of friends and kindred spirits who have helped me out on various projects. A group of us have formed something called the Black Rock Collective (blackrockcollective.com). We work on various projects together and help each other get exposure for our work." Figure 3. Rocky Davies' T-shirt design "Monster Truck." But not everyone has such ringing endorsements of the worth of Threadless. Asked if he felt the site had raised his profile as a designer, Trenton Williams -- an interactive and text-book designer -- said: "If anything, quite the opposite. I feel dirty now." Williams's bad experiences notwithstanding, Threadless does offer a number of other indirect benefits, such as creative satisfaction -- particularly important for reinvigorating designers who are churning out uninspiring work on autopilot. Maggs says, "Paying the bills doesn't always involve exciting briefs, but the T-shirt side of things allows me to do whatever I want. There's no doubt that a lot of designers use Threadless as a place for unfettered expression." Figure 4 shows just that. Figure 4. Steve Maggs' T-shirt design "Spray." Plus, there's your portfolio to consider. Personal work is something many prospective clients and employees like to see from designers; a portfolio full only of commissioned work often lacks variety of style and expression. Designing T-shirts can help you fashion a more well-rounded offering. Keeping such non-financial benefits of sites like Threadless in mind is important, says Davies, because there's no guarantee your time and effort will reap any financial reward. "When it comes down to it, you're doing spec work. You have no clue if you'll receive any compensation at all for the hours of work you've put into a design. It's most likely that it will not get printed, so if you're doing it merely for the money, you'll probably get depressed pretty quickly." Williams agrees: "If you're unaccustomed to failure, then you're in for a shock. There's a lot of worthless criticism, too, although some of it is valuable." Williams does concede that Threadless is "fun -- but only as long as you don't take it too seriously". Maggs also advises that designers keep a check on the time they're sinking into the site. "It can end up taking over your life, as it's quite addictive." But he believes the advantages -- "exposure, pleasure, and hard cash" -- outweigh this danger. The Threadless model has spawned many other hopeful comeptitors, such as teetonic.com and Design by Humans, and it's worth checking their terms and conditions, because the small print can vary. On Threadless, for example, you sign away "the entire right, title, and interest in your design's use for T-shirts and wall graphics, including copyright and moral rights". Running Your Own Store One further plus-point with Threadless and its rivals is that they can provide a valuable learning ground for people interested in running their own online T-shirt stores. Davies recently launched a T-shirt label called Mythic and has been selling shirts for a couple of months (Figure 5). "I've already sold all over the world," he says. "It's pretty cool. I learned through my Threadless dealings what makes a good T-shirt." Figure 5. This shirt, called "Juan de los Muertos," is for sale on Davies' Myth site. He says making decent money -- as opposed to pocket money -- from running your own store demands not only high-quality work, but also a concerted marketing drive. "You can have the coolest shirts on the Web, but if nobody knows about them, the company fails. On the other hand, you can have all the exposure in the world but if your shirts suck, you'll never really catch on." Davies admits that he's been struggling with exposure -- "just like the 3 million other T-shirt sites out there". He laments, "If I just had enough people to simply see them, they'd sell out. You ask yourself, 'How do I find customers and get them to keep coming back?'" His answer? "I'm printing new designs and playing with pricing." Maggs, who also runs his own T-shirt store (2smartmonkeys.com), has a similar tale to tell. "If you want to set up your own store, bear in mind it's a saturated market. Make sure you're different or very good at promoting it, or you might be disappointed. Setting up is the hardest bit, and after that you get out what you put in, in terms both of money and time." He says that aside from marketing, the key to making an online store work involves "keeping costs as low as possible, and making the designs non-derivative and central to the whole project." See Figure 6 for an example of one shirt Maggs sells on his site. Figure 6. Be part of Magg's Monkey Army and say "Viva la Evolution." Between Threadless and Building Your Own Store from Scratch But if running your own shop sounds like too onerous an undertaking, you might consider another option: the hosted online store, which is by far the most popular T-shirt business model. Ventures such as Spreadshirt, Zazzle, and CafePress provide a free online shop that's embedded into your site. They take care of everything from payment processing, production, and shipping, to after-sales service. On Spreadshirt, the commission a designer earns from sales is self-determined. The model must work, because Spreadshirt currently boasts over 300,000 "shop partners," comprising individuals, companies, organizations, bands, and artists. The benefit of the hosted-shop approach is that it's instantaneous and risk-free; if you sell nothing, you lose nothing. The downside is that making it work still involves plenty of graft -- because the only thing that separates a good designer from a good designer who sells is marketing. Spreadshirt, for one, recognises that designers are by nature time-poor, which is why it recently launched Marketplace, an area where designs can be uploaded, and then viewed, rated and, hopefully, bought by users. When a user chooses a design to adorn a product (it needn't be a T-shirt; there are dozens of products), the designer receives a commission. A deal of homework is required to make the most of the Marketplace, not least viewing the "That's Hot" area, where you can see what's selling and what has the most ratings. Zazzle offers its own version of the marketplace, called Public Galleries, and contributors earn up to 17 per cent of the sale each time their creations are purchased by others. But be warned: some of Zazzle's most popular T-shirt designs send one's blood-sugar levels soaring, with cutesy puppies and heart-shaped motifs very much to the fore. Although a tactic on such sites is to draw influence from what proves popular, you'll have to steer a course between what sells and what will leave you feeling unclean as a designer. Yet surely if your work shines like a beacon amid such mediocrity, you'll excel, right? Not so, says Trenton Williams: "I've looked at sites like Spreadshirt and Zazzle, but unlike Threadless they don't screen work; you basically set up a shop with them. You can be a fantastic artist and not sell anything, because you don't spend hours advertising or spamming blogs and other social Internet areas. Personally, I don't have time to be a PR guy, too." If you do decide to try your hand at T-shirt design, the wise approach would seem to be not to view it as a retirement fund generator, but something that's fun and creatively stimulating. Any cash you may earn is a nice bonus.