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How to design T-shirts for a living

Ever walked into Hot Topic and wondered, “Who designs these T-shirts? And how can I do that??” AdventInnovate introduces Joel Robinson, a man who creates his own destiny, one T-shirt at a time.

Joel Robinson

Joel Robinson (Instagram: obinsun_) dropped out of university and figured out a way to make a living off very distinctive T-shirt designs. His work is popular on designer marketplaces Redbubble, Teepublic and Threadless, among others. Find out how Joel built his business from the ground up and turned it into a creative powerhouse that funds his life and scratches his artistic itch.

AI: How do you explain what you do to someone outside your industry?

Joel: I usually say something like this: “I make T-shirt designs and upload them to various websites that pay me royalties for each time someone buys a product with my design on it.”

It’s not common for me to run into someone familiar with the business side of print-on-demand, despite many people being familiar with the consumer side.

AI: How did you get started as an entrepreneur?

Joel: 2013 was a huge turning point in my life. I dropped out of college and moved back in with my parents. Not a glamorous beginning, but it gave me stability and time, exactly what I needed to jumpstart my career as an artist. Even though I had no idea that was what would happen.

I worked part-time at a desk job and spent the remainder of my time creating art. I slowly began to experiment with print-on-demand websites because I thought it would be cool to buy T-shirts with my designs on them for myself.

This led to churning out Tee designs regularly and eventually finding some traction. First it was a couple sales a week. Then it was a sale a day. It took a couple years of constant output, but eventually I had a large portfolio and a healthy presence on a handful of the most popular print-on-demand sites.

It took me a long time to view what I was doing as a business and not just a hobby. Once I saw the potential for making a living, I knew I couldn’t stop until I made that a reality.

AI: What were the early obstacles in your business and how did you overcome them?

Joel: I think the biggest obstacle was trouble getting noticed. In order to make money online, you need traffic. I had no real following, and a very limited social media presence. I had no way to generate this myself other than paying for ads. I was uninterested in doing that for what I believed at the time was just a hobby. Instead I opted to just focus my time and energy on creating.

Rather than trying to promote the 10 designs I already had in my catalogue, I kept refining my style by cranking out one new design after the other and not getting hung up if I wasn’t getting attention. A lot of trial-and-error took place. I was able to build a consistent output of quality designs that made it attractive for print-on-demand sites to find and feature me.

It took around 50 designs before I got my foot in the door and sites like Redbubble began to feature my work on a regular basis. 250 designs later, and I have still never paid for a single ad.

AI: Who inspires you?

Joel: Both of my grandpas inspire me tremendously.

Bill was a family doctor, but also a wonderful painter. His work adorned the walls of his home and I remember always staring at the paintings, thinking he must have had some sort of super power because his work was so beautifully detailed.

Stan taught biology and art at an academy. His life brims with creativity and always inspires me to look at the world from all angles and find art where you least expect it. He is the most creative person that I know.

AI: Do you procrastinate? If so, how do you get yourself to take action?

Joel: I usually don’t feel like procrastinating is an issue because I never have a set work schedule anyway. I don’t set goals or milestones of production; I usually just work when I feel like it. Lucky for me I enjoy what I do enough to stay productive.

AI: What are your main revenue streams?

Joel: My two largest revenue streams currently are sales from my Redbubble shop and the work I sell through Threadless wholesale, at places like Hot Topic.

AI: What’s your work routine like?

Joel: I do not have much routine to speak of. I might start drawing in the morning and work all day until I go to bed, or I won’t start working until 10pm and won’t stop until 4am and sleep in the next day. There is no rhyme or reason to my schedule, like I said before I usually just work when I feel like it. I have become better at using willpower to put down the pencil and go to bed if it’s getting too late. This lack of routine has worked for me so far, but I think it will catch up to me at some point. I acknowledge that it would benefit me to structure my work habits a tad bit more.

One thing I do consistently, though, is listen to podcasts and audio books while I work. I’ll always put on a show like “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” “Hardcore History,” or a book from Librivox.

AI: How many hours do you work per day?

Joel: My work hours can range from 2-10 a day. Usually, there is a happy medium in-between though. If you haven’t noticed I probably suffer from some sort of “go with the flow” disease.

AI: As an entrepreneur, what is it that motivates and drives you?

Joel: I am motivated to remain self-employed. If I start slacking, I might lose my dream job. There are few larger successes for me than being able to make art for a living.

I am also motivated to build my business in order to be able to invest in artistic endeavors that are not tied to work. I have been able to accomplish this to a certain extent, but it is important to me to be able to explore whatever mediums and ideas inspire me on a personal level.

AI: How do you come up with design ideas?

Joel: I keep a journal on my phone where I stash ideas when I think of them. Most of the ideas I come up with, I will grab from mundane, everyday life. Hearing certain words together in a conversation, or reading a phrase in a book will spark an idea for a pun or visual joke. A more intentional way I come up with ideas is just by sitting down and drawing. I might start out with one thing and end up with a really good design simply because an idea grew from random doodling. I have also used a rhyming dictionary to try and cook up a concept, though not often. I have googled “Animals” multiple times and just browsed until I think of a fun way to incorporate a certain animal into possible designs.

AI: Any tips for overcoming creative blocks?

Joel: I don’t think I have ever experienced severe creative block, but I will get into a funk every once in a while. The biggest remedy for me is just sitting down and drawing anything. After 15 minutes I will be so engrossed in the drawing because I hate leaving a design unfinished. I love the feeling of finishing an art project, even if it’s just a doodle. Usually all I have to do is force myself to sit down for those initial 15 minutes and I will be back on track.

AI: What does your creative process look like?

Joel: More often than not I will begin by plucking an idea from my journal. Other times I’ll just start drawing something I like, such as a cat or a skull with rainbows or unicorns. I digitally sketch-and-ink the design in Procreate with Apple Pencil. I design with T-shirts and stickers in mind, because that is what I want the design to look best on. The nice thing is a design that looks good on a tee and sticker also looks good on almost anything else, like mugs or posters. Once I am happy with the finished line work, I will export the image and bring it into Inkscape (an open source vector software) on my laptop. I go through the process of turning the raster version of the line work into a vector. This is also when I add all the color to the design. I use an entry level Wacom drawing tablet to manipulate all the nodes and curves until it’s ready to be uploaded to my shops. Uploading is the least fun thing about my job, but it’s important to make the design as presentable as possible, so I put in as much time as I need to make sure everything looks right.

That is pretty much the formula I have been following since I started illustrating T-shirts. The Wacom tablet and Inkscape have both been there from the very very beginning, but I’ve bounced around apps like Art Rage and Photoshop for my initial digital sketches.

AI: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?

Joel: I have noticed more sales than usual compared to last year during this same time period. I assume this extra traffic is due simply to the influx of people shopping online from home. I thought the dipping economy would have showed a downward trend in sales, but apparently it hasn’t gotten to the point where people feel the need to stop buying T-shirts and stickers.

AI: How do you think about risk?

Joel: I am not a risk taker. I thrive in a stable, consistent environment. That might sound kind of contrary to how I approach my work routine, but in order to have such a loose routine, I need a safe place where I don’t feel stressed out.

Risk and uncertainty stresses me out. When I’m stressed out I don’t feel like working, so I try to avoid putting myself in situations like that.

AI: How do you deal with pressure to be in a more conventional line of work?

Joel: The pressure I feel is mostly tied to how expensive it is to be self-employed, compared to having a similar paying “conventional” job. I pay a higher percentage on taxes due to being self employed, and get no health or retirement benefits from an employer. The concern here lies more when I start a family and have those expenses pile up as well.

I deal with this by living a considerably frugal lifestyle and saving as much as possible for the future. Stuff like maxing out my Roth IRA every year brings me immense joy and peace of mind.

AI: What would be your advice to an Adventist interested in starting their own business?

Joel: I would recommend seeking and finding the talented and business-savvy people in their local church community. I’m confident you won’t have to look far to find someone with experience that will allow you to pick their brain.

AI: Did growing up Adventist have anything to do with your choice of career?

Joel: Growing up Adventist had a big impact on the person I am today, but I don’t think it specifically had much to do with my choice of career. I’ve always enjoyed being creative, and the Adventist aspect of my life never seemed to influence that core desire to make art one way or the other.

AI: What do you put your success down to?

Joel: I am not organized, nor do I have an exceptional work ethic, but I do value time spent accomplishing a task the right way. I will take shortcuts to cut down on menial tasks, but I will never take a shortcut that reduces the quality of my final product. I would rather toss out a design than submit something sub-par.

AI: What would you say are the key elements for starting and running a successful business?

Joel: I think keeping realistic expectations for yourself is really important. When you are starting out, observe what others are doing and understand if you can reasonably offer the same quality of product or service. Deciding what to invest your time, money and energy into will be easier if you can accurately evaluate the value of what you are able to offer at any given time.

AI: What are your future plans?

Joel: I will be designing T-shirts as my main gig for the foreseeable future, but I have my eye on other mediums, such as sculpture, that I want to experiment more with. What will become of these more personal endeavors, only time will tell, but I would like to branch out my business in other ways and fine art seems the most natural fit.

AI: Work/life balance or work/life integration?

Joel: Work/life integration by a landslide. Having my time be mine is so refreshing. I love not having to plan large or even small commitments around work. I can drop work on a dime and pick it up again when it is convenient.

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