Dec 28, 2009

How to Design for the Apparel Market

Art Doesn't Sell

In my experience as a designer and curator, there is a truth about the apparel world that has become apparent. If my hunch is correct, this probably spans the whole world of art:

Artsy fartsy doesn't sell in a mass consumer market.

I don't wish to discourage any artist from designing in their own voice, but typically, people enjoy simplicity; generic ideas, easily understood and recognizable.

By artsy farty, I am referring to esoteric ideas, themes, and execution.

For example, my best selling shirt at was Death on a Pale White Unicorn.

Whereas Death took only 1.5 hours, the piece over which I labored most, Plunder All, was received with only mild enthusiasm by the shirt.woot market.

Whereas Death on a Unicorn is easily understood, "haha, I get it, its... Death on a Unicorn, plain and simple, but whats this pirate about? He has brass knuckles but he has Love tattooed on his fist? And whats with the octopus with the keyhole in the head?"

Plunderall is not.

One may argue that shirt.woot is a vacuum in which the preferences of the consumers are very specific, but this is not the case.

In most avenues I've observed, there is rarely an exception.

[deleted link] started out attempting to be like their sister company Designbyhumans by starting out selling very artistic designs, then over time, the market tended to gravitate towards a Threadless-y Woot-y genre but uniquely [deleted link]

It seems every business tries to dictate it's theorectical market, but eventually the consumers from the web will eventually put them into a niche.

At [deleted link] , since we sell a different shirt every 24 hours, we still have a wide selection of genres we offer, but the obvious winners are pop culture related.

I've sold over a dozen shirts through [deleted link] . In the beginning, I started with artistic designs which took hours to create, and years of refining my skillset.

But to date, wonder what's been my best seller? Ceiling Cat and Darth Tut. Both pop culture references.

What made my artsty fartsy designs fail? Frankly, unless you are in a niche market like Design By Humans, the majority of the population does not have the palette or affinity for esoteric expressions. They simply don't have the ability or desire to understand a different language.

We are still very much like animals. We still exhibit the fight or flight tendencies in our decision making. We desire social validation and acceptance as community beings so if you apply this theory to products, we want a product that communicates a positive and acceptable message to the rest of the world. We don't want to scare anyone into thinking we are different.

To wear something that is difficult or even unable to be understood, you might as well be wearing something with a foreign alien language.

We live in a world of symbols. Male/Female bathroom signs are universally understood. The color red, a sign of urgency, skulls typically represent death, etc.

As artists, we can help to create new symbols, but we must teach the world first before they understand it and are at ease with it. So there are two paths.

1. Design using symbols that already exist.

2. Be the forerunner in defining a new set of symbols, or way of expression, until it becomes accepted, if ever.

The latter is the true artist's journey, so it is most difficult.

But it seems, that once you define a way of expression, you will have defined your niche, so you can rarely deviate from it once settled into popularity.

BTW, did you know that even with gallery art, the top selling designs are typically generic? Landscapes, abstracts, dogs, and portraits.

So what should you design to be successful?

It depends on your market, but typically

1. Look at trends. If you observe enough of the market, you will see consistency, an affinity for certain topics, or specific design aesthetics.

2. Include pop culture references. It's a no brainer for Marc Ecko and Adidas to be partnering with Lucas Films to create products that are Star Wars related. Star Wars is widely understood and enjoyed.

Immediately, when people see the symbols or imagery related to Star Wars, cha-ching. You know it's $$$$ MONEY $$$$.

If you look at Threadless, you will see alot of other topics that are pop culture/cult following related products.

Video games, zombies, tv/movies, etc.

Piggy-backing on something that's already popular is the easiest route to getting sales, and attention.

There is a legal issue here. You must parody, or coyly design in a manner in which will allow you to skirt copyright infringement issues. Thankfully, parody is a route.

3. Keep it simple stupid. Don't deviate too far from the normal way of expressing ideas, and don't be complicated in artistic expression. Solid low color designs are king. You want to create a design in which, someone walking by in a second understands what they are looking at. This is related to symbols. Symbols are simple images. Just as we recognize a smiley face with a cirle, two dots and a semi circular line, you want your image to be almost just as simple.

*** Addendum by @Hydro74 Twitter
4. Emulate popular styles/trends. "uniqueness is rare and not demanded by consumers or companies thus emulate what sells with a splash of creative twist."


Recently, these are a few submissions I've seen at different sites which are obvious winners if they are printed. These are full of win. Obviously, it doesn't take a expert to recognize them as good sellers.

Although, the skills exemplified by these pieces are professional, I would chance to say that, concepts sell most shirts, so these could have been done by a crappy artist, and they would still sell.


This is the way of the world peeps.

One of the only places I've been successful with my own brand of art has been, as it's market gravitates to being somewhat esoteric and artsy fartsy. It's built its consumer base as such, but if you notice the shirt of the weeks/months, you will also notice that it's not necessarily the most artistic designs that win. It's mostly allovers, abstract designs, and designs that have a wide appeal by being mildly trendy, but not overly similar to trends already existent in the apparel market.

It doesn't necessarily take extraordinary artistic ability to win.


If you are interested in submitting for a print at [deleted link] , email us with jpeg submissions. We like pop culture.

If you are interested in submitting for a print at, submit here.


Olechka said...

VERY well-said, I couldn't agree with you more.

SteveOramA said...

Great post, Jimmy. You really hit the nail on the head, as they say.

I think it all comes down to subject matter and a viewer saying to themselves "would I wear that?"

That is easily and ultimately what wins over a buyer which in turn makes a shirt a great seller.

Your Death on a unicorn design might have sold well because it appealed to a bigger audience and people would probably wear it often. Your highly detailed pirate design, while it's a great piece don't get me wrong, was probably the opposite of the above.

Artsy Fartsy could still win... sometimes!

Matt Eyer said...

sucks...but it's the truth

Rhys said...

Very good read, very much helpful.

I can see how it can be difficult how artists are trying to develop new trends but seem the need to dip back into the pop culture for that recognition. A simple product can always be a better seller as like you said the audience will instantly see what they are looking at. The outlet where artsy and pop culture goes is what determines the sale.

Keep up the good work, you're very talented at both pop culture and artsy fartsy, hope to see more!

qetza said...

A lot of great info there. Great read!

thestray said...

Yeah, I noticed, haha. I guess I'm lucky to have wide enough ranging interests that I equally enjoy doing DBH stuff and Teefury stuff. I don't feel like I'm catering to anyone because I'm just doing what I want to do and matching it to whichever site would most likely print it. Personally I'm not going to emulate what sells if what sells isn't something I'm remotely interested in. No matter what the concept I try to execute it very well, I'd hope that even if people don't dig my subject matter they can still say it's well done.

I think the market for people who want to scare people into thinking they're different is growing slowly though. Maybe, haha. I'm one of those weird people. I think the internet is creating more artsy fartsy people. It seems like when I was in highschool not a lot of people thought about or had many opinions about art. But now it's becoming more and more hip to be into the art scene.

Anyway though, I have bunches of pop culture related ideas brewing that you can look forward to seeing. Even a Star Wars one, haha.

jimiyo said...

Thanks for all the input and comments ya'll. I'll try to write more about my experience and knowledge as I can.

I appreciate any all input.


Omnitarian said...

While pop sells I could never imagine building an entire design career off of it. In fact I don't think I can name a single established/respected apparel designer who works exclusively with pop culture references (closest would be Glennz I guess, but he does artistically-inclined designs as well). Even the talented popsmiths like Alexmdc or Flying Mouse or Radiomode have a good portion of their folios filled with more expressive stuff.

Pop sells well but you can't develop a voice or following as an artist doing nothing but, say, Star Wars shirts. Think of Wotto, Greg Abbott, Collisiontheory... hell even the Woot derby overlord ramyb. They're some of the most successful names in the industry and they all got there by forging their own aesthetic, not by churning out one pop culture reference after another.

I don't think every designer should see designing pop tees as a shameful anathema, but I definitely don't think art is dead... not yet, anyway. I'm not sure what I'm asking for, maybe it's asking for balance between the two.

Alex said...

I read this yesterday and it's been on my mind ever since. Kinda bugging and tugging at me. Merely because it's true. Sticking to trends is a sad rule most companies stick to to survive.

...but I do agree with Omnitarian. I doubt all artists will always stick to this formula. We wouldn't have ground breaking concepts and new trends without all thee amazingly talented rouge illustrators out there. We count on that batch of artists as much as the "copy cats."

AttilaTheMom said...

This is a sad but true fact of life, but do you try to change peoples tastes or just go with the flow? Can the masses be educated? Or do you just resign your business/designs to being niche markets and give up on the masses? I <3 my death on a unicorn, but i also <3 my create and my sawdust and diamonds tees. I love my edgar shirts for being so unique, but I also like my pop culture shirts too. As a consumer with no drawing skills at all I am usually awed by the art skills it takes to design some shirts, but strangely art alone doesn't make me want to buy something.

So my question for you Jimi is, who are you designing for? And what makes you happier with your work, making something that sells or spending a lot of time on a work that mainly appeals to you? What motivates you the artist? Truely just curious here, not trying to start an argument. :)

X said...

Awesome post...but it does make me a little sad.

But because I am the kind of guy to light a candle rather than curse the darkness, I would like offer some comfort you your artsy fartsy ass...

I truly believe that LOWER sales as seen with niche markets (whether they be artsy designs or even chess designs ;-)), represent STRONGER sales. The people who buy these shirts that lay outside the mass market are FANS.

And I will take 1 fan over 50 casual consumers everytime!

Paul - RIPT said...

It's painful to admit the ultimate truths presented in this article.

At RIPT Apparel we have hit our 6 month mark and identified some trends and some of our conclusions have been against what we were hoping to find.

I hope that there will be some sort of middle ground that we end up planting our roots in but it's going to be a long hard road.

the_JCW said...

sad but true.

sadly money dictates everything and we head down that road of recreating what everyone already knows.

I really respect artists who try their hardest to create their own path without simply "selling out" I think that you, Jimiyo, really explored what kind of art you like and worked your talent to the max while mixing in symbols and references and no lean more towards the Mooolah (like we all have to eventually)

I also respect any people or company who support extremely original artistic work free of "piggybacking" despite the lack of super-funds that could be generated. Society changes over time and right now we are all brands for ourselves and attached to instant joy and gratification from recognized symbols....something new is scaaaaaaarrrrryyy. Maybe if enough defiant individuals stick to their guns things can swing a bit in the other direction over time.

Anywho, thanks for writing on a great subject

StuDog said...

Nicely said. It makes perfect sense too. Even some of the prints I have designed in the past, the ones I spent the longest on died in the water and the simpler ones that took me an hour or so sold well. It's not about what you want as the artist but a lot about what the consumer wants.