Design It Yourself

How can any consumer become a graphic artist and create her own shirt? With the help of screen printers and their online design capabilities.

Owen Wittenberg decided to do it himself.

A graphic designer for the international environmental engineering firm URS, he had taken on the daunting task of designing a T-shirt and distributing more than 1,000 of them to offices across the U.S. for the company’s annual service day. Last year, the Tallahassee, FL, man says the effort to garb employees in matching tops – coordinating sizes, tracking down responses from every office – was nothing short of a nightmare. “It was kind of all over the place,” he says. “Too many people had to do too many things to get everybody all on the same page.”

Screen printers can save customers that hassle by incorporating design-it-yourself functionality to their websites. User-designed apparel sites such as CafePress, CustomInk and Zazzle have been around for more than a decade, but it’s only been in the last few years that the self-design concept has really caught on, with more and more decorators launching their own versions. “The designer gives people the ability to feel like an artist even though they’re not,” says Kortni Remer, general manager of Broken Arrow Wear (asi/146656) in Des Moines, IA. The decorator recently updated its online design lab, increasing functionality and adding compatibility with Apple products.

Technological advancements, the ubiquity of social media and consumer expectations have joined to make online designers a force to be reckoned with. “Everybody laughed at these sites 10 years ago,” says Jim Franklyn, vice president of sales and marketing for distributor Inkhead (asi/231159), which already has a product customizer on its website but is in the process of rolling out a full-fledged designer. “They’re not laughing now.”

These days, design sites are faster and exceedingly user-friendly. Many are built for the modern consumer with mobile and tablet platform compatibility, says Claude Vlandis, vice president of business development at Pulse Microsystems. The company’s PulseID Online software allows decorators to add such tools to their own websites. “In the beginning, where it all started, everything was slow,” Vlandis says. “Every interaction with the server for images was taking longer than it takes today.”

Now, with only a few clicks of the mouse – or taps on a touchscreen – a T-shirt can go from idea to order. The convenience factor is paramount. “People want to do it on their couch in their pajamas … [or] sitting there drinking coffee at 5 in the morning. That’s how things are happening,” says Marshall Atkinson, chief operating officer of Ink to the People, a custom T-shirt site that caters in particular to fundraisers.

No More Hassle

Wittenberg chose Ink to the People for his company’s service-day shirt. The design he conceived was nearly as simple as the process of ordering it: a royal blue shirt with a white imprint, matching the colors of his firm’s logo. On the front is the URS logo, plus the abbreviation “GP2W,” signifying “Great Place to Work.” The back features the word volunteer with two hands reaching out to each other and the names of all the branch offices participating in the National Day of Service.

Wittenberg was able to upload his design, place it on his selected shirt style and send out a link via e-mail so other offices could easily order as many as they needed, in whatever sizes they wished. “It was kind of like making one marketplace for all of us to access,” he says. “It removes the extra coordination that it takes to funnel shirts to all these offices.”

Multiple business models have been built around the online designer model. Sites like CafePress allow users to build virtual mini-stores filled with their print-on-demand creations. Brick and mortar decorators employ them in a traditional order model, except the design work and other parameters of the order are done online by the consumer.

Ink to the People gives would-be creators the platform to create the design of their dreams with a built-in safety net. The customer specifies how many T-shirts must be sold to make the order financially feasible, then launches a campaign through e-mail and social media to reach that total. If the T-shirt doesn’t reach its target order, Ink to the People doesn’t print any shirts, and no money in terms of up-front costs has been spent. “[The customer] doesn’t have to worry about collecting money or the distribution part,” Atkinson says. “It’s a much cleaner way of doing it.”

Eliminating order forms and enabling e-commerce is a big draw of online design sites, especially when you’re targeting busy parents for a school or youth sport league fundraiser, says JP Hunt, vice president of sales and marketing for InkSoft, a software company with an interactive design tool for decorators’ sites. “Parents don’t want to write a check,” he says. “They don’t even know where their checkbook is.”

Fundamentally, however, consumers like online T-shirt design sites because they’re fun, allowing them to indulge their creative streak without requiring a master’s in fine arts or access to pricey and complicated graphics software.

Most online designers allow users to upload their own art, or to create a design using fonts and clip art from the decorator’s files. Customers can choose from an array of colors, and add strokes, outlines and shadows to make the design more unique. Some of the labs feature other special effects, like distressed overlays that give designs a crackled, vintage look. A few, like Broken Arrow Wear’s, even allow for all-over printing on shirts.

For youth coaches needing to create team jerseys, customers can enter individual player names and numbers as part of their order. Other templates let customers alter a preloaded design to meet their needs. Vlandis of Pulse gives this example: A cute T-shirt bearing the slogan, “5 reasons I’m a happy granddad,” with the granddad in question inputting the names of his own grandkids and changing the initial number to match. And voila – a personalized shirt has been created. “Most consumers are not going to start from scratch and make beautiful art,” Vlandis says.

What Customers Want

The rise of the design-it-yourself website all comes down to simple customer demand. People are used to going online to get what they want, when they want it. That holds true in both the retail and ad specialty markets. Companies ignore that reality at their own peril.

“We all carry devices in our pocket that have more computing power than the rockets and crafts that carried man to the moon, and we immerse ourselves in technology every day,” says Brenden Prazner, product marketing manager at DecoNetwork, another software company that sells online design tools. “We are conditioned now to look online first.

“All the trends show a rapidly increasing migration to the Web of both consumers and businesses, and the businesses that don’t adopt or change will fade away like the old thermal fax paper we used to know and not-so-much love.”

That’s why Broken Arrow Wear launched its online designer over three years ago, and why Inkhead is developing one. Consumers asked where that functionality was, and the companies realized they had to meet the need or lose business. “There’s a new wave of decision-makers that are coming into play,” says Inkhead’s Franklyn. “[Millennials] are demanding technological answers.”

Those answers do come at a cost for decorators. To add an online design studio from InkSoft it costs $1,499 to activate, then $149 a month after that for the standard package, while the Elite package costs $1,999 to activate and $199 a month after that. Other services are priced similarly. With proactive digital marketing and SEO optimization coupled with strategic local prospect targeting, the resulting client gains can pay for the designer and more. A properly functioning design lab can also act as a gateway to other services and traditional orders.