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Interview with a Retail Design Expert - T-Shirt Designer Matt Ryan

Over the coming months, we'll be taking some time to speak to some of the crew here at Shirtbox and give you a bit of an insight into T-shirt design and production.  Below, we ask one of our team of expert t-shirt designers, Matt Ryan, some critical questions about what they do and how they do it.

Matt (34) has been designing T-Shirts for many years now.  Alongside being the head honcho upstairs at Shirtbox, he has also recently launched his own clothing brand, Forward Up - which has become a very successful niche brand on the sound system subculture scene... Today, I'm going to probe him with a few questions to help understand what goes on in that glorious mega-mind of his:

So Matt, how did you first become interested in Graphic Design?

My first dabble with design was web based, I’ve always been fascinated by the way things work. Any toy I got given for Christmas or birthdays as a child would ultimately end up a deconstructed mess of raw parts within a few days. I taught myself basic HTML by deconstructing websites in the same way. Graphics were a necessary part of that, which eventually became more interesting to me than the coding side of things. I was working self employed as a Jack-of-all-Things design-related for many years. I started a Graphic Design Degree in Birmingham but had enough work being offered that I pursued self employment instead and undertook an Open University degree in Typography alongside paid work.

How does the average day pan out for a tee-shirt designer, what do you do and how do you do it?

It’s not all as simple as just churning out designs all day. There’s an equal amount of admin involved. Research is key, staying up to date on current affairs as well as what's trending on social media. Meme culture moves very quickly, if you don’t jump on something fast you’ll miss the opportunity for a good tee-shirt. So that said, most days start with scanning social media and news outlets. I don’t sketch I just jump straight in digitally. Once an idea has been realised, the print files and listing images are created. Then comes the most important part of the whole design process, titles and keywords, a great design is not going to sell a single unit without these two things set up correctly, they’re what guides the right customers to your product and vice versa.

What inspires you best when you are thinking up new, original t-shirt designs?

Designs based on my own personal interests are the ones which come easiest. I also like to try spins on popular t-shirts for example "Unstoppable" is an extension of the massively popular “T-Rex Hates..” T-shirts that were everywhere a little while ago. An idea can pop at any moment, be it from a misheard song lyric or a freak cloud formation.

How do you stay creative every day?

Honestly? I don’t. I doubt even De Vinci was creative every day. Most of my ideas and inspiration come to me away from my desk, I make notes, either the completely fail-safe mental variety or on my phone, which I can use as a fallback on those off days. Sometimes working on a simple design that's been pushed to the bottom of the list can spawn another less-simple idea, sometimes even a whole series of t shirts.

What tools do you use to achieve your designs?

Pretty much all of my actual design work is done in Adobe Illustrator, I am a vector addict. I occasionally use Photoshop for distressing or certain types of colouring but its becoming a rarity. I am the only designer at Shirtbox who doesn't use a graphic tablet. It’s something I’m trying to become accustomed to.

Which design are you most proud of?

Unfortunately I’m going to have to say the rather risque "Camel Towing" tshirt design, it’s far from my best graphical work but it plays perfectly to my sense of humour.

Apart from Shirtbox, what are some of your other favourite t-shirt websites?

Although not purely t-shirt websites, places like Designinspiration and Behance are a good source of inspiration for me.

The build your own t-shirt craze is really kicking off this year, I really like the way Shirtinator have implemented this. Being able to edit designs or completely create your own is something that is going to be live on Shirtbox very soon and I'm very excited about it!

I pick up most of my t-shirts from gigs and festivals so I don't do an awful lot of online t-shirt shopping anymore but Bristol CoLAB have a nice selection of tshirts. All supporting and made by local Bristol artists.


Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start a career in t-shirt design?

Don’t do it!

In all seriousness, my advice would be to keep a very close eye on the industry, sites like TeeSpy can give you a really good insight into how fast things move. Also bear in mind that a great design on paper can look awful on a t-shirt, blank space is your friend here, composition is more important on media that creases and moves around a lot. Practice techniques like using the base t-shirt colour for colour fills, huge areas of ink can be uncomfortable for the wearer not to mention expensive. Don't be afraid of simplicity, one of our better selling t-shirts is just the word "No".

What do you think will be the top t shirt designs for 2018?

That's not an easy question to answer, you can make predictions and then something will happen in the world of social media or on TV that completely throws the industry in another direction. Take Donald Trump’s recent #covfefe Twitter mishap as a prime example. Some things are here to stay though, there will always be a big demand for a good slogan t-shirt. The explosion of drop-shipping companies and indeed "Merch by amazon" over the past couple of years has 

And finally, what do you love the most about being involved in the t-shirt design industry?

FREE... I mean, erm, cheap t-shirts? The variety, there’s not many graphics jobs with the same amount of artistic freedom that I get designing t-shirts. One day I can be creating really grungy biker t-shirts, the next I can be drawing unicorns and kittens. It’s very rewarding to see your designs do well commercially, even more so to actually spot people wearing them out in the wild.

Thanks, Matt, now you can get back to designing some top t-shirts!  

If you have any comments or questions for Matt, please don't hesitate to add them below.  As ever, we would love to hear from you if you have any ideas for designs or collaborations.  If you think you've got what it takes and want to set up your own t-shirt store, please visit our sister site that offers a print on demand (POD) drop shipping service from right here in Bristol, in the UK.

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