The T-shirt has always been the most democratic medium of artistic expression, and the story of any decade since the 60s could be told via a handful of designs - the classics, such as 'Ban the Bomb' and the yellow smiley face, still have resonance.
But the pre-2000 market bears no resemblance to today's crowded online version, where canny designers are using T-shirts to generate extra revenue and bolster their reputations.
The hosted online shop is the most popular T-shirt business model. Ventures such as Spreadshirt (opens in new tab) and CafePress.com (opens in new tab) provide a free online shop that is embedded into your site, and they take care of everything from payment processing, production and shipping to after-sales service. On both sites, the commission a designer earns from sales is self-determined. It must work, because there are now around 300,000 Spreadshirt 'shop partners' - individuals, companies, organisations, bands, and professional artists and designers including the likes of Scott Hansen.
The benefits of this approach are that it's instantaneous and risk-free: if you sell nothing, you lose nothing. The downside is that making it work involves plenty of graft. "The thing that separates a good designer from a great designer who sells is marketing," says Adam Fletcher of Spreadshirt. The shops work really well if you have the time to invest, and you can build an audience with tools such as Google Adwords or link-building within your niche, he says.
Know the marketplace
But Spreadshirt recognises that designers are by nature time-poor, which is why it recently launched Marketplace, an area where designs can be uploaded, then viewed, rated and bought by users. When a design is chosen by a user to adorn a product (it needn't be a T-shirt), the designer receives a commission.
Some basic homework is required to make the most of the Marketplace model, not least viewing the 'That's Hot' area, where you can see what's selling and what has the highest ratings.
Another site, Zazzle (opens in new tab), offers its own version of the Marketplace called public galleries, and contributors earn up to 17 per cent of the sale when their creations are purchased. However, its most popular T-shirt designs will send your blood sugar soaring, with cutesy puppies and heart-shaped motifs very much to the fore. Mimicking such successful fare may bolster your bank balance but it will leave your creative reputation in the red.
A third option is to use a free shop-hosting service such as bigcartel.com (opens in new tab) but run the T-shirt design, marketing and sales operation yourself. This was the route favoured by graphic designer Gavin Strange.
The key, says Strange, is balancing client work and the demands of running and marketing what is in effect a subsidiary business.
"On one [T-shirt] batch, I decided to include a special-issue DVD of a skateboard art film that I made, and it was really a quite epic thing. It was one of those situations where you have a really good idea but only later do you think 'Oh God. This is massive.' "
He adds: "I have made money on [selling T-shirts] but the time you spend doing it is probably time you could be making money from working with clients. You have to strike a balance."
The benefits of competition
A longer shot for designers looking for success in the T-shirt market is T-shirt competition site Threadless (opens in new tab), which was founded by designers Jake Nickell and Jacob DeHart. Professional illustrators and amateurs submit T-shirt designs that are put to a public vote, with six selected, printed and sold through the site's online store each week. The winning designs receive $2,000.
In a joint statement, 'the two Jakes' told Computer Arts that they wouldn't recommend producing T-shirts as a sole means of income. At low quantities high-quality printed T-shirts can be prohibitively expensive. "Things like zines or posters are a way better use of funds if you're looking for a return."
One thing designers do need to be diligent about is the small print, as this varies from site to site. For example, if your design is selected by Threadless you sign away the entire right, title, and interest in your design, including copyright and moral rights. By contrast, Spreadshirt's terms and conditions over the use of designs are non-exclusive.
But the T-shirt market isn't all about hard cash, it's also about brand building. "That other people want to wear my designs makes me feel super-proud," says Strange. "It's brand reinforcement and another string to your bow. I've got graphics work from people seeing my T-shirts online. It's like, 'I see you do T-shirts, so do you think you could do this graphic?' "
Spreadshirt's Fletcher agrees: "It's about more than T-shirt design; it's a way to extend your portfolio. It's about getting exposure for your work. I would say a designer could definitely build a reputation on our site."