Shirts 2.0

Last Monday saw the opening of a new Threadless brick-and-mortar store in Chicago (link via Tcritic). In case you’re not familiar with Threadless, this is notable because it used to be an online-only venture, a sort of odd union between traditional consumer capitalism and brand-spanking-new Web 2.0 collaboration. The site was founded on the premise of having users submit designs and vote on which designs they like and would buy, though recent years have seen it introduce special lines of shirts not voted on by the audience.

Threadless isn’t a geek apparel site per se, but it’s certainly got some geeks on staff and in the audience; see Nerds Unite, Fractions Speak Louder Than Nerds, Nerd Berd, the recently sold out Nerds 22 Ever, plus some assorted gaming shirts, among other miscellaneous geekery. Threadless tees also appear to be the chosen casual attire of many convention-goers at PAX, Comic Con, and South by Southwest, whether overtly nerd-themed or not. Moreover, Threadless has spawned a host of imitators, including, featuring “gear for geeks and gamers.” Sounds like your typical geeky tee site along the lines of ThinkGeek and J!NX, but this one’s based user submissions and voting. (J!NX also welcomes users to submit designs, but it’s not their primary business model.)

I often wonder about the ethics of this model of user-submitted design and goods. Of course, I’m not the only one to wonder about the ethics of Web 2.0—see what Larry Lessig has to say on the matter, suggesting that there’s a distinction between sites that promote “true sharing” and “fake sharing.” Sites that rely on user-generated content for material goods, however, may need to be considered somewhat separately from those that produce content that’s more easily shareable.

Plus, despite Larry’s distinction between two basic models, it probably stands to reason that two sites could share the same model and each address the same ethical issue differently. Threadless, for example, now offers winning designers real money rather than the store credit it used to offer, which is a definite step up. (The store credit may have made the whole endeavor seem more community-oriented if it weren’t for the fact that Threadless was making money off people who had nothing to do with design submission and review.) Splitreason offers a flat rate of $250 per shirt and claims complete ownership of the shirt, which any experienced designer will tell you is basically a scam.

I’m still working through my thoughts on this issue for a paper I intend to write shortly; it’s on how the Web 2.0 mentality complicates the graphic design community’s standard approach to design contests and spec work (i.e., that these things are deeply evil). For now, though, enjoy the geeky shirt links, and feel free to chime in on the whole model of apparel design as a contest.

One thought on “Shirts 2.0

  1. I’ve also noticed that the big online graphic t-shirt sellers are popular in geek crowds. There are probably only a handful of adult demographics where “graphic tees” (as I recently heard them referred to in a Walmart commercial) are common acceptable attire, and I’m not surprised that what’s available has bled easily into geek fashion.

    Many times I’ve wanted to grab by the shoulders every 23 yr old graphic designer who’s submitted to one of these sites and shake them screaming that they are letting themselves be ripped off. I’m glad to hear that Threadless is at least now compensating their designers more in line with their profits, but the variety of similar sites that are still around sets my stomach on its side. It seems to me that the fairest scheme would involve a generous percentage royalty. There is a large fixed cost of production and inventory holding, but a lot of the risk involved with that is already controlled by the design admission process. If you don’t need to worry about not selling your full run of 1500 shirts, you don’t need to try and pass this risk onto your designers with low, flat compensation schemes.

    I’ve come across a number of web businesses that operate on the idea that you engage a whole set of buyers to commit to a large bulk order, and create value for them by passing on savings. What if you had a t-shirt producer that allowed users to not just rate new designs, but to commit to their purchase? Each week, put up new designs, and any design with enough orders to cover costs gets made and shipped that week.

    This is not that different from how these sorts of sites already operate, but seems like an environment better suited to directly sharing profits with the designers. It also would create scarcity in every design, which has its benefits for both producer and designer.

    You may also want to check out Graniph, which has been commissioning independent designers to make graphic shirts since well before Threadless came around. They are more in line with the cosmopolitan art geek demographic, but I’d be interested to find out what their compensation scheme is like. My intuition says it’s much closer to a traditional commissioned relationship, with a professional flat rate and no profit sharing.

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